Heat’s LeBron James accepting of new villain role

In some respects, this remarkable transition of LeBron James from basketball deity to reprobate is the merging of pro basketball with pro wrestling, as James, like no one before him, has become some sort of personification of sporting evil, if not entire

No, LeBron James is not Michael Jordan. And he’s not Magic Johnson, two players to whom he has been compared. He's also not Scottie Pippen, as that was viewed as some sort of slander by the Cavs fans when James and his Miami Heat—no, not Dwyane Wade’s Heat—returned to Cleveland last month.

James and the Heat will be in the United Center for the first time this season Saturday, though James still remains uncertain with an ankle sprain after missing the Heat’s Thursday loss in Denver.

James is generally expected to play Saturday, as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after Thursday’s loss, “I think we'll respond to these two games. The competitive nature will come out. It'll be a big-game feel in Chicago."

But the LeBron who shows up—after likely his usual clubbing in one of his favorite cities to visit and not live—isn’t the widely beloved and popular figure we saw for seven years valiantly trying to bring a championship to his weary home town and becoming one of sport’s most popular figures.

Rather, he’s Hulk Hogan.

In some respects, this remarkable transition of James from basketball deity to reprobate is the merging of pro basketball with pro wrestling, as James, like no one before him, has become some sort of personification of sporting evil, if not entirely clear why this all occurred.

We know it’s real now, and we know James has decided to accept the role.

Watch him: He spends a lot of time in games these days sneering at teammates, often Mario Chalmers for some indiscretion or another. Miami’s win in Portland Sunday on this road trip was instructive. As the game ended with a terrific Miami comeback win led by James’ thrilling finish, James ran away from his sideline to the other end of his court, extending his arms to mock the huge crowd, essentially goading them into booing him even more.

I know I’ve never seen any NBA star do anything like that, certainly not on the regular basis you see James pull these stunts now. Yes, Michael Jordan did thrust an angry fist at the fans in Cleveland when he hit that winning shot in 1989—yes, Cleveland again—but that was a momentary reflex.

This stuff with James is clearly now planned. James spoke about it some after that game.

“I've kind of accepted this kind of villain role that everyone has placed on me,” James said. “I'm OK with it.”

Really, more than that, since he has embraced being the bad guy and continues to try to provoke even more enmity like those wrestling villains. Though I draw the line if James brings a folding chair onto the court.

In some respects, it does diminish the game for the cartoonish element it brings to basketball, though I am living a bit too much in the past with that notion. The game has changed. It is more theatric than ever with posing after dunks, the pregame routines dreamed up by players that rival some Hollywood choreography. You half expect a dance scene from Chicago. And there’s the three ring circus atmosphere to the game presentations, though the NBA never has been more popular, so no one is complaining.

But this transformation by James is like nothing we’ve ever witnessed before, and we now really are witnesses to something unique.

What James was doing in Cleveland was just trying to be the next great player to come along. Now he’s almost some sort of caricature of the wedding of sports figure and entertainment phenomenon, the sort popularized by professional wrestling when Hulkamania was more popular than the NBA.

I certainly hope not, though.

I’m fairly sure James had none of this planned, unlike the fictional world of pro wrestling.

But James seems more pawn these days, mostly swept away in events he has no idea how to contend with yet control.

He walked innocently into that “Decision” TV show which started all this. And since then with vague suggestions of he being a victim of racism, that the league should contract teams and last week’s mean spirited tweet he later denied sending that rubbed in the Cavs’ huge loss to the Lakers, it just seems every puddle James steps into really is a well and he’s wet up to his hips and he’s as surprised as anyone.

I’m fairly sure James never wanted any of this. Not that he was ever a great guy with the Cavs as he pretty much forced the organization to run on his personal whims. He was more the kid who’d never been told no because of his other worldly basketball talent. He needed some discipline the Cavs were afraid to administer for fear he’d leave.

Yes, that’s where Dan Gilbert comes in.

James began to get that structure in Miami, which fueled the anonymous stories about Spoelstra being in trouble because James was unhappy. But while Pat Riley treats his players as well as any in the NBA, Miami also demands discipline, and James learned that quickly.

But too much had happened in the public arena, and James seemed too far downstream to reclaim the smooth waters of his prior persona.

So he accepted this one. He’s not an evil person as far as anyone can tell. Just a simple one, not especially smart, sunken in malaprops over proper behavior, probably more a kid as he does love those huge birthday cakes like a 10-year-old, and the internet was ablaze last week with pictures of James’ latest fudge monument to himself.

That all said, the guy is playing great and is a candidate, despite joining with Wade and Chris Bosh, to win the MVP award again. He is the best player in the NBA.

And, let’s not forget, one the Bulls desperately wanted. And thought they might have gotten. The Bulls got all the right signals from James’ so-called people last summer. The media view was Chicago with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah was the perfect venue for James. The Bulls could even bring in Wade to join him, as they’d gotten far enough under the salary cap with the trade of Kirk Hinrich. James was fairly indifferent when he met with the Knicks, for example, but his sessions with the Bulls last summer were his longest and he later asked to extend them. Wade, as well, came back for an extra meeting. It seemed, for at least few days, like they were destined to be in Chicago.

Now it’s just another place to be disliked. And James does as well as anyone with that.

He easily is the best road player in the NBA.

When James said he’s embraced he villain’s role thrust on him, he wasn’t just talking.

He is averaging 25.4 per game on the season, a few points below his career average given he is splitting responsibility with Wade, whom we thought would be the dominant figure because Wade won in Miami. Not so. James is so much better a player, it is obvious. And without James and that weak supporting cast due to going into free agency, playing with Wade but without James, the Heat were blown out in Denver, with Wade just another guy.

James is averaging seven rebounds and 7.2 assists. There are only five players in the league averaging at least 25 points. James’ combined rebound/assist totals far exceed any of them.

More impressively, though, is James on the road, where everyone knows it’s more difficult to maintain your consistency. Especially when everyone is rooting for you to lose. They don’t boo Kobe on the road anymore, and certainly not the other scoring leaders like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Amar’s Stoudemire. And who even knows who Monta Ellis is?

James exceeds most of his averages on the road, especially the most important ones.

He is averaging 27.8 points on the road and 7.5 rebounds with 6.8 assists, the latter slightly below his season average. But, most impressively, James is shooting 50.6 percent on the road (45 percent at home) and a remarkable 42.6 percent on threes on the road.

Here’s a guy not known as a shooter, and everyone knows it’s more difficult on the road. And his three point shooting percentage on the road would place him among the league leaders.

Plus, before losing to the Clippers on this trip, the Heat had won 21 of 22 games and 13 straight on the road to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference and basically get in a battle with Boston for the best record.

They are who they said they would be.

No, not 70-game winners, but halfway through the season at 30-11, a 60-win pace, and that after a 9-8 start that’s not likely to be repeated unless there are injuries.

And who the heck even knows how to play James. Against the Trail Blazers, he played some center making it all five positions he’s played this season. And who exactly is going to guard him if the Heat go small, as they often do now, with James at center?

The Heat rank as the league’s best defensive team. They are first in opponent’s field goal percentage and first in opponent’s three point percentage.

So go ahead and boo.

This is LeBron’s new world order.

Welcome Saturday to Winter Slam.


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