When the best basketball player in the League stepped on the court this past Tuesday night for the season opener, it marked LeBron James’ tenth year as a pro athlete, and his third with the Miami Heat.
On that same day in 2003, the media circus that marked James’ first night on the largest stage in the world for basketball was unprecedented. Over 100 cameras and media reps boxed each other out on the floor for a chance to see the most anticipated rookie in recent history step on the court. The television networks even delayed the tipoff in order to move the feed from another game.
Skeptics had bashed James for the unending hype and astronomical endorsement deals received before ever playing a minute in a regular season game. A subpar preseason performance by the 6’8’’ phenom helped support these premature claims. What no one could have expected, with every basketball outlet, fan and critic in the world watching, was that he would rack up 25 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals. The King had arrived.
The controversy surrounding James’ 2010 departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers in order to join the Miami Heat fueled career doubters. Despite League MVP awards, franchise scoring records and even Defensive Player of the Year consideration, James was overshadowed by his lack of a title in those first seven seasons.
When the time came to announce his strategic move to South Florida, the hatred was high for this player who was simultaneously raising $2.5 million charity dollars for the Boys and Girls Club of America during the press conference. Disgruntled analysts and jealous fanbases rallied around lambasting a guy who had won Olympic Gold and amazed spectators with his ability to carry a subpar Cavaliers team to their first playoff appearance in almost a decade. A 48 point Game 5 performance against the Pistons in the 2006 playoffs took Cleveland to the Finals, and is considered one of the best postseason performance in history. Despite leading in scoring averages, achieving a record number of triple doubles and thriving as an unanswerable defensive weapon, the proper pieces needed to win a title were never put in place by Cleveland’s management.
James’ sign-and-trade six-year contract with the Heat was the first time a reigning MVP had changed teams since Moses Malone in 1982. In order to join his draft classmates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat roster, he elected to accept considerably less than the maximum salary. Despite the sacrifices taken to unite some of the best in the game, the “Big Three” saw growing pains in their first season, and ultimately fell to a stout Dallas Mavericks squad in a six game Finals series. In the offseason James channeled critical scorn and personal defeat into personal improvement under the guidance of NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon. The result was his return to League MVP status, and his first championship the following year. James would lead the team to a second title this past year, once again stunning fans with his postseason performances, and maintaining his Most Valuable Player title.
A look deeper into the success of LeBron James and his role with the Heat shows him not only dominating his current era, but also competing with the likes of Michael Jordan for the highest player-efficiency rating in history. With Jordan at 27.91 and LeBron at 27.65, the 0.26 marginal difference is countered by the former player’s six titles with the legendary Bulls. What everyone wants to know is whether the 29 year old James can utilize the back end of his prime in order to tie or surpass the best player to ever touch a basketball.
If last year is any indication, the Heat have everything they needed to make another run. They ended last year’s regular season with a League best 66 wins, despite numerous injuries, and even managed to rack up a 27 game winning streak. They turned it on in the postseason, and James’ 37 point performance in Game 7 of the Finals stood alongside his 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 6.6 assists playoff stats.
One of the few teams on the list of potential challengers for the Heat are the Chicago Bulls. Now armed with their star player Derrick Rose, who missed the entire previous season due to an ACL knee injury, the Bulls entered game one of the regular season with an 8-0 preseason record and an matchup with rivals the Heat. During Tuesday night’s game, Miami pulled away effortlessly in the first half with a 54-33 point outcome. James lead his team with nine points, five rebounds and three assists. The Heat would lead by as much as 25 points, and he would end the game with 17 points eight assists and six rebounds in their statement win.
The past and present performance of his supporting cast members Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Chris Anderson, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Norris Cole only stack the deck taller. When defensive schemes target James, his teammates have evolved to a balanced metagame that allows for them to thrive. That, along with James’ ability to literally guard at every position on defense, an invaluable facet of his game often overlooked, and comfortably work with co-stars Wade and Bosh in transition, makes this deep Heat squad the most exciting in the NBA’s last three season. This year is potentially their best yet, and makes the Miami Heat the obvious team to beat.