The 2013 Miami Heat are a wayward and fractious lot, riven by ego and feelings and constantly in need of affirmation.
This year LeBron James hasn’t so much become an indomitable force of basketball will as he has a psychologist, Dr. Phil sitting on a couch with his head in his hands nodding quietly and listening as his teammates pour out their misgivings.
The LeBron vs. Jordan debate has been ongoing for several years now, but most people have missed the essential difference between the two men — their generations. LeBron’s a millennial hugger, Jordan was an old school puncher. One man tries to work out his teammate’s issues by listening, the other bristled at the idea that there could ever be issues. LeBron’s more inclusive, Jordan was my way or the highway with his teammates. Once you get this distinction down, everything makes sense about why this debate doesn’t quite connect, their talents are both luminescent, but their mental backgrounds are completely different.
Jordan vs. Lebron isn’t a battle of basketball wills.
It’s will vs. Dr. Phil.
Can LeBron’s style of leadership, a gentler listening inclusiveness, pay off with a title?
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about leaders willing their team to a title, but we’ve spent hardly any time talking about a player Dr. Philling his team to the title.
This gets missed when we talk about the eras that athletes played. It isn’t just that the talents of players have evolved, it’s that their psyches have as well.
And LeBron’s psychology is infinitely more fascinating than Jordan’s because it’s so rare.
LeBron knows his basketball talents are so otherworldly that he worries about eclipsing everyone around him. Imagine if the sun was bashful, that’s LeBron. He’d rather lose a game than lose a friend. This is why LeBron vanishes from games at times. He doesn’t want to hog all the limelight, steal all the attention, he’s a superstar with an inclusive mindset, a persona as rare as a double rainbow. LeBron wants to be liked so bad it governs just about everything he does.
He’s a genius basketball talent who wants to make sure that his genius doesn’t make him different than you or me.
Look at last night’s game. As soon as his buddy Dwyane Wade checked back into the game in the fourth quarter, LeBron lost the killer instinct, the drive that had taken over the game and put the team on his back. Even with a title on the line, LeBron relented and deferred to Wade.
He didn’t want Wade’s feelings to be hurt.
Jordan? Jordan was the exact opposite. He would have hipchecked his grandma into the ninth row if she tried to get a rebound on him. Jordan was a sociopathic winning machine, that’s all that mattered to him. Anything that got in the way of his wins was jettisoned to the side. He didn’t want to be like his teammates, he was a basketball genius, different than you and me. Jordan’s entire persona wasn’t about inclusion, it was about domination.
He didn’t want you to like him, he wanted you to be like him.
Can you imagine Jordan putting up with Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade’s pouting during a playoff run? Jordan would have punched both men in practice for whining. Bosh and Wade would have despised him. But Bosh and Wade probably would have stopped whining. Would Jordan’s will have outperformed LeBron’s Dr. Phil with this duo?
I’m not so sure.
Because Bosh and Wade might have sulked away their resignations privately, lost in the penumbra of Jordan’s brilliance, both men would have receded to the point where the team’s star may have diminished. Plus, I’m also pretty sure that Jordan would have never done what LeBron did to set up his team either, he couldn’t have persuaded two other star players to join him as a free agent. LeBron’s strength as a teammate is also his greatest weakness, he wants you to like him so bad that he doesn’t maximize his own talents.
Does that make the team better in the long run?
It’s a fascinating question.
One that we still don’t have an answer for.
One that we probably never will have an answer for.
We spend a lot of time asking how good LeBron would have been with Jordan-era players, but let’s flip the script, would Jordan’s brand of leadership have alienated members of the millenial generation?
That’s a more interesting question that I never hear anyone ask.
And that’s why one of the great things about an NBA playoff run is that thanks to the length of the series and the number of games played we get a chance to dive into the collective narrative of a team and a title run. That’s especially true when it comes to the NBA Finals and we get two good teams going toe-to-toe in a best of seven series. After each game everyone rushes to be the first to predict what the story of the series will be. Often these narratives are paper thin and blow away the moment the ball is tipped for the next game.
How about these narratives that were popular with fans and media after each game in the Spurs-Heat series.
Game One: The Heat are in trouble. The Spurs didn’t even play very well and won a close game. Uh oh, Heat.
Game Two: Man, the Spurs are old. I’m not sure the Spurs can even compete with the Heat.
Game Three: A 36 point Spurs win? Do the Heat even care? What’s going on in the Heat locker room? I’m not sure this series even gets back to Miami.
Game Four: When the Heat want to win and focus, the Spurs can’t hope to compete. This series is the Heat’s to win.
Game Five: The Spurs just want it more than the Heat. It’s that simple. The Heat have no heart. They buckle under adversity.
Game Six: The Heat wouldn’t die. They needed to win game six, now gave seven is theirs for the taking.
Game Seven: ?
As the games advance individual game narratives become more flimsy, but you’re left with a more cohesive whole.
That’s why I’d submit that the ultimate narrative of the Spurs-Heat series, regardless of outcome is this one — Can LeBron Dr. Phil his team to a title?
Can the fractious discord of two lesser stars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, being outshone be overcome?
Basically, what happens when the big three becomes the big one?
Because most of this playoff run has been about LeBron camouflaging how good he is to keep the egos of his teammates from collapsing into a limpid pool of defeat.
It’s not about will for LeBron this year, it’s about Dr. Phil.