Thursday, June 16, 2011

LeBron and Leo

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. 


chg said...

America could have the most soccer-literate sports media in the world, and they still wouldn't make that comparison because they would first have to introduce their consumers to Lionel Messi and explain why they should care about him.

With the USMNT, I'm at that unhappy stage of fandom where I take some solace in poor performances, believing they bring the team closer to a much-needed change in leadership. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Well written.

Anonymous said...

LeBron's biggest problem is that he hasn't figured out how to loaf/coast through the regular season yet. Shaq, Duncan, Kobe, Wade, etc. all figured that out pretty early: home court advantage is less valuable than health and energy in the deep rounds of the playoffs. So miss 10-15 games, play <30 minutes/game in back-to-back games, be passive for long stretches, etc. LeBron will never play well in a final round if he's playing 38-40 minutes per game for 80-82 games in the regular season.

Jack said...

The Cavs had years to build around their star player and came up woefully short of assembling a championship supporting cast.

I saw this as a very common defense of LeBron's decision and "Decision," and I think it rings hollow. While the Cavs' front office did not surround him with a great supporting cast, it was very possibly sufficient to win a title. The Cavs had the best record in the NBA in both the '09 and '10 seasons. Furthermore, people seem to forget this now, but last year the Cavs did not lose to the Celtics because of their role players; they lost to the Celtics because LeBron completely no-showed the last three games of that series, right after taking a 2-1 lead by completely annihilating Boston in the Garden in game 3. Was the supporting cast great? Goodness, no. Was it enough? Unfortunately we'll never know, and we'll never know because of LeBron.

Michael said...

CHG, part of me is rooting for Jamaica on Sunday. Long-term, the Nats will be better off with a new coach than they will by eking out a trip to the Rose Bowl to lose to Mexico. Plus, it's impossible to dislike Jamaica. As for your first argument, it wouldn't be hard for a mainstream columnist to introduce his readers to Leo Messi as a yardstick for LeBron. I could see Mark Bradley writing that column if he got permission from his editors. The ratings for the CL Final were bigger than the ratings for several of the Stanley Cup Final games, so there is certainly enough of a market to refer to Messi. Plus, Bradley is a Man United fan, so he had to have watched the match.

Anon, you make a good point, but I don't buy that fatigue caused LeBron to become so passive against the Mavs.

Jack, that supporting cast was terrible. In the end, they brought in Antawn Jamison to be LeBron's sidekick and Jamison was worse than LeBron against the Celtics. And the Magic series the year before? LeBron played really well and got no help whatsoever. Cleveland had a great chip - come play with the best player in the league - and was never able to turn the chip into a supporting cast. Look at how bad they were this year and compare that to the Bull after Jordan retired.

Anonymous said...

Distilling the argument from lengtheeeeee diatribe: LJ hasn't done well in a smattering of big games. LM has done well in some big games (Not in the World Cup, but somehow that doesn't matter, because "you can't pick your teammates"...? \throws dart at Guiseppe Rossi picture). LJ's game hasn't evolved, but LM's has, which is attributed to... Bill Simmons and LJ's "lack of love for the game." The same Bill Simmons that wrote this (equally lengthy and nonsensical) diatribe a little over a year ago:

All this post needs is a weak swipe at US soccer culture...