Posted Jan 26 2010 11:13AM
There's a division title to be won, then a conference, then a league, and then free agency. LeBron James has his priorities in order. He's a big picture guy, which makes him unique among young superstars, who mainly live for the moment.
But in the process of going after those team-oriented goals, LeBron is taking great pleasure in going after Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade along the way.
Those are his only real peers, the only players who challenge him and push him to the limit, and the only players involved in the conversation whenever there's a debate about the NBA's best player. For those reasons, LeBron has seemed more intense than usual this season against the Lakers and Heat. It's almost like he wants to end all discussion and demonstrate that his nickname has a ring of authenticity to it.
The King? As we see, LeBron is trying to live up to it.
Since Christmas, he played Kobe twice and then Wade last night. LeBron went 3-0 and was big in the closing moments of the last two. In the final eight seconds against Wade, LeBron guarded him twice, coming up with a steal which led to his eventual game-winning free throws, then forced Wade to miss at the buzzer. In the win over the Lakers five days earlier, LeBron scored 37 points, 12 down a tight stretch. In both games, the Cavaliers were without Mo Williams.
And of course we all know what happened on Christmas. That game essentially started the Cavs on their current tear as LeBron had 26 points and nine assists and the Cavs issued a 15-point beatdown in L.A.
LeBron isn't caught up in the best-player hype and arguments that swing back-and-forth. At least not publicly, anyway. He always says the right things about how it's a team game, and the victory is what's important, blah, blah, blah. And he's being sincere about it.
But all superstars in all sports want to measure themselves against the best. They're more desperate to beat them than anyone else. It's only natural. It comes with the territory of being a star.
Magic Johnson always wanted to be extra sharp against Larry Bird, in part because Bird demanded your best, but also because Magic wanted to be considered better than Bird. They didn't play the same position, and they were friends, but the intensity level was highest when they played each other, even if those games weren't in the NBA Finals. The regular-season games were spirited because Magic and Bird had a measure of pride and wanted to earn each other's respect.
LeBron seems on a dual mission this season: To win a team championship first, individual championship second. And he just may pull off the double. The Cavaliers are rolling, and barring the unforeseen, should finish with the best record in the East because the Celtics are busy dealing with Kevin Garnett's health issues and the Magic are wrapped in a funk. Certainly the postseason will determine if Shaquille O'Neal has anything left in the tank and if Williams can hit the big shot. But there's nothing about the Cavaliers right now that suggests they won't be in the mix come May.
As for LeBron's other mission, how many players with his talent have ever answered to someone else? Such is the case with LeBron, mainly because of Kobe, mainly because Kobe has titles and LeBron does not. Of course, all but one of Kobe's titles were assisted by a younger Shaq. Still, ask most players in the NBA, and they will give Kobe the nod. Kobe is more clutch, they'll say, and is so cutthroat that he'll try to dribble through the entire team in the final seconds rather than pass off to a teammate (like LeBron would).
To a far lesser extent is Wade, who is also ahead of LeBron in the championship contest (again, thanks to Shaq). Wade's supporters argue that all things considered, his legendary performance against the Mavericks in the NBA Finals trumps any of LeBron's postseason stretches.
LeBron seems determined to settle all issues and feels this is his best chance. He's never had better teammates than now. The Cavs have never been positioned better than now. And should Cleveland emerge from the East, the Cavaliers could see the Lakers and Kobe. LeBron wouldn't want that perfect opportunity to slip away. He'd have the chance to pull off his double simultaneously -- as his commercials would undoubtedly say -- in front of witnesses.
This season, the Cavs are 4-0 against the Lakers and Heat, Kobe and Wade. This represents a solid beginning for LeBron's master plan.
But as we know, the ending is what makes for a good story.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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