NBA Title No. 2 Officially Vindicates LeBron James

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 23, 2013

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 20:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat celebrates after defeating the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 to win Game Seven of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 20, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LeBron James answered whatever doubters he still had with his second NBA title, silencing the tired criticisms of his jump shot, his ability to perform under pressure and his leadership in the process.

Logically, there shouldn't be any more detractors out there, but any analysis of James' naysayers has to begin with the acknowledgement that for a very long time, most of them have been decidedly irrational. Knocking James is old news, and it's tabloid news at that—virtually never supported by facts.

Let's address that tidbit before going any further.

As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out shortly after James had collected yet another NBA Finals MVP award, there have really only been a small number of instances in which James deserved legitimate criticism:

The 2007 finals, when he was a kid; the 2010 conference semifinals, his last series with the Cavs, when he put up very good numbers but looked weirdly disengaged while battling an elbow injury; and the 2011 finals, when he clearly melted down under pressure.

Outside of those scenarios, each of which could rightly be called part of the growth process necessary to achieve stardom, James has been dominant. And since the 2011 finals, he's been on another level, answering every challenge and stomping his way through the league.

The notion that James is a choke artist or somehow afraid of "the moment" is absurd, bolstered only by cherry-picked anecdotes that ignore the ocean of evidence to the contrary.

James is bulletproof now, but that hasn't always been the case. A quick look back in time should help highlight the three main areas of criticism that have been used against him. Juxtaposed alongside his latest triumph, it'll become clear just how thoroughly James has addressed those concerns.

LeBron James Can't Shoot

From the moment James came into the league, his jumper was under fire. After just a few exhibition games in his rookie year, an article from ESPN had this to say about James' perimeter game:

After LeBron James' first five exhibition games, the word 'Hype' could stand for: 'Hey, You Practicing Enough?'

James can't shoot—that's the early word around the NBA.

The Cleveland Cavaliers' No. 1 draft pick is a great passer and tremendous athlete, but he needs to work on his jumper. James is shooting a mere 29.8 percent from the field, and opposing defenders are already backing off.

Because of James' physical prowess, backing off and daring him to shoot became the preferred method of defending him. But it wasn't long before James turned himself into a passable shooter. In his second year, his field-goal percentage jumped from .417 to .472.

He's never been under 47 percent from the floor since, and his last four seasons have all featured field-goal accuracy rates of at least 50 percent. More specifically, his mid-range game has seen major improvement during his time in Miami. In two of his three seasons with the Heat, LBJ's field-goal percentage from 16-23 feet has been above 45 percent, according to HoopData.

And Games 3 and 7 provided perfect microcosms of James' development.

That same sagging defense that James had been seeing since his first days in Cleveland bothered him in Game 3. He was reluctant to shoot open jumpers, and his hesitance led to ineffectiveness. James made just two of his 14 attempts outside the lane.

But because he knew he could trust his refined perimeter game, James approached the same defense in Game 7 with confidence. He hit 9 of 20 shots outside of the restricted area in Miami's title-clinching win.

Criticism of James' shot no longer rings true. The statistics show that he's deadly from the outside now, and defenses suddenly have no effective way to play him.

LeBron James Can't Handle the Pressure

Buzz Bissinger, famous for his cranky demeanor as much as anything, tore into James in a 2011 article for The Daily Beast. Bissinger didn't merely question James' ability to perform under pressure; he asserted that it didn't even exist. 

Bissinger wrote this after a comically small 11-day sample in the 2011 season in which James missed four last-second shots: 

For the first time in his life he is under true pressure to perform. But James doesn’t know pressure. And there is no reason he would, given the way he has been treated, a lifetime of idolization now routinely resulting in last-second self-immolation.

The result is a player who is psychologically soft, not a leader, still a cut-up kid masked by the physical maturity of his body, always placed on a pedestal by his coaches and teammates even when he deserves to be knocked off and dressed down and told that he has the stuff of a loser, not a winner.

In his next breath, Bissinger casually slipped in the fact that James had the best "close and late" stats of any player in the league in the preceding year. Never let the truth get in the way of a juicy angle, though. Right, Buzz?

James' overall "clutch" play (if there is such a thing) had been solid for some time, but it took a real hit in the aforementioned 2011 finals when he wilted against the Dallas Mavericks.

Since then, though, he's been deadly. The change was most apparent in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. James destroyed Boston, piling up 45 points and saving his team from elimination.

Now, staring defeat in the face is no problem for James. And he proved it in this year's finals.

With his team trailing by double digits heading into the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Spurs, James took over. He scored 18 points in the final period and overtime, helping the Heat engineer one of the most improbable comebacks in finals history.

When the dust had settled, James had posted a triple-double in over 50 minutes—not bad for a guy who supposedly can't handle pressure.

And then in Game 7, James took the biggest shot of all, ignoring open teammates and firing away from the right wing with under 30 seconds to play.

As the ball ripped the twine, every criticism of James' ability to take big shots should have evaporated. He had just given the Heat a four-point advantage with his 34th and 35th point, icing the finals in cold-blooded fashion.

Instead of avoiding pressure by passing to any number of open teammates—Shane Battier, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers—James sought out the moment, taking the shot himself. Enough said.

LeBron James Is Not A Leader

What say you, Mr. Bissinger?

As for being a team leader, the very notion is a joke. James doesn’t have the presence; his affect is flat and dull, eager to avoid confrontation because of a difficult childhood in the Akron projects in which his only goal was to stay away from trouble. For all the endless hype, he wasn’t even a leader on his high school team.

It's hard to know what the term "leader" even means in the context of an NBA team. The definition is about as ambiguous as "most valuable."

But if it refers to a team's best player—one who leads by example— James is certainly that. And if it defines the guy who motivates his teammates with words, James is the guy woofing at his dogs in the pregame huddle. So it seems like he qualifies in that sense as well.

If being a leader means holding the most important responsibilities on both ends of the floor, doing the bulk of the scoring and facilitating for others, well, I guess James does all of those things too.

Ultimately, James just finished leading his team to a second straight NBA title. And he did it by knocking down jumpers and playing his best when the pressure was most intense.

People who want to continue being irrational about James will always concoct some reason to knock him. That's how the culture of message-board "analysis" works.

But the fact is, right now, there's nothing left to criticize.


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