NBA@2: Is LeBron James Just Misunderstood?
If you’ve read HOOPSWORLD for any amount of time, you know I am the resident Houston Rockets fan; a shameless homer. Sure, they last time they were really good I was in college, and Hakeem Olajuwon was in his prime, but I continue to carry the torch for my home team, undaunted. As such, I have become friends with Shane Battier over the years, and have come to know him as one of the smartest players in the NBA. As a friend, someone I trust and relate to, I asked Shane to change my mind about LeBron James, who has always rubbed me the wrong way.
First of all, I had to point out that while I have waited for years to see Battier in the NBA Finals, and in red, nonetheless, we seemed to have had some miscommunication about the shade of red. Instead of the bright red worn by the Rockets, there he sat, adorned in the darker red of the Miami HEAT. Having dealt with that little bit of business, we get onto the job at hand.
“LeBron’s a good guy,” said Battier, smiling. “He really is. I think he’s a misunderstood guy. He’s had so much exposure since he’s been in high school that he’s almost overexposed, and as a result I think people judge him much differently. But LeBron is a lot more normal and one of the guys, more so than you would ever expect despite his larger-than-life persona.”
It’s hard to love LeBron, even though he’s an amazing basketball player, His propensity for disappearing when it matters most is frustrating even for his biggest fans, and the subject of great delight to his “haters.” I asked Shane what he thought, if he could perhaps offer up a little psychoanalysis as to why LeBron is such an enigmatic player.
“I think in the digital age everyone wants to be able to explain everything and everyone wants to have the right answer,” said Battier. “Because of the information age you can basically know everything about anything known to man. You can Google anything in the entire history of mankind, so I think that transcends to sports where everything needs to be explained and put in a box with a label, be it right or be it wrong. With LeBron there are so many opinions, and I think it’s overwhelming for sports and society, for basketball fans and for everybody. I don’t know if that makes sense but that’s what I feel.”
All of that said, Battier believes LeBron is basketball’s gold standard.
“I’ve seen him do what LeBron does. For my money, he’s the best player on the planet because he’s a two-way player. Apologies to everyone else, but there’s no one else that can impact the game like he can on both ends of the floor.”
Ironically, Battier was very close to being on the other side of this NBA Finals showdown between the HEAT and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Thunder GM Sam Presti was very interested in adding Battier to the mix, as was Thunder star Kevin Durant, but OKC was only offering two years, while Miami was willing to go three. OKC, of course, has to address contracts for Serge Ibaka and James Harden next summer, so Presti didn’t want to commit to money he didn’t have to commit to.
“It came down to years for me,” explains Battier. “This is my last go around. I feel I’ve got a few more years left in me, so I did not want to go somewhere for basically a year and a half with the lockout and pick up and leave and do it all again in one last year, so I was looking for stability.”
There’s also the silliness that is now NBA free agency, where the media starts hounding players on contract situations long before they are actually free agents.
“It’s stressful,” Battier agrees. “It’s my last contract, I think. I would like to spend three years in South Florida and ride off into the sunset.”
The more immediate stress, of course, is helping the HEAT avoid and 0-2 hole as they prepare for the second game of the Finals tonight in OKC. Battier believes Chris Bosh will be a huge key to the HEAT getting into this series.
“The guy’s an All-Star, our highest-paid player. He’s been instrumental for our run this year and I’m glad we were able to survive in the playoffs without him for a while. That was a big blow. That was a lot bigger blow than I think people want to give us credit for, but when he’s aggressive and playing big we’re really a tough team to beat.”
Battier has played for Rick Adelman, who took the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals twice, and also for Jeff Van Gundy, who famously clung to the leg of Alonzo Mourning to prevent a fight with Larry Johnson and took his New York Knicks to the NBA Finals. How does HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra compare those fiery competitors?
“He’s different,” says Battier, very matter-of-factly and laughing a bit. “He’s a younger coach. It’s unfair to put him in that category but his background as a video coordinator helps him make sure his team’s always very thoroughly prepared and he’s been through some fires. It’s not an easy job coaching our team. He’s done a good job of staying the course despite the intense scrutiny, he’s stayed true to himself.”
The outcome of this NBA Finals series will carry different connotations for the two teams involved. If OKC loses, they still took the next step in their evolution and they’ll be back next year. If Miami loses, the press will call for Eric Spoelstra’s job, have every player on the team traded and it will officially be the end of the world for a couple of news cycles. Battier says that’s par for the course for the Miami HEAT.
“It’s the playoffs. Hyperbole of the NBA playoffs is such that you have all the answers when you win a game and when you lose you scrap the game plan and go back to square one. The true answer lies somewhere in between, so we’ll make adjustments but we’ll play harder and I think we’ll give a better effort in game two. It’s going to take a great effort to beat this team here. They have fantastic fans, but we like our chances if we just play a really good game.”
I walk away from our conversation a long way from being a LeBron James fan, and still very preferring a Thunder championship to a Miami title. Still, Battier’s insider perspective on LeBron is interesting, and worth noting, whether you’re a fan or not.
What kind of person would I be if I were the subject of the kind of hype and scrutiny that LeBron has endured since before he was out of high school? I’d like to think I would be a much more humble and well-rounded person than LeBron . . .but who knows?
Perhaps he is just misunderstood, after all.
Quote of the Day:
“You start out Sunday morning in church. Say three Hail Marys. You pray to all the gods.” – Shane Battier, on guarding Kevin Durant.
NBA Draft: Drew Gordon
New Mexico power forward Drew Gordon turned some heads with strong play during the second half of his senior season, and is now hoping to earn the love of an NBA team that misses out on some of the bigger names in the forward-heavy 2012 NBA Draft. Gordon talked to the media in Chicago about the process of working out for teams, where he might fit, and more in this video from the 2012 NBA Draft Combine.
Milwaukee Bucks Thinking Center
It should come as no surprise to Milwaukee Bucks fans to learn that the team is leaving no stone unturned in their search for a solution at center this offseason. They traded Andrew Bogut to the Golden State Warriors at the trade deadline in a move that landed Monta Ellis in Milwaukee, but spent the rest of the season using Drew Gooden out of position at center most of the time. They did acquire Kwame Brown from the Warriors in the deal, but he never played for the Bucks due to a lingering injury. Still, according to Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal-Times, Brown is still on Milwaukee’s radar.
What might be more exciting to Bucks fans is the idea that UNC senior center Tyler Zeller is on Milwaukee’s short list as they ponder what to do with the 12th pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Zeller had a good showing at the draft combine in Chicago last week and had a fruitful meeting with the Bucks while there.
The twelfth pick might be a little high for Zeller, nonetheless, and the Bucks are also, according to Woelfel, strongly considering drafting Illinois sophomore center Meyers Leonard, as well.
The Bucks will work out Syracuse center Fab Melo on Thursday, but the idea there is most likely to perhaps target him in the second round. He’s certainly not a mid-first-round type of selection.
Even if the Bucks get their first choice at 12, be that Zeller or Leonard, they are going to need to do more to address the center position than just draft a prospect big man in the middle of the first round. The Bucks lost one of the top ten centers in the NBA when they traded Bogut, and will need to find someone who can step in and start to fill that void if they’re going to hope to be in the playoff chase next season.
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