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LeBron James turned 30 years old just before the start of the new year. He's been in the public eye for half of his life. He's been the consummate teammate on the court for as long as he's been the best player on it, which has been a near constant. His high school coach famously thought that he'd have to play point guard in the NBA, which was as much a knock on his scoring as it was a compliment towards his court vision and willingess to distribute the ball.
Over and over again in his first go-round in Cleveland, James was criticized for passing too much. In the big moment, James was willing to set up others for open three point attempts with defenses collapsing upon him. This is leadership, and he's been doing it for his entire career. That faith in other teammates to make the play. That's belief, and it's demonstrated in action that goes far beyond anything that can be said off the court.
James has also worked ridiculously hard throughout his career. Kyrie Irving has mentioned his first in the door, last one out practice ethos, but it isn't just leading by example. It can be easy to think of James as someone who reached his playing ability by the hand of God or some creator, but that's unfair to the man himself. James came into the league with suspect ball-handling and a jump shot that was a work in progress at best. As a rookie he shot 42/29/75. During his time with the Miami Heat, he shot 54/37/76.
This isn't just a function of an 18 year old growing up. Learning to shoot and dribble are two of the most difficult NBA skills to pick up. The drive to get better is something teammates can see. It creates an expectation.
He also made concessions in Miami in his style of play that helped the team unlock their offense and win two championships. Never a fan of the physical play in the post, James became a renaissance stretch power forward. He is of course the gifted passer and found open shooters at will, he could spin off his man for dunks, or he could lure out poor power forwards to the perimeter and nail three pointers at a productive rate while opening up driving room for Dwyane Wade.
Leadership. Sacrifice. Commitment to self-improvement. LeBron James is a great teammate, open and shut case.
Except he hasn't always had that reputation, and maybe that's not all there is to the story. I meant every word that I said above. He's never been in any type of trouble with the law, he's been committed to his family, and his foundation does amazing things. He's been loyal to his mother, and a father to his kids that he never had. But there's always the sense that if he's been a leader, he's never been the leader. There was was even talk, reportedly, that James might be left off the 2008 USA Men's basketball team. The theory was that he might not be serious enough for what was a redemption tournament for American basketball.
James' departure to Miami was seen by some as a tacit admission that he needed help to win, and Dwyane Wade, at least early on, was the man in Florida who had already been a Finals MVP. Miami didn't surround their Big Three with young talent, but instead on older players who had been around the block and had seen it all. Again, to my eyes, it looked like James needed or wanted vets around him. At the very least, Pat Riley thought that was necessary. We've seen in his return to Cleveland that he's enjoyed having Mike Miller and James Jones and even Damon Jones around.
Coming home, though, LeBron was going to the man who showed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love how to win. We expect James to keep J.R. Smith in line, to make Tristan Thompson worth the money that eventually gets thrown his way. We ponder potential additions like Larry Sanders and think, "Could LeBron reach him?" And we wonder, what exactly is chill mode, and what could the point of a Saturday night tweet about Kevin Love be?
It's almost undeniable that Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson have bought into having LeBron James on board. Irving's usage rate is down when the plays with James, and his efficiency is up. It's evident from watching how much fun Irving is having this year as opposed to years past. Thompson of course has a longer relationship with James, but it's been fun to see him take occasional criticism from James so well. Those guys have bought into James' message. The results thus far speak for themselves.
And so there is Kevin Love. Kevin Love who has seen his shots decrease, who has been subtweeted. Who has publicly said all the right things. Who can, of course, be a free agent this summer. He's been banged up, he's played through it. He's had great games, usually when he can rest. James has talked about sacrifice being a necessary part of being on this team. He's said he will come off the bench if he has to. These are empty words, of course. James isn't going to the bench, at least not for an extended amount of time. Kevin Love, on the other hand, has had this happen multiple times for entire fourth quarters. It's hard to look at James' approach with Love and be confident, especially when it's fairly clear that James wanted the stretch power forward in Cleveland. But we rarely know the whole story.
The other high profile area of possible contention with James' has been with David Blatt. Blatt is new to the NBA, and James has been a bit cool with him. LeBron has actually proven pretty malleable with coaches over his time in the NBA. He eventually bought into both Mike Brown and Erik Spoelstra. There are signs that he's doing the same with Blatt, but the easiest scapegoat for this team underachieving will probably always be the rookie head coach. That isn't fair, but after the Mozgov deal, the Cavs will probably be content to watch these players mesh.
Blatt may very well be an offensive genius, but in the NBA there really aren't magic plays. The Cavs have the best offense in the NBA since James returned from his two week hiatus, and it's come with heavy Pick and Roll or Pop options that every team in the league is well versed on. Do I hope that James and Blatt get on the same page and stay there? Yes, of course. I don't think it's a great failure of James if it doesn't happen, even while I'm disappointed that James wasn't more open minded early on. Either way, the Cavs have been playing great basketball lately, so it might be a moot point.
I believe LeBron James is a good leader. The results are there, and he wants it so very badly. He's got work to do when it comes to Love. James, it is clear, wants to be remembered for being the leader, as much as the player, who brought the Cavs a championship. He's made the former integral to the latter, and it has raised the stakes ever higher.