The 2008-09 season was hailed as LeBron James' coming-of-age party. The season in which he stopped climbing Mount Greatness and reached its lofty summit.
It was the coronation foretold since LeBron's formative years winning state titles at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. And in one sense, it happened. LeBron won the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award in his sixth season, at the age of 24. As the Cavs cruised to a franchise record 66 wins, LeBron was an all-around force, adding top-flight defense and a penchant for chasedown blocks to his already-superlative arsenal.
Kobe Bryant could be the game's best finisher. Dwight Howard could be the Defensive Player of the Year. This year, LeBron was the game's best player, period. The boy-turned-man demonstrated no discernible weaknesses through 82 regular season games and two playoff sweeps.
Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that the law of averages was going to catch up to the boy-turned-man and make him look more like a 24-year-old man-child. We just didn't expect to happen so suddenly and all against one team.
In eliminating the Cavs in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic brought out the worst in LeBron in a couple of different ways. In the process, they showed Cleveland and the rest of the country that maybe LeBron isn't as finished of a product as we'd like to believe.
Four years in college would have made LeBron a second-year pro this season. And, at times, that is what he looked like against Orlando.
Prior to storming off the court in a huff and failing to show for the postgame press conference following Game 6, LeBron got something of a free pass from many fans and members of the media. LeBron was carrying the team, we said. He's doing all that should be asked of him and more. It's his teammates and coach who are letting him down. It's the Cavs organization that let him down. Cue the LeBron-to-New York speculation anew.
That's why it was something of a perspective-altering blessing in disguise when LeBron gave the Orlando Magic the cold shoulder and didn't move his lips again until he stepped onto the team bus. LeBron's bout with post-elimination pouting helped remove his Teflon coating, revealing a side to LeBron that we seldom see. An imperfect LeBron, not as mature as we'd like to believe -- perhaps not as much of a leader as we'd like to believe. Not yet, anyway.
LeBron, for all the progress he's made between his rookie year and now, all of the sanding and polishing his game has undergone, his uncanny ability to meet and surpass the expectations placed on him as the most-hyped young athlete in history, has still not arrived at his full potential. At the age of 24, who really has?
LeBron, quite simply, did not lead adequately against Orlando. He rose to the occasion himself, but he didn't spur his teammates to do the same. Accountability from LeBron might not have been able to get Mo Williams' jumper to fall. LeBron's leadership wouldn't have made Delonte West tall enough to guard Hedo Turkoglu, or Zydrunas Ilgauskas fast enough to not look athletically overmatched by Dwight Howard. But what it would have done is put the ball in their hands, in a very real way.
Mike Brown has taken the majority of the heat for the LeBron-on-five offense that repeatedly reared its ugly head late in games throughout the series. Brown seemed to actually encourage LeBron to take the ball and plow into the teeth of the Orlando defense. No doubt, this was far from Brown's best performance as a head coach. But as counterintuative as it seems, Brown is looking for his cue from LeBron, who is asked to lead the whole team -- players and coaches alike.
It goes back to the idea that if LeBron, for some reason, ever wanted Brown fired, Brown would find boxes in his office approximately five seconds after LeBron's decree. That's simply a fact of life when one person means so much to the welfare of an organization. What LeBron wants, LeBron gets.
With that type of power comes the corresponding responsibility to lead -- even at the age of 24. That means despite his young age, LeBron has to make veteran decisions. To his substantial credit, he's hit for a very high average in the decision-making department through the first six years of his career. But against the Magic, in this series, LeBron just didn't make a lot of good decisions.
At this point in his career, LeBron isn't at all unlike a young CEO. The young CEO starts his own company -- or in LeBron's case, turns around a faltering organization -- by doing things his way. He gets used to having his hand on all the buttons, having a hand in all the tasks. But the organization grows. Expectations increase. The way the CEO does business needs to change. Change is easy when you're winning. But when the road gets muddy, it's easy to revert back to old habits.
That's what happened against the Magic. LeBron doesn't yet seem to grasp the idea that a leader's job isn't to strap his team to his back, perform all the jobs, compensate for every weakness and try to make everything all better. That's how one guy averages 40 points a game while the effect of everyone else is negligible. That's also how you lose a playoff series in six games.
There is certainly a time and place for LeBron to take a game over. But the entire second half isn't it. Those are the times when LeBron should be getting in his teammates' ears and demanding more of them. Maybe LeBron can't get Mo's shots to start falling, but he can make sure Mo is busting his tail on the defense end, and that he is taking every opportunity to use his quickness to penetrate and draw fouls.
Maybe LeBron can't make Z, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao match up better with Howard, but he can let it be known in no uncertain terms that letting all 6'-11" of Howard sneak back door and throw down an alley-oop dunk is unacceptable.
LeBron can defer to Mo and Delonte in setting up the offense, instead of taking the ball up top and dribbling down the shot clock while everyone stays parked on the wings waiting for a kickout. LeBron needs to recognize that Mo and Delonte aren't catch-and-shoot gunners. They need to handle the ball and set up the offense in order to stay in the flow of the game. It's the approach that worked all season, but it disappeared for long stretches against Orlando.
Maybe all of it wouldn't have beaten Orlando, a team that simply had a series for the ages shooting the ball. But it is a blatant falsehood to say that LeBron stuffed the stat sheet and therefore has no blood on his hands in this series loss. If anything, LeBron helped lose this series because he singlehandedly stuffed the stat sheet.
The Cavs had great chemistry all season long. The Cavs' closeness was so uncommon among professional sports teams, it drew national attention. LeBron was a facilitator of that, and that's great so long as the wins keep coming and the sailing remains smooth. But sooner or later, a team like Orlando will come along and pose a serious challenge, and the leader will need to stop being a bud and start being a boss.
LeBron will need to start making good decisions at critical times, and start demanding that his teammates make good decisions. And it won't matter if that list of teammates includes Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire or anyone else, because those players will take their cues from LeBron. If LeBron dribbles down the shot clock and kills the flow of the offense, the caliber of his teammates won't matter. They'll be standing around like every other teammate LeBron has had.
The bottom line: We know LeBron's teammates respect him as an equal, but can he get them to respect him as a superior? Can he even sprinkle in a little fear when necessary? That's the real question about LeBron that needs to be answered in the next 12 months.
Once again, LeBron is asked to grow up fast. Now that he's tasted real, bitter playoff defeat in each of the last two seasons, the stakes have been raised. Unless he wants to keep tasting springtime defeat, this is an aspect of greatness that he needs to master, and soon.