Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. Shocking, right? Maybe so if you’ve spent the last four or five years under a rock, when we saw James emerge from a cocoon of potential into league-defying dominance. What goes less noticed in the face of highlight reel plays and the deep postseason runs year after year is just how well LeBron fits the Miami Heat. That he’s the engine behind the squad is obvious — Dwyane Wade is only able to capture the magic about half the time (a reason why he sat out so much of the regular season), and Chris Bosh spends a significant amount of his on-court effort practicing as an understudy in The Invisible Man.
What James does on the floor is as close to genre-defying as you can find in the wide world of sports. He’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, but he plays much smaller than that — until you see him post up one of his contemporaries, that is. After finally transitioning from the jump-shooting wing he was never really cut out to be (full disclosure: no trite Michael Jordan comparisons forthcoming) into the Larry Bird on steroids(?!) that made the most out of his considerable physical gifts and his acumen for every facet of the game, LeBron finally grew into the dominant force that everyone had pegged him for as early as 2001.
He has tremendous skill combined with an obscene durability. During any given regular season over the past decade, James has yet to miss more than seven games, and that gives LeBron the consensus nod as the best player in the league today; MVP awards that occasionally land in someone else’s lap are just a necessary concession to the multifaceted faces of basketball talent in today’s NBA. But James wouldn’t be nearly as good without the Miami Heat, even and especially when the Heat are so dependent on his gifts to succeed. Here are three reasons why.
1. He’s a premier point forward
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of the point forward, it’s a systematic offensive choice to have someone other than the point guard initiate the offense in a half court set on the wing. Typically, this is done with the small forward (after Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL, the Boston Celtics funneled their offense through Paul Pierce; Bird remains the best example of the idea), and it shows up most often on teams that don’t feature a highly qualified point guard. While Mario Chalmers is certainly a great spot-up shooter and Norris Cole continues to be a surprisingly effective finisher at the rim, neither of them would be on anyone’s top 10 list for “player you want as the ball handler for over 50 pick-and-roll plays in any given game.”
What makes James so effective in passing — he leads the league’s forwards in assist percentage by a large margin, assisting on almost a third of Miami’s points while he’s on the floor — is his versatility. Not only do James and Bosh run a mean 4-5 PnR (because when the Heat are at their best, James is at the power forward slot on offense), but LeBron is as comfortable passing out of the post as he is dishing the rock on a fast break. That mastery of the pass, arguably the most essential basketball skill, is part of what makes the Heat so great. By having James at the 4, the Heat can bolster their big three by going small and keeping some long-distance shooters at the 1 and the 3, which ensures they’ll space the floor for Wade, James, and Bosh to go to work. Here’s some of James’ passing highlights, but make sure you mute the video, ’cause the song is fairly NSFW:
2. He’s a phenomenal defender
If you spend any time at all trawling through NBA.com’s stats page or Basketball-Reference, certain unremarked-upon tendencies quickly make themselves apparent (even if the websites have, possibly purposefully, a pair of the clunkiest interfaces known to mankind). Players see their defense take a hit in a loss, effort slips on the defensive end from season to season, and small sample sizes wreak havoc on everything all the time.
What’s not in dispute, though, is that LeBron remains a lockdown defender. After putting the league on notice by singlehandedly dismantling a healthy Derrick Rose and a league-best Chicago Bulls back in 2011, James has routinely been tasked with shutting down the other team’s best player, and while he doesn’t often guard power fowards (the Heat relied on Shane Battier to accomplish that last year, but the Duke alum seems to have mostly disintegrated this season), he can absolutely lock down anyone from 1-3 while still contributing his typical stat line — usually something north of 20 points, around 8 rebounds and, say, probably 6 or 7 assists.
Then there’s the SportVU thing. Back when the system was first being implemented, Grantland’s Zach Lowe covered it in a feature about the Toronto Raptors. What was a general overview on the ways that NBA teams might use new methods of evaluating their teams also contained this gem — that the “ideal” NBA defense consisted of what a lot of spectators and players might consider über aggressive help defense, mapped by Toronto as “ghosts” overlaid onto plays, and that the only player to really keep up with the projected perfect play was James. “LeBron basically messes up the system and the ghosts,” Alex Rucker, the head of analytics for Toronto, told Lowe. “He does things that are just unsustainable for most players.”
3. Because Erik Spoelstra takes advantage of him
For some reason, many are hesitant to give Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra the credit he deserves. While the fact that he’s the longest tenured head coach since Greg Popovich doesn’t say as much as we might like, given the fickle nature of the NBA business and how quickly front offices scapegoat the coaching staff for what might be managerial failings, he is far from the right-place, right-time All-Star that many of his detractors make him out to be. Consider the system that the Heat are currently using on both sides of the ball, then contrast the way Miami played after the Big Three formed in 2011, or how LeBron’s offensive duties were dictated by Mike Brown back when he was on the Cavs.
The difference is almost as stark as day and night — proof positive that even the most obvious talents, in sports or elsewhere, can be squandered if not properly applied. While no one was publicly keeping track of how often LeBron was put in the low post during his Cavalier days or how much time he spent at the 4 when he was in Cleveland, it’s a safe bet that the answer hovers around “not very much at all.” Brown, by all accounts, is a pretty good guy. He is definitely not as innovative a coach as Spoelstra, and Spo’s ideas are a massive contributor to LeBron’s success. When he left for Miami, James ended up with the coach he deserved, and now his team stands primed to hit the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year.