For several years, LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA, a phenomenally versatile talent capable of dominating a game in multiple ways simultaneously. Yes, last June's championship lent a certain legitimacy to LeBron's career that hadn't previously existed, but it was less a coronation than a validation of qualities we already knew to be present. Simply put, James had been the preeminent basketball talent in the world for several years. We have become accustomed to his greatness, because he reveals it regularly.
Nevertheless, there's a difference between greatness and what LeBron has done over the past six games, and what he might do again on Thursday night when the Miami Heat face the Oklahoma City Thunder in a Finals rematch. As our Dan Devine noted on Wednesday, James has been historically amazing over that stretch, making 66 of 92 shots (71.7 percent) for averages of 30.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, and 6.5 apg. Beyond the stats, LeBron looks like a player not only with no discernible weaknesses, but nothing that is not a clear strength (except free throws, of course). He scores with an efficiency typically only seen in dominant post players, he rebounds, he throws pinpoint passes, he defends every position at a high level, he makes the proper defensive rotations, he doesn't turn the ball over, etc. ad infinitum.
That's not to say that he's reached the height of basketball — history dictates that those achievements can only come in the postseason against the best competition the NBA has to offer. For that matter, I don't mean to suggest that James is now the greatest player ever (whatever that means), or that anyone who doesn't like him is a cretin. Instead, I want to focus on what it's like to watch an athlete whose utter dominance of the field makes the amazing look commonplace.
To figure out what LeBron's doing, it's perhaps best to focus on what he's not. A certain brand of NBA superstar approaches his challenges with logic — think Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant. All these players identify their weaknesses, address them, and repeat the process as many times as necessary. Their careers are ever-shifting processes, full of adjustments. For the most part, these athletes are animated by a pathological drive to succeed, a rare competitive streak that pushes them forward and beyond what we perceive to be human — they push boundaries. We can easily appreciate them, if not love them, because they expand our ideas of what the human body can do when forced to its limit.
LeBron is different: he sets the boundary of human possibility, creates a new limit that others haven't yet caught up to. He does not adjust his skills and abilities — he refines them as he builds them up, cutting out imperfections in his game to become a player without flaws. While Durant can improve his post game to give himself more options, LeBron can work at it until he becomes a dominant post scorer. Unlike other players, there's no sense that he achieves those gains because he works harder or cares more. He tries, obviously, but he's also just better.
It's basketball as played by a demigod or superhero. It's impressive, of course, because he's able to do more things extremely well than any other player in recent history, if not ever. Yet his excellence is also largely divorced from narrative. For a player like Jordan or Kobe, accomplishments such as championships and awards are logical resolutions to the stories they construct, whether by changing their games or scaling new challenges. James, on the other hand, does not face the same kinds of roadblocks — he hits a milestone because he happened to reach it, not because he forced himself past an obstacle. At his best, LeBron renders the opposition insignificant. He appears to be the only player on the court, achieving a higher plane of basketball consciousness. The game reorganizes itself around him. He is the sun around which nine other planets revolve. Like Wilt Chamberlain before him, he is capable of eclipsing the rest of the league.
In these past six games, James has been so incredible as to make the hyperbolic cliche "unfair" seem plausible. When he's this good, LeBron becomes a cheat code to an automatic win. And while there's no guarantee that he'll keep up this dominance, or that he'll play near his best in the playoffs, or that the Heat will defend their title, it's scary to confront the idea that anyone could play at this level for even six games. We expect these periods of domination to be relatively short — a quarter at most — to pop up briefly and disappear shortly after. They never last for six full games, because that is simply too long. The NBA is where amazing happens, not where it persists.
How do we confront someone who makes the unbelievable commonplace? Do we wait for the next failure and explain away the dominance as a diversion on the path to his true nature? Do we focus on statistics to turn the uninterpretable into something more tangible? Do we give him as much credit as possible while it lasts but prepare ourselves for its end? How do we know it will end before it's over? Does the ending necessarily provide resolution?
If those questions all sound philosophical, it's because following all-encompassing greatness to its logical extremes present some uncomfortable issues. No player is supposed to be bigger than basketball. When someone seems to have mastered every aspect of the game, it's tough not to wonder if he'll mockery of the entire enterprise.