During the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Magic cruised to an 8-0 record with a lot of help from their opponents. With Dwight Howard facing double teams, Orlando would simply swing the ball around the perimeter for an open three or find a cutter for an easy bucket.
Boston has simply single covered Howard daring Howard to perform or push his teammates to step up.. Neither has happened. And after three games it’s painfully evident that the Magic probably don’t have enough to win a championship, Stan Van Gundy is a good, but not great coach and Dwight Howard isn’t more than an elite garbage man.
Yes, Dwight Howard is probably the best center in the game (Pau Gasol probably has a good argument after this playoffs). However, being the best player at a position during the regular season isn’t enough to win championships.
As the Magic fall apart, the blame seems to be placed squarely on Dwight Howard’s shoulders. None of his teammates have come to play, especially not Rashard Lewis who’s scored 15 points in three games (and makes like 18M/year). Stan Van Gundy has been outc oached by Doc Rivers, who isn’t that great of a coach in his own right. Even GM Otis Smith can take some blame for wasting money on Gortat/Brandon Bass instead of re-signing Hedo Turkoglu. Yet, D-Ho gets all the blame.
Meanwhile in Cleveland, a similar story unfolded for the Cavs. The team gave up towards the end of the series and was ousted by the Celtics in 6 games in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. While LeBron James did not play up to his standards, a lot of the focus on James has shifted to his upcoming free agency.
At this point it doesn’t even seem like the Cavs have a chance to resign James, as the team’s faults have been increasingly scrutinized, effectively exposing liabilities inherent in multiple actors. But if you’re not going to hear it anywhere else, I’ll say it here myself. Like Dwight Howard, LeBron has to do some soul searching and add some things to his game before he wins a championship anywhere.
While LeBron is often compared to Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, his situation as a player might be more similar to Dwight Howard. Like Dwight, his teammates sucked in the playoffs and his coach was pretty miserable as well. While GM Danny Ferry was praised before the playoffs for surrounding LeBron with great talent, he’s now being ripped apart for giving James a roster of mediocre and over-the-hill sidekicks.
Besides questions of desire and focus, LeBron has left the playoffs unscathed. People have even blamed his lack of focus on a wild rumor about one of his teammates sleeping with his mother. However, like Dwight Howard, LeBron is without question the best player at his position and is arguably the best player in the league. He’s definitely the most physically gifted (Dwight Howard might be the 2nd most physically gifted). Yet, he still has a lot of room to grow.
As he should have known by now, the playoffs are a different animal. After playing over 90 games, you need more than physical ability to get by. At 6’9, 275 pounds, James is a physical specimen unlike any player we’ve seen on the floor. He’s one of the fastest and strongest players in the game and he can pass like a guard, while grabbing his fair share of rebounds and playing decent defense.
Despite those skills, LeBron hasn’t added much to his game since coming to the league. He’s improved his defense and his outside shooting a little bit, but that’s it. Meanwhile, after winning his 4th championship, Kobe Bryant took a few weeks last summer to work with Hakeem Olajuwon of all people. The result is Kobe’s post footwork has gone from excellent to absurd. The soon to be 32 year old guard is probably more dangerous in the post than anywhere else on the floor. Several of LeBron’s contemporaries – D. Wade and Melo come to mind – at least have decent post games. Have you ever seen ‘The King’ in the post?
Another key offensive skill Kobe has that LeBron doesn’t is the ability to move without the ball. When the Lakers run their offense through Pau Gasol, the end result a lot of times is a pass to a cutting Bryant for a lay-up. When LeBron doesn’t have the ball in his hands in Cleveland he usually hangs out above the three point line.
During the regular season, teams only have a day or two to prepare for their next opponent. Physically dominant players, like LeBron and Dwight Howard, are able to dominate in the regular season as their opponents often times don’t have a lot of time to prepare or make adjustments. Mentally resilient players, like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol seem to be come more effective in the playoffs as they get more time to read their opponent.
This offseason should serve as a crossroads of sorts for Dwight Howard and LeBron. For Howard, he needs to develop some post moves, face-up game, and work on his foul shooting. With another single-digit performance in the playoffs, you’d be surprised if he didn’t show up next season with a few new tricks up his sleeve. His physical ability is enough to let him put up 18 and 13 during the regular season, but not enough to win a championship in Orlando. The Magic seem to be locked in to their roster as well and Stan Van Gundy’s job seems to be pretty secure.For Howard, the onus is on him. If the team is going to be better, he has to be better. There’s no escaping that fact. He cannot leave. His team isn’t changing and his coach isn’t going anywhere.
Unfortunately for LeBron, this offseason is all about courting King James. Instead of a period of self-reflection and accountability, LeBron will be told how he’s the best thing ever all summer. Unlike Howard, LeBron doesn’t have to fix his situation in Cleveland. He can simply walk away and point the finger at Mike Brown, Mo Williams, Danny Ferry, Antawn Jamison, Shaq, Delonte West, his mother or whoever else has taken heat instead of him this offseason.
Even if he stays in Cleveland, he can get rid of the coach, the GM and almost any player on the roster besides maybe Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams. What LeBron does this offseason will say a lot about his character and will probably mean a lot for his legacy. If he adds a post up game this offseason despite everyone kissing his ass trying to sign him, he gets it. If he just soaks up the accolades and signs with another team, he hasprobably missed the point.
The point is what Kobe Bryant did last offseason. With 4 rings, 1 MVP and an Olympic gold medal in tow, Bryant added to his game in an effort to be a better player and add to his longevity. He’s not satisfied with being the best regular season player, he wants to be one of the all-time greats.
LeBron is blessed with unfathomable talent and will probably be one of the 25 best players of all-time off ability alone. He’s talked about being a global business icon in the past, but does he want to be the best basketball player ever? For the first few years of his career, that seemed like a moot point. LeBron being the best ever was like a foregone conclusion. There was no way that wouldn’t happen.
This year, the stars seemed to align for James to add to his legacy. LeBron won his second consecutive MVP, and achieved 1st team All-NBA and all-defense honors while leading Cleveland to the league’s best record. To LeBron’s chagrin, the Cavs lost because his offensive game is limited to slashing to the hoop, hitting difficult layups and fall away jumpers or finding an open teammate. The Celtics played him straight up, limiting his teammates open looks and forcing him to hit those difficult shots.
So what does LeBron want to be: best player ever or global business icon? The answer lies in what he does this summer.