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LeBron James Unleashed and Other Signs of the End of Days

There are three storyline going on in the NBA currently that do some damage to our tried and true notions of what it means to be the best player or the best team. Two of these narratives collided head-on last night when the Miami Heat roundly trounced the Los Angeles Lakers. On one side we had the Dwyane Wade-less Heat who have gone 5-0 since losing their star SG and on the other we have Kobe Bryant and the torn lunotriquetral ligament in his wrist. In spite of the injury, Kobe’s hoisting more shots per game (24.6) than at any other time in his career, save for the ’05-’06 season when he averaged 27.2 per game. The Lakers are 10-6 now, but it hasn’t been pretty.

I can’t sum up what the Heat’s 5-0 streak mean any better than Matt Moore over at CBS Sports already did, but what struck me about his post was the idea that while LeBron James is a better LeBron James without Wade on the floor, that might not be the best thing in the long run. “His mind is set free,” writes Moore, “his game has the shackles removed and he’s allowed to roam and own a game in the way he was created to do. But that’s the funny thing: LeBron might not ever have won a championship being the clear, indisputable best player in basketball.”

Determining the best player in basketball is a pastime beloved of sports fans, and we usually see it as inextricably linked to winning championships. After all, Michael Jordan was the best player in basketball while the Bulls were winning championships, right? James is constantly attacked for not being clutch or not being as good as Kobe, but the Heat’s victory last night made something clear: LeBron unleashed is a world destroyer. As Moore points out, the Heat without Wade are a better team than the Cavs ever were when LeBron was in Cleveland. Before the game, Twitter was aflutter with people saying James would sit because he was scared of Kobe. In imagining the most harmless James they could, it looks like those Lakers fans summoned the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

And Kobe just kept chucking in a manner you could call either heroic or stubborn. Today came word that Bryant has been talking to Dwight Howard about getting Howard to the Lakers, but the report also included the tidbit that Howard got the impression from Bryant that “he wouldn’t be the Lakers’ top offensive option, that it was in fact Bryant’s team.” There’s little doubt that no matter his injuries, no matter what it does to the team, Bryant is just not going to go gently into that good night.

So one side we have the superstar reining himself in in pursuit of a championship he might not be able to win playing all out and on the other, we have a superstar insisting that there is no way to win other than having the ball go through him. The third storyline here has to do with Michael Beasley and how the Timberwolves have played in his absence. Prior to the sprained foot that’s kept him out of the lineup, the Wolves were 2-5. Since, they’re 4-3. Now, a lot of things have happened since then, including Rubio being moved to the starting lineup, so I’m not saying correlation equals causation here.

But it’s plain that without Beasley, there’s been more ball movement and fewer contested midrange jumpers. OK, maybe not fewer teamwide, but fewer after a flurry of jab steps and head fakes from the left elbow. Last year, when Beasley was on his game, it felt like he was Minnesota’s best offensive option, the one guy who could at least sort of create his own shot when the game was on the line. And there are times during his absence this year that the Wolves have missed that element from the offense. But we’ve also seen Rubio, Love, and even Ridnour and Ellington step up their offense during this time. Like Beasley’s cut finger revealed his bone (not really, but there’s no reason not to link to that clip), his ankle sprain may be revealing something about the Timberwolves.

Beasley’s ceiling as a player is unmistakably lower than James’ or Bryant’s. But there’s reason to hope that when he does come back, the team will have evolved into a unit that opens up the floor more for his particular game. In the same way that Wade’s injury has both revealed how spectacularly good James is and how important a roster with more balance will be in the long run, Beasley’s injury may be helping the Timberwolves turn into a team that will fit him better when he returns. Bryant’s refusal to change his approach to fit the team the Lakers will become may not be hurting them badly now but it seems, ultimately, an approach doomed to fail.

Steve McPherson

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