Miami Heat

LeBron James' Label as Most Popular NBA Player Justified by Recent Championships

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)
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Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIJuly 28, 2013

Miami Heat superstar LeBron James was voted as the NBA's most popular player in ESPN's latest poll, as reported by the network's Darren Rovell.

It makes sense that respect and likability have both risen for the game's best player after he took home MVP accolades in both of the past two regular seasons and NBA Finals.

Now that the self-proclaimed "King" has two rings to his name, his popularity increase is suitable.

James has justified his greatness by taking his game to another level in the past two campaigns, which has resulted in the Heat winning back-to-back Larry O'Brien Trophies. He beat out Los Angeles Lakers all-time great Kobe Bryant in the poll by a nose, receiving 12.9 percent of the vote while Bryant garnered 12.5.

At the mere age of 28, there is plenty of time for the still-healthy James to add to his accolades in his prime.

Initially when James made the infamous appearance on a TV special known as The Decision, and stated he would take his talents from the Cleveland Cavaliers to South Beach, many were outraged.

As Rovell notes, the 2008-09 season was the last time James was polled as the Association's most popular player. It was also his last in Cleveland, where his percentage of popularity was at 15.6. That number dipped to 10.2 and 9.4 in the past two polls.

Criticism over James' lackluster playoff performances plagued the end of his tenure with the Cavs, and the poignancy didn't decrease after a disappointing showing in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.

The Heat lost that series in James' inaugural campaign in Miami, but now the perception of James has taken a complete 180.

There are no doubts as to whether Dwyane Wade or James is the best player on the Heat. It's James' team now, despite Wade's perpetual presence with the organization that drafted him in 2003.

A noticeable adjustment James made was his efficiency and three-point shooting. He posted career highs in field goal percentage (.565), three-point percentage (.402), rebounds (eight per game) and had his second-best assist numbers with an average of 7.3 dimes per contest.

With all the money James has and his incredible physical gifts and talents, he could have rested on his laurels, coasted for several more years and put off figuring out how to win championships for later in his career.

But that isn't what champions do, and it isn't what James did. His evolution as a basketball player is nearly impossible for NBA fans not to appreciate regardless of their perception of him, and it's reflected in the level of popularity James is currently experiencing.

Nike's PR director Heidi Burgett captured the scene of James' recent visit to China:

James has always desired to build his brand on a global scale. While it may have detracted from his attention on the court as the early phase of his career progressed, the glamor has certainly seemed to take a backseat.

At the forefront for James now are the blood, sweat and tears toward the single accomplishment that earns the highest praise from fans.

Winning.

The best basketball player on the planet has learned to do just that with his second NBA team, and observers have adjusted accordingly.

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