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Enigma & Genius: On Lebron James and Draymond Green

By Bob Liss

After a grueling six preparatory weeks of the NBA Playoffs, basketball fans and Lebron James followers alike had a week off before the Finals began. After conquering the Eastern Conference, King James seemed as worn out as I felt, but one could hope that the rest would be as rejuvenative as the two week mid-season rest he gave himself for his thirtieth birthday, after which he returned to his own self, turning around what looked like a disappointing season for the returning Odysseus of Northeast Ohio.

Freed up from the networks’s tyranny [1], I spent my found time watching a recently-acquired DVD biography of Oscar Robertson (The Big O: The Oscar Robertson Story), the standard to which I have long argued that James should be held. It was stunning to watch Robertson as a young player all the way back to high school in the early 50’s, inventing and mastering all the elements of modern basketball, in effect writing its first textbook with his play. Didactic, instructional, inspirational, utterly real, it was like reading a manual, with animated and illustrated rules of instruction, of just how to play.

Shortly afterwards, while watching my DVR recording of Game Four of Cleveland’s sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, I saw how much James had progressed on his road to mastery of what one might call Oscar’s “distributional instincts.” James had been dominant throughout that series, after insuring his Cavs’ place in the Eastern Finals with an incredible corner shot in Game Four of the Cleveland-Chicago series, a shot that instantly trumped and in effect erased Derrick Rose’s earlier heroics.

What, if anything, did he lack? Size? Certainly not. He is like Oscar, and later on Magic Johnson, in relation to his competition. Game? Not really. Character? Harder to say, as this consists of many elements, perhaps most crucially decision-making, a notion that challenges the brave new pseudo-science of data analytics and metrics. Lebron’s overall level of play is undeniably great beyond comparison, but does he understand “how to play”? Does he sense what is called for and when?

In Game Four of the Cleveland-Atlanta series, with the Cavs up 3-0, 7’ center Tomofey Mosgov scored the first Cleveland basket, then made a sensational out-of-character steal and was sprinting up the left baseline. The ball came to James, who began pushing the ball up-court, but in a strangely unhurried way. He was waiting for Mosgov to run the floor, seeking to reward him with a pinpoint pass for a lay-up. Unaccustomed to sprinting, the big man seemed too tired to dunk and layed it in.

This was the kind of maturity and patience one hoped that Lebron would develop: the waiting for Mosgov to get up court, the holding of the ball without tipping his hand, the perfectly thrown and measured pass. All were reminiscent of Oscar, the inventor of triple doubles, but real ones, the thirty/ten/ten variety. (To be meaningful, the total needs to add up to at least forty, with a minimum of twenty points. Oscar’s prototype was 30/10/10.)

Going into Game Four of the Cavs’ sweep of top-seeded Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals, James was averaging 33/12/10. Winning 118-88, he was able to ease off the Oscar-esque statistics, having made his point. He played only 29 minutes, settling for 23/9/7, and two steals, numbers which would project into an Oscar triple-double. The day before, he indicated that he was getting round-the-clock treatment for various undisclosed ailments, stating simply (NY Times, May 28, 2015): “There’s a sacrifice to your body when you want to win.” He had a week off to rest.


However much he has become used to being the cynosure of attention, this was an especially challenging season for King James. Having lured Kevin Love to Cleveland in the wake of his celebrated return home, James had a younger but equally formidable pair of stars (Love and Kyrie Irving) with whom to form another Big Three, but synchronicity was strangely lacking until mid-season. The Cavaliers had built a credible team around him, at least on paper, but it frayed at the edges with injuries and, early in the season, an inability to get in sync, until after James disappeared for those two weeks on December 30, 2014, his thirtieth birthday.

Especially mystifying was the lack of apparent synergy between James and Love. It had seemed the perfect union: Love’s unequalled outlet passes and James’s open court brilliance; the best quarterback passer and the best tight end; but the expected chemistry mysteriously eluded them [2]. As James turned thirty, there was renewed urgency to the question of whether he could really be trusted with Oscar’s legacy?

And what happened when James turned thirty? He didn’t dress for the next two weeks, while Cleveland went 1-7, plummeting to .500 (19-19), and then a game under with a 107-100 loss to Phoenix when he finally returned. But then began a long win streak, making the Cavaliers one of the contenders to represent the down-trodden East against the rampaging Golden State Warriors. Cleveland’s streak and second-half season revival had much to do with the acquisition of a new set of team-mates for Lebron, mostly notably Mosgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, refugees from the sadly deteriorated, mismanaged, and tanking New York Knick franchise.[3]

Although James more than salvaged what looked at mid-season like a disastrous year, his hegemony was being challenged by Stephen Curry, who took the MVP trophy and supplanted James as the league’s most popular player, as measured by jersey sales. I wondered whether LeBron’s destiny was to be a foil for others: first Duncan, now Curry; like Wilt Chamberlain’s relation to Bill Russell (or Karl Malone’s to Michael Jordan).


My long-standing fascination with James made it difficult or me to embrace the Warriors whole-heartedly, though they represented my adopted home town. It was a familiar position for me, having grown up with the mediocre pre-Walt Frazier Knickerbocker teams of the late 50’s and early 60’s.

Then, the eight team NBA offered frequent double-headers at the Garden in which the “preliminary game” often featured Oscar, Elgin, Wilt or Russell, sometimes Wilt against Russell; great match-ups that made the Knick game seem almost amateurish. Rooting for the home team seemed to be a futile act of sentimental foolishness. Frequently, with the Knicks way behind, I left at the half of the second game.

So I could remain a Lebron fan even against Golden State, my only real problem being that Golden State’s Draymond Green had become my favorite player: watching games as much as I could through his eyes, I saw him demonstrate almost nightly a uniquely refined sensing of pace, allowing him to make maximum use of the nuances of screens and floor spacing.

Draymond Green has a unique basketball intelligence, a rare kind of wisdom, like that of big men (Russell, Walton) who directed traffic and movement from a different angle. He actually seems to decide whom to sponsor at different moments, thereby protecting and highlighting Curry: French pastry don’t go all the time, but Green sees to it that he gets enough!


In Game One, after Carlos Santana kicked off Bay Area narcissusjingotech furor with his souped-up version of the national anthem, it seemed that Golden State would dominate, but Cleveland managed to slow tempo enough to take the Warriors out of their rhythm and force them to grind out possessions in similar fashion as did the Memphis Grizzlies in a series that Memphis led 2-1, before succumbing 4-2.

Both of the first two Finals games were decided in overtime, with Game One going to Golden State and Game Two to Cleveland. James had the opportunity to win each of them, had he hit very makeable shots; in both games, Curry looked insignificant, often weak, and Green was strangely out of his unusual uncanny zone.

The day before Game Two, after James had been heroic, but come up short in the opener, the thought came to me—unbidden—that the best outcome possible was for James to get 55 points and sprain his ankle on the game-winning shot, not enough to affect his career or to have any lasting effect, but severe enough to give him the rest of the series off.

He was out there seemingly alone, toiling mightily, fiercely but stoically determined, as if struggling to stave off the inevitable, against a team that was like a bottled up explosion. If it went beyond four or five games, it seemed that James was bound to start looking bad, maybe get hurt.

Walking on and off the court, he looked like an exhausted laborer, carrying all the world’s burdens.

It’s not easy being a superhero in real life, but James accepts his role. In the overtime win in Game Two, he played 50 of 53-minutes, getting himself 16 rebounds and 11 assists, along with 39 points, but—perhaps due to fatigue—shot only 4-for-22 in the second half and overtime, and, for the second straight game, missed a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation, at close-range in traffic. In overtime, he had a layup blocked at the rim by Draymond Green.

Early in the second half, James drove to the hoop only to have his first shot blocked by 7’1” Andrew Bogut and his second by Green, but this was James’ game: playing point guard at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, bringing the ball up court, directing plays, with free reign [4], he seemed burdened, but larger than the game itself.

Somehow, unlike Michael Jordan, Lebron works as a tragic figure, as did Oscar. James needs to learn when to carry his teammates, whereas Michael had to learn how to involve them. This is what we fans demand of our super-heroes. The Warriors looked so much lighter. Not that they’re not serious about basketball, but there is a lightness and exuberance about the way they play. “I take my profession, I take my craft, very seriously,” James said, very seriously. He appeared to be above the fray.

As of Game Three, it seemed all about endurance for Lebron. Or would the story line shift to redemption for the struggling and seemingly weak Curry, that wispy Ariel-like MVP, seemingly Warrior Management Consultant Jerry West’s creation, just as Ariel was Prospero’s? Well, both: Lebron did have the strength to endure, and prevail, AND Curry almost stole the game in the fourth quarter.

After Game Three, James remarked that he was not getting much sleep but that he would be fine with that for the remainder of the series. Might he be planting a seed presaging self-destruction? Thoughts of the “old LeBron,” the one who was uniquely magnificent yet liable to disappear at key junctures, like the Conference Final he lost to Boston before defecting to Miami (a defection later reframed as a sabbatical or as his long-deferred college years) or, just a year later, when he vanished mysteriously in the Finals series against Dallas.

As of Game Four, everything changed, with Golden State starting Andre Iguadola on James, and moving Draymond Green to center. Green had thirteen first half points, and outscored the Cleveland team for the game’s first seven minutes. Later, after being a distributor, eschewing open threes, Green drove and got LeBron to commit his third foul.

James’s first half statistics were 20/8/8, playing all 24 minutes, but how quickly the Warriors can change games! At 69-65, you live and die with each possession, and wind up losing 103-82. Showing fatigue, James’s had another poor shooting night (7-for-22), including five missed free-throws. Why must his technique remain so horrendous?

With Cleveland trailing 44-32, a hard foul by Bogut sent LeBron stumbling out of bounds at full speed and crashing into a camera, cutting the right side of his head. He stayed down for a couple of minutes, but soon he was back in the game, without any mention of concussion protocol, with only “some glue,” as he said later. “I was just trying to regain my composure. Our medical staff did a great job to stop the bleeding, and I got some stitches just now. Didn’t need (any) concussion protocol. At the time, I just knew I had to shoot the free throws. Didn’t matter what was going on with my head. I had to go out there and shoot those free throws.” I was reminded of my thought before Game Two that the best outcome possible was for James to make an early but honorable exit. This NBA season was unduly and ominously marred by injuries to many key players, leading to consideration of schedule changes in the direction of eliminating all back-to-back games.

Echoing his mantra-like stance of many years, which used to be unsatisfying but which people now hear and react to more sympathetically differently. James said simply: “three games left, possibly. Biggest stage in the world. Go out, execute, live with the results. No pressure. I’ve been through a little bit in my pretty cool career.” James was once again demonstrating the difference in the way he thinks from Michael Jordan, to whom he is often compared: Jordan could only live with one result, which often he willed.

There were many reasons that the Warriors won Game Four, much being made of the great contribution of Iguadola (22 points to LeBron’s 20), whom Coach Steve Kerr started in place of 7’1” Bogut, but the most important part of that adjustment may have been moving 6’7” Draymond Green to center. For the first time in the series, and continuing for the rest of Golden State’s unblemished rest of the way, Green played like himself for an entire game, not only contributing seventeen points, seven rebounds, and six assists, but also the three-point play that tied the score at 20-20, after Cleveland had scored the game’s first seven points.

In Game Five (104-91), with Cleveland’s Timofey Mosgov playing only nine minutes after scoring 28 in Game Four, Golden State continued to run its offense through Green, a kind of point power forward turned point center. Again, a late Warrior explosion (25-11) torpedoed a close game (80-79, Cleveland leading, with seven minutes left) into a rout: 104-91. James had a 40/14/11 triple double, rivaling Jerry West’s 42/13/12 gem in the 1974 Finals. There was talk of this being a precedent for James’ getting the MVP in a losing cause, but that was against Boston. Bill Russell had plenty of MVP’s, and could afford to be generous! To win that prize, LeBron would have to find a way to win the last two games, but it seemed clear that the Warriors had irrevocably turned the tide.

In Game Six, a 28-15 first quarter saw the Warriors pile up assists on each of their first 11 baskets! Seeming to want to conserve energy (he had averaged 46 minutes per game), and again shooting poorly, James still had fifteen points and eight rebounds at half-time, with Cleveland somehow (the Warriors went suddenly cold) remaining close at 45-43, then taking a brief lead early in the second half, before the roof fell in, and the score was suddenly 69-55. It was anticlimactic (like the whole playoffs, really, with Golden State not having to face the best teams at full strength; a shame, a pity), almost not a game, it seemed, though Cleveland actually made it close again near the end (105-97).

Cleveland had no real offense. When wired for the television audience, Coach David Blatt, who resembles Vladmir Putin, spouted nothing but clichés; at best, he resembled a jockey, whipping and imploring a horse, whereas the Warriors were like picadors firing away at the wounded bull. Kerr’s exhortations, by contrast, were personal, heartening, and encouraging.

Playing forty-seven minutes, James once again posted a monster line (32/18/9), despite continued poor shooting. He looked like an undynamic laborer all game, even as he seemed to be able to control pace. All game, he was eschewing threes, as if trying to make the game as ugly as possible.

Yes, his percentages had been low, but wasn’t this the only way to loosen up the defense, and the right time to roll the dice? Continuing to bang against Iguudola had been frustrating, tiring, and generally futile. Plus, as bad a three-point shooter as James had been in the play-offs, he has a history of making big threes. (Like those in his 48 point game versus Detroit in Game Five of the Eastern Finals in 2007, AND his heroic game-winner and series-changer against Chicago in this year’s Eastern Conference Semi-Finals).

Green’s triple-double cemented (well, made more plausible) my case for his being the key to the team; its motor, in contemporary parlance. Maybe even the MVP. Complicated, because both he and Curry both recovered mightily in the Warriors’ last three games (he had 37 in Game Six), all wins, after both had inconsistent and disappointing early games, at the same time that Iguadola, challenging James, was stealing everyone’s hearts and minds [5].

Some players get to be known only by their first names, though it’s very hard to use just the first or last name of Draymond Green. Still, he is the heart and soul of his Warriors, who embody a new kind of game, playing “small ball” (invented at Golden State by Don Nelson decades ago, but finally taken to a championship level), relying on three-pointers, fine passing, and good character.

But back to Lebron, as always, and yes, the shooting: James’s pathetic display amped up dubiousness about all his decisions (which seemed especially questionable in Game Six where he kept force-feeding the post). For the whole playoffs, his shooting percentage was just 42%, 39.8% for the Finals, in which he averaged an incredible 36/13/9 line. This compares badly to 48.8 % for the regular season. His three-point percentage was 23% in the playoffs, compared to 35.4 % for the regular season. The Warriors are a 40% three-point shooting team.

Did Lebron try to do too much? Should he have taken more threes? Yes, but not shooting them at 23%. Why is his percentage so low? Magic’s improved every year he was in the league. Oscar disdained the long shot, but there was no three point shot then. He would have mastered the twenty-three footer if it mattered, but then, that was a bad shot [6].

Lebron’s overall level of play is undeniably great beyond comparison, but does he understand “how to play”? Does he sense what is called for and when? Compared to Michael and Oscar, can Lebron adapt to the situation? And why, with his work ethic, does his shot remain so inconsistent? These questions have remain unanswered for too long now. If he isn’t willing to consult with Magic or Oscar, I only wish he had Draymond Green with him to nudge and guide him over the top.

But what if Love and Irving had not been hurt? We’ll never know. So many imponderables. And why, we must remind ourselves, does it really matter? Because, I like to think, aesthetically, greatness has its own inherent reward and magnetism.

The book James is writing has several chapters left. Lebron is a free agent now, but will always be judged by the choices he makes.


1 ABC and ESPN are both owned by the Walt Disney Company, ESPN’s curiously-named Executive Vice President John Wildhack explained.

2 During the second half season, it was there more often, though Love had been assigned (again, mysteriously) a role which generally left him exclusively a three-point shooter.

3 The playoffs were full of Knick refugees: Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and A’mar’e Stoudemire in Dallas; Beno Udruh in Memphis; Pablo Prigione in Houston; Chris Copeland in Indiana but returning to the bar scene in New York to get beat up; Mike Woodson, seemingly in disguise with glasses and a moustache next to Doc Rivers on the L.A. Clipper bench. It’s as if they had fled the Garden, and the playoffs were suddenly welcoming the Garden refugees, just as clueless owner James Dolan was repopulating it by welcoming back anti-feminist icon Isaiah Thomas to lean in with the New York Liberty.

4 Of necessity! James had completely turned around the Chicago Bulls series with an heroic three-pointer from the dead left corner in the critical Game Four, when Cleveland desperately needed to regain the home-court advantage they had lost when James regressed to the passivity we had sometimes seen in years past. On that play, he defied and over-ruled the one Coach David Blatt had drawn up in the huddle.

When the microphone is on him in the huddles, Blatt never seems to have anything to say beyond motivational slogans, like before Game One of the Finals, when he succinctly intoned “It’s a business situation.”

5 Overall in the playoffs, Green was fourth in assists, third in rebounds, and second in steals.

6 Oddly enough, neither James nor Curry, though in different ways, has a normal conception of what a good shot is. As Jeff Van Gundy has it, Curry is redefining what a good shot is.

From August, 2015

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