Different, Yet Still the Same

David Richard- USA Today Sports
Cavaliers fans could be forgiven if during the early part of this regular season they were fearful of having been sold a bill of goods as to the LeBron James who returned to Cleveland last July. They watched a seemingly docile and less athletic LeBron fail to explode and fail to elevate like they had remembered him doing in his first stint here and during his time with Miami.

Cavs fans longed to see the human freight train who could and would explode to the rim whenever he wanted, elevate like few others are able, and then finish with power. Instead they saw a guy who routinely took plays off, occasionally took games off and who, as the calendar turned to 2016, took two entire weeks off to rest his mind and body.

But time passes for all of us. Whether we are just south of 50 or whether we’re 30 years old and a veteran of 12 NBA seasons, age and gravity affects us all.

LeBron James is no different in that regard.

The days of a consistently high-flying James playing above the rim are over. And they aren’t coming back.

You’ll still get breathtaking moments of athleticism. James can call on those when he needs to do so. He can still elevate and play the game above the rim. Just ask Derrick Rose, whose shot to tie Game 5 was swatted by James on one of those chase-down blocks that James has become famous for. James actually blocked that Rose shot attempt on the way down and with his wrist. His head above the rim at one time, James displayed that elite athleticism, having called upon it at the precise time it was required.

And that’s the thing about James now. He can still go to the elite athleticism house when he needs to or wants to, but he doesn’t live there anymore.

James now resides in an even more upscale neighborhood. It’s the one where athleticism and experience, as well as a maturity that wasn’t evident during his first tour with Cavaliers, resides. Right now, he owns the only home on that block.

You can say what you will about James’ leadership characteristics. God knows I have. James was a guy that would go out of his way to discuss his humility and his leadership skills when he was here for the first seven years of his career. That was a tempest in a teapot. James was often temperamental and selfish during that time, and his hollering about his humility was hypocritical, if not completely misplaced.

He was clearly the best player on those teams as well as the dominant personality, but that didn’t translate to leadership. He could and did throw teammates and coaches under the bus, displayed his emotions on the floor by way of eye rolls and pouting, and he didn’t demonstrate the ability to inspire his teammates.

But as his physical dominance has subsided, his leadership skills have increased.

Make no mistake, James is the leader of this Cavaliers team in every way. He may have struggled in that role early in the year when his body was broken down, but as he regained his form he lifted and elevated not only the games of guys like Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving (to name but two) but also instilled in them what it would take on a daily basis to reach the NBA’s promised land.

In the playoffs James has taken it a step further. His toughness on the floor and his calm in the face of adversity and opponent’s runs has been tantamount to potentially putting these Cavaliers into the Eastern Conference finals. He’s taken playoff virgins like Irving, Thompson, Kevin Love, Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov and not only told them how they’ll need to react to playoff pressure, but shown them how to do so.

That calm approach and that maturity have, like the physical decline, come with age. That wisdom and approach has been forged by four straight trips to the NBA Finals and two titles. It’s born of marriage, kids, contentment with titles past and fueled by a burning desire to get to the mountain top again.

James is still a work in progress, as crazy as that may sound. He’s not what he was 10 years ago and he’s not what he will be in five years, when age will have sapped even more of his athleticism. He can still throw coaches under the bus and his “one size fits all” method of motivating, that being criticizing and trolling teammates like Love, simply doesn’t work for all personalities.

James is learning that.

He’s learning that while he can kid and criticize a player like Irving to motivate him, he has to take a different approach with someone like Love or Thompson.

But he is learning.

He’s quicker to compliment the efforts of players like Love and Thompson who respond better to positive reinforcement than to criticism. He’s learning that while he can subtly (or not so subtly at times) criticize head Coach David Blatt that he still needs to have Blatt functioning at a high level on the sideline and that protecting his coach is also occasionally part of the deal.

James and Miami Head Coach Erik Spoelstra butted heads famously in LeBron’s first year in Miami. But James came to respect Spoelstra as time went on and trust was built. The same may well happen in Cleveland, and Blatt’s Princeton Offense, which is on display often for the Cavs when LeBron is on the bench, may play a bigger role next season with LeBron on the floor once he trusts Blatt.

If there was a misconception about the LeBron James we as Cleveland fans were getting back, that was on us. LeBron knows exactly who he is and what he’s capable of. He’s become extremely dedicated to maintaining his body and developing his basketball mind. The cryogenic treatments, the pacing himself during games, the mid-season need for a couple weeks to recover from a whirlwind offseason filled with stress and change, all of it was addressed and implemented by LeBron himself.

James knows he has to pace himself at age 30 to be at maximum efficiency when it matters. At times in the Celtics series he was passive. That’s likely because he could afford to be while knowing that the series was critical for Love, Irving and the rest of the inexperienced Cavs. James understood that series was a precursor to the more difficult work that lay ahead and he applied himself only when necessary to teach and carry his team.

That’s not decline or laziness. That’s maturity and intelligence on display.

In this Bulls series James has been front and center and far more aggressive. He (and we) laments his inefficiency during this Chicago series, but James has set aside his desire for personal efficiency to do again what his team needs done. Playing without Love, the Cavs have struggled with spacing and become more reliant on James to make plays. But Chicago is a great defensive team that knows this as well, and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls forward assigned to guard LeBron, is a monster defensively and is developing into one of the game’s best two way players himself.

If James gets by Butler (and he’s been wearing that kid down over the course of five games in the series) he’s greeted by a phalanx of Chicago big men who have no problem taking their shots to his head, arms and body.
Yet James has still done more than enough to give the Cavs that 3-2 series lead, even as Irving has been relegated to more of a decoy role due to injuries.

Should the Cavs advance you may well see the retro version of James. Neither Washington nor Atlanta will present the same physical obstacles that Chicago does.

What’s abundantly clear to those watching is that at 30 years old, James is simply not physically and athletically the same player he was at 20. But every other aspect of his game is beyond anything the 20-year old James was. And that still makes for a dominant and elite basketball player who remains the very best in the game.

So yes, he’s different. But in many ways nothing has changed.
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