With title in tow, new-look James forming foundation of U.S. roster
LAS VEGAS -- The apparent weakness of the U.S. men is going to be their absence of size up front, and that's where LeBron James comes in. Now that he has won an NBA championship, James has proved that he can turn weaknesses into strengths.
So he'll find himself playing center and power forward, and it won't be for the first time. The Miami Heat have been a short team in the pivot since James arrived in 2010, and instead of importing size, they asked James to play bigger. The needs of the team forced James to improve his post-up game and become more of a traditional attacker in the paint, and in hindsight it looks as if the Heat maintained a hole around the basket in hope that James would learn to fill it. When he did fill that enormous need for the Heat, he turned out to be far better than any traditional center they might have acquired.
The same kind of flexibility now defines the 2012 U.S. Olympic team three weeks before its opening game in London on July 29 against France. Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Andrew Bynum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Lamar Odom are all missing, and yet this team isn't defined by that weakness. The fact that Tyson Chandler is the only true center on the roster instead creates opportunities for James, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant to play big-man roles and create problems for the traditional big men trying to stop them.
"I'm talking about the hybrids,'' said Chandler of those versatile American forwards. "They can guard anybody in the league -- we saw LeBron do that throughout the playoffs and into the Finals. But fours can't guard him, and fours can't guard Carmelo. So it makes it such a tough matchup.''
The identity of James continues to change. He was the savior in Cleveland who eventually developed the reputation for not being able to carry the team in crunch time. There were two years as the pariah in Miami, but now the championship he won last month has changed the perspective around him entirely. The glass half-empty is now more than half-full. Now his weaknesses are negligible, and his strengths form the foundation for what may be the final U.S. Olympic team of the "Dream Team'' era.
This team is seeking to win with versatility and athleticism and the tireless creation of mismatches. This team is the embodiment of James himself.
"We create havoc on the floor,'' said Kobe Bryant of the mantra for the next five weeks. "We create turnovers and shoot passing lanes, and quick outlets running the floor. Our speed, our ability to come at them in waves, eventually wears teams down. It's like Lance (Armstrong) when he's winning the Tour de France -- he makes one push and then all of a sudden makes another push, makes another push, and next thing you know he's way ahead of the field.''
It's the kind of team game that James has always wanted to play for. He left Cleveland in pursuit of better talent, and now the teammates around him will be the best in the world. No one is going to criticize him for passing up a contested shot in order to rotate the ball to Bryant or Durant or Anthony or Chris Paul or Deron Williams.
"It continues to improve,'' he said with a laugh of his improving roster of choices. "It's great to have so many options where you feel like you just make a play if it's there for you. If it's not, you get off of it. Get off the ball, make plays for other guys -- you have so many guys that have firepower on this team that it makes it easy.''
Two summers ago he was talking about how Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would make the game easy for him. He was wrong then, because there was nothing easy about it, mainly because he had yet to prove he was capable of leading them to a championship. Now everyone is counting on James to build upon the proof he established less than three weeks ago while closing out Game 5 against the Thunder.
"He's going to be a different player,'' said Chandler of the impact the championship will have on James. Chandler should know because he became a champion with Dallas in 2011 at the expense of James and Miami. "LeBron was already an incredible player, and if not the best, top two -- there's only one other guy that can challenge that, and he's on this team.''
Chandler was referring to Bryant, of course.
"So his whole mentality is going to be different, because the confidence of winning an NBA championship changes a player,'' said Chandler. "Confidence -- knowing you're a champion, you're the best. You walk around with that swagger, and he deserves it. He worked very hard and now he can call himself a champ.''
With respect to the role of leadership that he has worked so hard to earn, James now is not going to admit to fatigue so quickly after his lifelong run to the NBA championship. He talks instead about wanting to guard the opponent's best player in the Olympics, regardless of position. He talks about sharing advice and criticism openly with teammates. "I'm going to give everybody tips and I hope that they do the same to me,'' he said. "We want to try to have the edge.''
Above all else, he is not going to relax. The breakthrough doesn't change everything, as warned by Bryant.
"One championship doesn't get it, you know what I'm saying?'' Bryant said. "So for me, when we won one, it was a little different because it was, like you know, Michael (Jordan) had six, Magic (Johnson) had five. So me and Shaq (O'Neal) both were like, man, we got to get some more. One ain't going to cut it.''
Surely James has been thinking the same way.
"Yeah, I mean, since the last time we were here I got two,'' said Bryant, extending the vowel the way Jordan extended his fingertips after making his last championship shot in Utah. He let the "two'' hang out there without rushing onto the next sentence. "Dirk got one. He (James) got one.''
Has Bryant reminded James of the championship score?
"Not yet,'' he said. "I will. I will.''
Because that's what teammates are for. It's always about the edge.