If LeBron James wanted a career where he would have to put it all on the floor and still be expecting disappointment, he would have remained a Cleveland Cavalier.
Rather than wallowing in the postseason failures that had enraptured his career up until 2010, James made the decision to utilize his rights as a free agent to make a move to the Miami Heat, where a championship caliber roster was already built and waiting.
As much as LeBron worked himself to the bone attempting to will his Cavaliers to a championship, it was never going to happen with the tools that were provided to him. Sure, the pressure was still on him simply because of who he was, but it was understood that his supporting cast wasn't up to par with other championship rosters.
It wasn't until he joined the Miami Heat where his career came under some fire. That was only magnified in the 2011 Finals. Analysts rushed to voice their opinion on how LeBron couldn't get it done in the big moments, even with a far better supporting cast than the one he had in Cleveland.
Given that James had averaged a mere 18 points per game in the NBA Finals, there was actually a legitimate argument in favor of LeBron not playing to the standard that so many had envisioned him at.
The 2011-12 season was the biggest of LeBron's career. Pat Riley wasn't about to disband the 'Big Three' with another failed trip to a championship, but it certainly would have been considered. After all, a team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh should be capable of winning titles, even if some of those three were hurt.
There were some close calls, but they got the job done via NBA Finals victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, needing only five games to do so. LeBron James led the charge then and throughout the postseason, being the prominent team leader in matchups against New York, Indiana, Boston and ending with OKC.
It was the most pressure-filled year of LeBron's career. While the rumors may have surrounded the Heat and a possible disbanding with a loss, LeBron's legacy would have been put in jeopardy with a second consecutive Finals loss and a third overall. Not to mention, the criticism would have been at its worst with the high possibility that the burden of a loss falls primarily on James.
Up until that point, that was the most significant season of LeBron's career. Speaking now, however, the upcoming 2012-13 season carries just as much importance as the season before. James only finished constructing the foundation last year. Now he must begin constructing the layers of what should go down as one of the best careers in NBA history.
Next season carries more significance to LeBron than any year before because there are now even higher expectations of him. He won't be as scrutinized nearly as much if he doesn't win, but it will still be a detriment to his career if he doesn't continue where he left off by winning multiple titles. He went to Miami to be in the best position to win and winning only one title would be disappointing.
As good as the Los Angeles Lakers may be looking out West, the Heat are still the favorite primarily because they not only picked up Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, but also because they have the best player in the NBA by a mile. They have someone who can do everything on the court and just led a Heat team with an ailing Wade and Bosh to a Finals victory in only five games.
So, yes, this year is just as important as last year in terms of the legacy LeBron can look back on.
Winning that first title could easily lead to a hangover much like the one we saw in Miami following their title victory in 2006. They failed to make any moves towards improvement in the offseason and the players who were so key the year before had become lazy and out-of-shape. Only a year after winning a title, the Heat were swept in the first round on their own floor.
The organization has obviously learned from its mistakes with the acquisitions of Allen and Lewis, as well as monitoring the ailments of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Mike Miller.
LeBron doesn't have that type of mentality. He isn't the type of player to 'mail it in' or coast. He's a fierce competitor who would win every game if it were up to him. James stayed in basketball shape through leading the 2012 United States basketball team to Olympic gold and continued his workouts with the league's second-best player, Kevin Durant.
James knows that opponents will be gunning for the Heat more than ever. It wasn't enough that they were the Heat team that was drawing all of the attention from the nation, but now they're the reigning champions. Their opponents will naturally want to be the team to not just defeat the Heat, but to defeat the champions as well.
If we learned anything from LeBron last year, it's that he's committed to perfecting his craft. He's willing to make adjustments and sacrifices for the purpose of winning and it should be no different this season or the seasons that follow. With all of the sacrifices and experimenting being completed in the first two years of the 'Big Three' project, James can now play a full season comfortably in a Heat uniform.
James was able to step up to the challenge of playing in the most significant game of his career—Game 6 against Boston where he faced the prospect of a series loss on the road. The question is whether or not he can continue to reign over the NBA in a season that's equally important as the year before.
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