LeBron James steps into the NBA All-Star break flexing, preening, reminding you who’s King – a man at his full powers and not minding if everybody knows it.
It is what seems to be driving this show of uncommon braggadocio that is the curious part, and worth exploring.
It’s as if he still has something to prove.
It’s as if he hears the sneakered footfalls of Kevin Durant getting closer and has turned to face his emerging rival with a raised palm in Stop-sign fashion.
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LeBron’s peacock of a week began in Phoenix when he stripped off his shirt after a practice, in front of media, and commenced a dunk show, having to know it’d soon be all over YouTube, Instagram and Twitter (which it was). One trick involved bouncing a basketball high off a far wall and catching the tall carom for a behind-the-back slam.
A reporter asked Dwyane Wade how LeBron would do if ever he deigned to actually enter the all-star dunk contest.
James, nearby, overheard and answered for him.
“I’d win,” said LeBron, as a matter of fact.
His week ended with 73 points and 22 rebounds in back-to-back victories, including a winning, buzzer-beating three-point shot Wednesday night at Golden State.
Told that was the eighth winning last-second shot of his career, James deadpanned, “Not too bad for a guy who isn’t clutch.”
Teammates Shane Battier said of James’ dramatic game-winner: “He just wanted to let it be known that there is a god.”
It’s as if that’s been the whole point of LeBron’s week.
Not to show that there is a basketball god, but to remind that it’s still him, not Durant.
In between the dunk show and the pointfest, James taped an interview with NBA TV to air as a special this coming Monday at 9 p.m. Included was him being asked to name the league’s all time “Mount Rushmore.”
James called Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson “the easy three,” and after some thought added Oscar Robertson as his fourth player. Interviewer Steve Smith then asked James if he’d be on that mountain someday – an invitation to crow that James typically parries humbly with something like “that’s not for me to decide.”
Except this time LeBron said: “I’m going to be one of the top four that’s ever played this game, for sure. Somebody’s gotta get bumped.”
Oh, and for punctuation, James, asked Thursday when the pressure to win championships would shift from him to Durant, said, “When I retire.”
James is the most psychoanalyzed (read: overanalyzed) athlete of his generation. He also is smart, and calculating. He does and says what he does for a reason, and so we wonder what put the chip back on his shoulder.
I think part of it is that James, at 29, begins to hear the faint tick of his career clock. How many more years before the references to his being in his prime begin to ebb? What guarantee that more championships and league MVP awards are ahead for him?
As a two-time reigning champion and winner of two straight MVPs (and four of the past five), LeBron is at his mountaintop now, with no assurance that pinnacle will rise yet higher. So why NOT flex a little?
Why NOW, though, is the question, and that answer keeps getting back to Oklahoma City’s young phenom, Durant.
The generational baton that passed from Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron finds Durant in line next, waiting, hand outstretched.
Except James isn’t ready to hand off yet.
Durant is a heavy favorite to win what is LeBron’s: the season’s MVP trophy. That the Thunder have the best record in the NBA entering the all-star break also entitles Durant to think he might be taking LeBron’s championship belt, too.
He hasn’t, though. Not yet.
The fact Durant is the “it” guy this season has triggered something in LeBron, something that feels like competitive defiance.
His respect for Durant is admirable, and speaks of their off-court friendship. But Durant still must earn the baton that James surely had to, the baton that in James’ hand is a King’s scepter tightly gripped.
James, until the past two seasons, until the championships, was to many the traitor and the quitter and the guy who wasn’t clutch. As recently as June 2011, for all his personal greatness he was the failure, the guy being asked about “shrinking” on his sport’s biggest stage. Only in 2012 did he begin to become the player who was gaining on his full potential, a player now allowed at least in the same conversation with Jordan without it being blasphemous.
James fought through vitriol and ridicule and doubts to get where he is. He had to prove himself with championships – plural – before his regard as the best player in the game was without asterisk and beyond rational debate.
So should Durant have to do that.
Don’t change the rules now.
The “it” guy has done nothing, by the same historical judgment James endured. The “it” guy is 0-for-6 on getting a ring, by the same hard math once applied to LeBron.
Durant angles in on his fourth scoring title and his maiden MVP, but it isn’t enough. None of his personal greatness should be, just like it wasn’t for James.
The Heat and Thunder play Feb. 20 in Oklahoma City and it will be couched as Armageddon, a James-Durant summit, but it won’t be that.
Those things happen only in June, when championships are in play.
Until Durant begins to wins some of those, he gets to be on the same court with LeBron, but not in the same conversation.
Until Durant gets his defining rings, he might stand with LeBron at the very top of the NBA, but he won’t be in the same league.