Basketball and soccer are the two most popular team sports in the world. Right now, basketball has LeBron James, a player who was supposed to become one of the all-time greats, but hasn’t quite gotten over the hump, and soccer has Leo Messi, a player who is fully on the path to becoming an all-timer.
Evaluating LeBron isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Cutting out the emotional feelings that LeBron created with his ham-handed move from Cleveland to Miami, he had a good season in Miami, even by his standards. James led the NBA in PER, his Miami team won the Eastern Conference (recall that lots of pundits were predicting before the season that the Heat would not get that far because of the lack of quality on the roster after the top three), and they were in a winning position in the Finals before a strange series of events sent the title to Dallas. (In many ways, the 2011 Finals were a mirror image of the 2006 Finals, where a superior Dallas team had the lead in the series, lost a number of close games to a Heat team dominated by one player, and then lost the title at home in Game Six.) That said, LeBron’s bizarre disappearing act in the Finals colors everything that he accomplished this season. It’s one thing for an NBA star to try and fail by missing shots and forcing the issue; it’s quite another for a star to simply stop shooting. For those of us who have been watching basketball for decades, we were all witnesses to something that we hadn’t seen before, but it wasn’t what LeBron and Nike had in mind: a superstar simply vanishing in the NBA Finals. Until he makes amends for this performance (and he is only 26, so there is plenty of time), LeBron cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan, Magic, and Bird, the three greatest players of my lifetime.
In contrast, Leo Messi is being compared with Pele, Maradona, and Cruyff after another terrific season. Like LeBron, Messi had a very productive season statistically speaking, scoring 51 goals and adding 21 assists. He tied Ruud van Nistlerooy’s record for most goals in a Champions League campaign. Unlike LeBron, Messi capped his season with success in Barca’s crunch games, as he scored twice in the decisive Champions League semifinal first leg at Real Madrid and then added the winning goal in the Wembley Final against Manchester United. We often grade players based on their performances in the biggest games (unfairly at times) and Messi passed that test, while LeBron failed the final exam. Of course, the criticism of LeBron omits the fact that he did very well in the tests before the final, specifically his performances against the Celtics and Bulls.
So where is Messi succeeding where LeBron is failing? To me, the answer is in how much the two of them love playing their games. Messi is the soccer equivalent of a gym rat (pitch rat?), a player who just loves to play all the time. Messi was pouty as Barca was celebrating its La Liga title at the Camp Nou, most likely because he finds the experience of sitting on the bench while others are playing to be frustrating. When Pep Guardiola was asked during the season why he wasn’t giving Messi a break, he answered that Messi got angry when he wasn’t included in the starting lineup. Messi is such a soccer nerd that he spends a lot of his time off the pitch playing soccer video games. Thus, Barca has the good fortune of having a star player who is not just talented and hard-working, but also cares about nothing other than playing. Messi is a reluctant interview and an even more reluctant pitch-man. Despite being the best player in the world’s most popular sport, Messi has a relatively low commercial profile.
Would anyone describe LeBron in the same way? I am not claiming that LeBron doesn’t love to play the game of basketball. Obviously, he wouldn’t be the player that he is today without enjoying the act of putting a ball in a basket and stopping an opponent from doing the same. That said, LeBron is not single-minded in the way that Messi is. He has other interests. LeBron has a self-stated goal of becoming a "global icon." He is interested in his profile in ways that Messi isn’t. We cannot claim that interest in commercial opportunities is inconsistent with being an all-time great, as Michael Jordan’s repeated endorsements during his playing career make clear. However, LeBron does seem distracted.
How does this distraction manifest itself on the court? LeBron’s game hasn’t evolved like Messi’s has. Watching him every week, I can see what Messi has added to his bag of tricks. He is more of a threat to score from outside the box than he was as a youngster, as Edwin van der Sar can attest. Opponents used to handle Barca by falling off of their players and forcing them to shoot from distance. That strategy no longer works because of the way that Messi’s game has evolved. Additionally, Messi’s passing range has improved, such that Barca now play him as a quasi-midfielder whereas he started his career as a right winger. Messi’s work off the pitch has created options for his manager. Has LeBron's game evolved? I don’t pretend to watch enough NBA basketball to make an observation based on personal observation, but every time I read Bill Simmons, he's killing LeBron for not adding a post game. Simmons also adds that his opinion on LeBron’s lack of a post game is shared among NBA writers. Dallas was able to get away with guarding LeBron with guards because James couldn’t punish them down low. That is a failure in development.
The other difference between Messi and LeBron is that Messi is playing with the right supporting cast. Messi plays in front of two great passing midfielders. When he drifts to the right, he has the game’s best right back overlapping his runs. When he looks to pass, he has the joint leading scorer from last summer’s World Cup in front of him. In charge of the whole operation is a coach who has a perfect understanding of the Barca way of playing, the style on which Messi was trained for years before joining the first team. Unless you attribute ESP to Messi’s parents when they moved their son from Rosario to Barcelona when he was 13, Messi is lucky. He is in a situation that makes him look good. If you want to watch the best player in the world look mortal, watch him with Argentina, where the style is a little different and the supporting cast does not mesh with Messi’s talents in the same way.
In contrast, LeBron is not in a situation that suits him. LeBron didn't have a decent supporting cast in Cleveland, which was not his fault. That fact weakened the criticism of his decision to leave Cleveland (although not the manner of his departure). The Cavs had years to build around their star player and came up woefully short of assembling a championship supporting cast. The problem for LeBron is that he chose to play in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, so his supporting cast is now on him. Pairing up with Wade wasn't the best idea because their games are a little redundant. They’re both swingmen who are used to having the ball in their hands. Generally speaking, NBA championship teams have had a mix of point guards, swing men, and big men, usually two stars from those categories, but not from the same categories. When teams have had two star swing men, like the ‘08 Celtics, those guys have had different skill sets. I can see Ray Allen and Paul Pierce meshing because Allen is a shooter and Pierce is a driver. Wade and LeBron are both drivers who shoot from outside just enough to keep defenders honest. LeBron adds better passing skills, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to get around the overlap in orientation. In retrospect, LeBron should have signed with the Bulls, who already had a perfect supporting cast and had hired a better coach. As of this summer, it appears that LeBron made a Decision that will limit his ascent into the stratosphere of legends in his sport. It is fortunate for him that many members of the American sports media are soccer-illiterate or else they would be making a comparison with a player who is putting himself onto his sport’s Mount Rushmore in a way that LeBron is not.