Few, if any, athletes have the power of LeBron James. He’s been the face of the NBA ever since he joined the Miami Heat in 2010. There was a time when James wasn’t such a big deal. The most important moment of his career involves the 2011 NBA Finals, and more specifically, how James reacted to the worst performance of his career.
LeBron James’ game-changing move
Since James entered the league with the Cleveland Cavaliers, his career has had the rosiness of a feel-good Hollywood movie; a local kid fulfilling the dreams of fans who never experienced championship glory up close. But the issue with being a hometown hero is that any disappointment will lead to intense emotions for everyone involved.
James was spectacular in the 2009-10 season, averaging 30 points on 50% shooting, seven rebounds, and nine assists. He earned his second MVP trophy and led the Cavs to the best record in the NBA for the second straight season.
But things fell apart in the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs against the Boston Celtics. In Game 5, Cleveland was blown out by 32, with James only scoring 15 points on 14 shots. His dismal display drew criticism.
James seemed to shrink after missing his first seven shots. And this could’ve been the last time Cavaliers fans saw him play at home. James was better in Game 6, putting up 27 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists. But the numbers look better on paper than they did in real-time. The Celtics won the series.
Then, James and his business partners put together a TV show to announce that he was leaving the franchise and “taking his talents to South Beach.” Everything changed.
The Miami Heat becomes basketball’s biggest villain
It wasn’t bad enough that James left one of the best teams in the NBA. He also left for the Miami Heat, who’d finished fifth in the conference the year before. No player had ever asserted their agency like this before, and it made people furious.
Once James made the announcement, fans burned his jersey and called him soft for joining up with other All-Stars. The Heat quickly became the team every other fanbase loved to hate. And this was before the pep rally where James proclaimed that the Heat would win, “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships. It wasn’t a great look.
Miami started slow but got it together in time to make the NBA finals in their first year of the Big Three era. Amidst the noise, James had a terrific season: 27 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists. But no one remembers this, because the finals were a total disaster.
J.J. Barea flummoxes James
James gave his haters the mental collapse they were waiting for. The Heat were favorites against the Dallas Mavericks. But the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki had the best postseason of his career and James collapsed under the pressure.
It wasn’t just that his points per game decreased by nine points so suddenly. (Dallas deserves credit for their championship. However, Deshawn Stevenson and Tyson Chandler shouldn’t be enough to put the most talented NBA player into such a funk.) LeBron became more passive and less effective as the series went on.
Game 4 was the low point. Miami had the chance to get a grip on the series. But the Mavericks won, bringing it back to 2-2. James relegated himself to the role of a pure passer. He led the team in assists but only had eight points on 11 shots. He stopped going to the rim or challenging the defense in any real way.
The true humiliation came when James matched up with the allegedly 5-foot-10 J.J. Barea in the post and had no idea how to score. James improved in the following games — because it couldn’t get worse. Dallas got the trophy; the Heat got a flamethrower of scorn.
James improves and get his rings
The summer after this defeat proved to be a fork-in-the-road moment for James.
He had to get mentally stronger and develop his game. James became more comfortable playing as a power forward and earned the NBA’s regular-season and Finals MVP for two straight years. He even returned to Cleveland and delivered the most improbable championship in recent history, forever silencing the detractors.
In 2020, James is nearly unimpeachable in the eyes of many — as long as he doesn’t talk about China. He’s lived up to the hype and then some. He’s also become a worthy spokesman for important causes and has built a landmark Ohio school. LeBron took his setbacks in stride and used them as a tool for self-improvement.
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