Yesterday was another morning after for LeBron James.
The morning after James played the entire second half, defended every position on the floor except center and collected 28 points, nine rebounds, six steals and five assists, doing all he could to pick up the slack for missing All-Star teammate Chris Bosh and struggling superstar teammate Dwyane Wade, who missed 14 shots, including a potential go-ahead layup in the final minute.
It was also the morning after James missed five free throws, including three that could have tied the game down the stretch; bricked four 3-pointers; and attempted one shot in the final 3 1/2 minutes, a driving layup that was blocked by Paul George.
The moaning and mourning over another big loss by the Miami Heat was dropped squarely on the shoulders of James by countless critics who often overlook that when you do a lot of heavy lifting, you’re going to get tired.
What does it mean? In the grand scheme of things, nothing. It’s Game 2 of a second-round series. One game.
Since joining Wade and Bosh with the Heat two summers ago, James has established his own, grander referendum: If he wants to quiet the critics, he’s going to have to win a title. And that is still very much within reach this season, one game notwithstanding.
“The game is not lost or won with two free throws,” James said afterward. “But I definitely want to come through for my teammates. So I’ll get an opportunity again. I know I’ll be at the line again in that situation.”
And the critics will be watching again, waiting for James to fail so they can pile on the game’s best player and remind everyone that he still has no championship rings.
Fair or not, that is what has to be said.
A season that ranks among the best in NBA history? Meaningless.
Three MVPs in four years? Nobody cares.
Leading two different teams to the Finals? Win one, already.
In a historical sense, the player to whom James is most often compared is Michael Jordan. Both are wing players who spent the early portion of their careers dominating statistically and psychologically at both ends of the floor. Both captivated fans with their highlight-reel style of play that transformed them into corporate entities. Both lifted otherwise ordinary teams to unexpected heights that stopped short of the pinnacle.
But Jordan finally broke through and won a championship in his seventh year, when he was 28. Now in his ninth season, James, 27, is still in search of a title. And while climbing the mountain, Jordan was universally adored. He never experienced the vitriol that has been thrown at James over the last couple of years.
Yes, James certainly brought some of that upon himself. Predicting multiple championships will do that to you, especially in the age of instant media. And his disappearing acts in the last two postseasons – the first in Cleveland, the second in Miami – have undone all of his previous playoff work, which is considerable.
In those respects, James is much less like Jordan and much more like Wilt Chamberlain.
Like James, Chamberlain entered the NBA to much fanfare, having already been on the covers of magazines such as Time, Life and Newsweek before turning 21. James had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, so the hype machine already was well-oiled.
Like James, Chamberlain was an imposing specimen at his position. At 7-1, he was much bigger and stronger than anyone else. That provided his detractors with the argument that he should be as good as he was.
Like James, Chamberlain had extraordinary physical gifts that others at his position simply did not have. He was a high school track star specializing in sprints and high jumps, attributes that often made him seem superhuman when compared to other players.
Like James, Chamberlain needed virtually no time adapt to the NBA. His dominance and status among the heirarchy of players was immediate. Like James, he was the Rookie of the Year. (Unlike James, he also was MVP.)
Like James, Chamberlain’s individual stats rank among the best of all time. As George Gervin once said, “Wilt is the record book.”While James’ basic numbers are not anywhere near as transcendent, he has three of the top 10 single-season PER scores, perhaps the best stat for comparing players across eras. This season, he finished at 30.74 – which ranks 10th all-time – after threatening Chamberlain’s all-time mark of 31.84.
Like James, Chamberlain singlehandedly lifted an ordinary team into the NBA Finals in his fifth season, only to lose to a more battle-tested club. In 1963-64, the San Francisco Warriors reached the championship round but lost to Boston, much like Cleveland did in losing to San Antonio in the 2006-07 campaign.
Like James, Chamberlain won three MVPs in the prime of his career, claiming three in a row from 1966-68, his seventh, eighth and ninth NBA seasons. James has won three in four years, in his sixth, eighth and ninth seasons.
Like James, Chamberlain changed teams after being unable to win a title. He was traded from San Francisco to Philadelphia in a deal that included a huge sum of money at the time and was one of the most lopsided in NBA history. Remember, James actually was traded to Miami for a huge cap slot and four draft picks, another one-sided swap.
Like James, Chamberlain botched a golden opportunity to use the media to change public perception about him. In 1965, he gave an interview to Sports Illustrated called “My Life In A Bush League” that made him seem self-important and only hurt his image. James encountered the same reaction in the aftermath of “The Decision,” a self-serving PR exercise.
Like James, Chamberlain received harsh criticism for disappearing in the postseason. Most prominent were Game 7 of the 1968 East Division finals vs. Boston, in which he did not shoot in the second half of a 100-96 home loss, and Game 7 of the 1969 Finals vs. Boston, in which he sat out the last six minutes with a knee injury of debatable degree.
And like James, Chamberlain was cast as a villain and never received the unbridled adulation afforded to lesser contemporaries such as Jerry West and Willis Reed. As his coach Alex Hannum once said, “Nobody likes Goliath.” In one of his commercials, James acknowledges his role as a villain and even asks if he should embrace it.
This comparison won’t convert any of the haters. Only James has the ability to do that.
And it wasn’t meant to declare James the equal of Chamberlain, who simply has no equal in the game’s lore.
It was meant to draw a parallel between two players whose reputations – fair or not – have obscured our ability to truly appreciate their obvious greatness.
After all, isn’t that the reason why we watch?
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter.