LeBron James is likely the most hated man in America right now, despite him having committed no crime, beaten no girlfriend, kicked no puppy, spilled no oil and stolen no money from shareholders. And while our priorities may be jacked in terms of where we spend our various levels of vitriol (and don't get me wrong, there's enough to go around), you're going to be hard-pressed to find someone outside of Miami who doesn't think he has it coming. He turned his back on his home, his fans and made a complete self-aggrandizing spectacle of himself while doing it, all in the pursuit of brand expansion. You pay the price.
But in our outrage and disgust, we're tending to let those things factor into our analysis of what the Miami move means in basketball terms. We talk about how playing alongside those other players means he won't be as great, without looking at what will actually happen on the floor. We say his legacy is tarnished without looking at how much higher his ceiling is with this team than it was before. Even if there's scum on the ground floor, if all people see is the shining spire in the distance, it's hard to say the overall effect is negative.
And if we look at how this Miami team has started to take shape ("They won't be able to find anyone good to play next to them!" Except for Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller ,and Zydrunas Ilgauskas), and how James' game, his actual basketball game (as opposed to his persona, image, Q rating and soul, all of which are under attack) will develop in Miami, we're looking at the possibility of James reaching even higher than he has in two MVP seasons. What would it take to rehab his image through basketball excellence alone? How about multiple titles and a triple-double average?
James' averages last season were 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists. Not shabby at all, considering he was dishing to Mo Williams, Jamario Moon, Shaquille O'Neal's zombie corpse and Anderson Varejao, (and Antawn Jamison for the last half of the season). But with the team assembled in Miami, what kind of changes can we expect?
Even with the older crew they're assembling, you should still expect a team that gets up and down the floor. There's simply too much athleticism for the pace not to increase somewhat. While it's true that Miami played at a slower pace than the Cavs last year (93.4 possessions per game for Cleveland to 91.4 for Miami), that was also largely a product of the lack of talent that the Heat had on their roster. But with James and Bosh, there will likely be some up-tempo play. That could boost James' numbers.
But what's most influential from a metrics standpoint is the role he'll be playing now. With better teammates, James is likely to see a spike in his assist numbers. Throwing outlet passes in transition to Dwyane Wade or finding Bosh on the drive and dish is probably good for a handful of assists at least, to get him over double-digit mark. That's before the open three-pointers for Mike Miller and other long-range assassins that you typically find in loaded systems like LA and Boston.
His rebound numbers should spike considerably as well. Bosh is a great rebounder but not of the Dwight Howard mold, and with a likely veteran, slower center, there will probably be opportunities for snatching up a few more. He needs a considerable jump in boards (his highest Defensive Rebounding Rate, percentage of rebounds available, spiked in 07-08 at 11.9; he'd need to hit 12 percent-ish depending on pace to make up the difference), but with the amount of spacing that team can create with the triple threat, it's certainly not out of the question.
So then can he average 10 rebounds a game?
Yeah, I think we can go ahead and pencil that in.
So if the Heat do not opt for a slow-it-down, grind-it-out approach with three of the best athletes in the world (and thereby trying to beat the Celtics at their own game), there's a very realistic chance that James could average a triple-double, the only other player to ever do so outside of Oscar Robertson in '62. Is it unlikely? Sure. But you're also looking at Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James together in Miami, while the city of Cleveland is burning his stuff. We live in unlikely times.
But those are just numbers. Though him averaging a triple-double will put him in the history books and garner him a third MVP, it won't be enough to clear his legacy of the damage done by abandoning Cleveland and joining with superior teammates, which many have said makes him a "quitter," and that he's "taking the easy way out."
If there's one thing for sure in our society, though, if this kind of on-court success translates into wins, and generally speaking, when you play really well and really efficiently, that tends to happen, his name will be cleared. He has to win more than the regular season. He has to win the whole thing. Multiple times. It's an impossibly high standard, but one he's likely counting on meeting. As you may have noticed, James is not lacking for confidence.
In the strictest of terms, the Heat will have the most talent on the court for the foreseeable future. That has to put them in title contention, though the Magic, Celtics and Lakers won't go down without a fight. If James is able to pull off what's likely given his favorable situation, average a triple double, win multiple titles, and so as the MVP of the league, that may just be enough to clear his reputation and put him back in the history books, even if he'll never reach Jordan's status (who can?).
Well, outside of Cleveland, at least.