LeBron James is the most overanalyzed athlete in America. Part of that, of course, is his own doing: His on-court greatness demands evaluation. Part of it is timing: Unlike Bill Russell, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, James plays in a digital age, a never-ending 24/7, multi-platform loop of analysis. He is a constant source of content for the nation’s most powerful sports brand because, as ESPN’s research analysts will tell you, major storylines and narrow-casting on popular subjects brings a significant uptick in ratings. No U.S. athlete is more popular than James right now and with that spotlight comes commentary, from the thoughtful to the Baylessian.
I’ve been thinking for some time about how James gets covered and specifically how he’s been covered during this remarkable NBA Finals. With James's Cavaliers up 2-1 on the Golden State Warriors ahead of Thursday night's Game 4, I wanted to panel some respected NBA voices to get a sense of what they thought on the coverage of James.
• J.A. Adande, national NBA writer and reporter, ESPN and ESPN Radio
• David Aldridge, reporter, Turner Sports, NBA.com
• Ken Berger, NBA columnist, CBSSports.com
• Ric Bucher, national NBA columnist and host, Bleacher Report and Bleacher Report Radio
• Frank Isola, NBA reporter and columnist, New York Daily News, SiriusXM NBA Radio and ESPN Around the Horn panelist
• Michael Lee, NBA and Wizards reporter, Washington Post
• Jeff Zillgitt, NBA columnist, USA Today
How has LeBron James been covered during the postseason—and has the coverage been fair in your opinion?
J.A. Adande, ESPN:
The coverage of LeBron James this postseason has been normal—which is extraordinary in itself, considering where it used to be. The media has moved past making every game a referendum about his clutchness. His great performances can be acknowledged, his shortcomings can be noted, all in appropriate context. In the past, his missed shot at the end of regulation in Game 1 would have brought unrelenting commentary about his lack of fortitude in crunch time. In 2015 it was merely the glitch amid a program that spat out a stat line of 44-8-6. That's what winning two championship rings will do, and why I'm glad he has them in the vault. Now we can move past "Can he?" and on to "How great is he?" That's a more enjoyable discussion.
What surprises me is how much lingering animosity toward LeBron there is out there on social media. Simply typing in his stats and hitting send can prompt a flurry of complaints that you're riding LeBron's jock. I don't get it. He's playing basketball at as high a level as you'll see and he hasn't been in trouble with the law or stirred any controversies. That doesn't mean people have to like him, but they should be able to acknowledge this incredible performance ... or at least not waste time criticizing those who do.
David Aldridge, Turner Sports:
In a macro sense, I don't think the coverage is all that different from previous years. The sheer tonnage is about the same. But there's no question in my mind that LBJ is getting more positive coverage this season in the playoffs than in previous seasons. The return to Cleveland has tilted the board, in my humble opinion, pretty strongly in his direction (though things may have been different if the Cavs had lost to the Bulls). I do think everything is viewed through the prism of his return and what a title would mean for the city. And winning without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love obviously helps him in that regard.
Ken Berger, CBS Sports:
I can only really speak for myself, but I have found LeBron to be fully engaging and comfortable with his place on the NBA coverage map—more so than I ever remember him before. And what's not to be comfortable with? I focus more on my work than how others are treating him, but from what I can tell, his performance in the Finals is being treated fairly and has been recognized for what it is—one of the very best Finals performances ever, considering all the variables (the talent around him, the injuries, the necessity for him to play out of character and be more of a scorer than he's truly comfortable being.)
The idea of criticizing him for shooting a step-back jumper at the end of Game 1—if anyone truly did so credibly—is silly to me. The analysis of those end-of-game situations for LeBron is always perplexing. If he passes, he's wrong; and if he shoots and misses, he's wrong. Goes with the territory, though. If the Cavs win the series, it will be fascinating to see how James's accomplishment is framed. I have no doubt it will be framed in most circles as more impressive than anything Michael Jordan ever did. While I agree that the talent level around LeBron is considerably less than any of the supporting casts that Jordan won a championship with, in some ways the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction in an overly positive way for LeBron. His all-around production through the first three games of the series has, indeed, been otherworldly. But whatever the circumstances, he is barely shooting 40%. In the '92 Finals against Portland, Jordan averaged 35.8 points, 6.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals and shot 53% in 42 minutes per game. In '93 against the Suns, he averaged 41.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals and shot 51% in 46 minutes per game. Of course, in both cases his wingman was Scottie Pippen, not Matthew Dellavedova.
It's almost impossible to compare eras that way, and LeBron and Michael are fundamentally different players. But I do sense that we have arrived at a place where James's accomplishments are being compared to Jordan's in a constructive, realistic way, which is progress. Will that be the case if the Cavs lose the series? We shall see.
Ric Bucher, Bleacher Report:
Answer to the first part: He's been covered as I would expect the most polarizing athlete in sports today would be covered. The challenge in answering the second part is that it's hard to extract this postseason from all that LeBron has done and said and the coverage of those deeds and remarks previously. He's long been one of the best players, if not the best, and yet he has a history of doing and saying things that are hard to juxtapose with being one of the all-time greats and good guy that he otherwise appears to be. The easy, and perhaps most popular, answer is, no, it's not fair. The relentless measuring of where he stands in the hierarchy of legends, the comparisons specifically to Michael Jordan, the hyper-analysis of everything he does or says—it's bone-numbing to absorb from the periphery, so I can only imagine what it's like to be at the center of it. Some of that is simply the age in which we live—everybody has a megaphone and the itch to respond to every obnoxious bellow is hard to resist. We're caught between ignoring the inane and being fearful our silence might convey tacit approval.
All that said, LeBron has brought a healthy amount of it on himself. We don't have to go back to The Decision or anything that transpired during the 2011 Finals; you can't pledge allegiance to your coach, a first-year coach already under siege, and volunteer that you changed his play call to win the game. You don't call out a teammate on social media, deny that's what you did, and then try to take credit for motivating said teammate. But if we're talking strictly the Finals, this is the best LeBron I've ever seen—as player, as a leader and, perhaps, most noticeably, as a spokesman. The only misstep I can think of is pointing out he's missing two All-Stars. One, he doesn't need to underscore that. We're well aware and happy to point that out for him. Two, it's not as if Kyrie, Love and LeBron had a track record of success that makes it a foregone conclusion they would be infinitely better with those two, anymore than assuming Kobe, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash would've been earth-shattering had they been healthy and together. Outside of that, there hasn't been any false bravado or feigning indifference to criticism or shirking of the responsibilities that come with all his talent and notoriety. It goes to show how screwed up the collective media is in defining greatness that LeBron is two wins away from one of the more improbable championship runs in NBA history and some are questioning how well he's playing because of his shooting percentage—the same faction, it would seem, that anointed him as better than Jordan despite falling short with more talent than he has now. If you're an athlete caught in that whipsaw, what are the chances you or your accomplishments will ever be placed in the proper context?
Frank Isola, New York Daily News:
It's all fair from the standpoint that he's an elite athlete, he's the biggest name in the NBA and people have strong opinions about him. Now, those who go overboard to criticize him are obviously doing it to be contrarian. The guy is a brilliant player who could probably get to a Finals if you put him on 25 of the 30 NBA rosters. (Sadly, not even LeBron can win with the Knicks. If fact, they'd trade him for two future second round picks.) Is it fair to criticize him for his shot selection at the end of regulation in Game 1? Absolutely. The same is true of some of the nutty things he says, including his tendency, especially early in the playoffs, to throw David Blatt under the bus. But specific criticism of him doesn't have to be a referendum on how you feel about the player overall. He holds himself to a high standard and there is nothing wrong with doing the same. Michael Jordan didn't have to play in the social media age and there is no telling how Jordan, who would hold a grudge, would have handled the steady stream of 24/7 analysis and criticism. I think LeBron, as a 30 year old husband and father, deals with it rather well. He's the best player to write about and to talk about on radio and TV. Good or bad, folks can't get enough of him.
Michael Lee, Washington Post:
The only real gripe that I have with coverage of LeBron James is that we've never been able to appreciate the current moment with him. Everything has to be ranked in historical context. Every accomplishment has to be used as an opportunity to diminish or elevate his reign on this era by comparing him to Michael Jordan, the player generally accepted as the best ever. I remember having a conversation with Kobe Bryant a few years ago where he asked people to stop measuring current players against the unfair Jordan standard. James is the best player in the game. He is on the verge of doing the unimaginable with an undermanned roster. It is the definition of greatness. But we don't need to compare it to Jordan to make it better or worse. It's great. And I wish we could chill on his place in history until his playing career is closer to being history. On the other side, there also seems to be a rush to proclaim every 40-point game or game-winning shot as the best we've ever seen. So what if it is or isn't? Was it compelling? Were you entertained? Can anybody else do it better right now? Those are the questions I try to ask myself when I'm watching James. All the best, worst, greatest ever talk makes me cringe sometimes. Enjoy the moment. This moment.
Jeff Zillgitt, USA Today:
He’s the greatest basketball player in the world, the greatest of his generation and possibly the greatest since Michael Jordan. With that comes intense scrutiny of his game. And not only his game but what he says or doesn’t say. Everything he does on the court and says off it is dissected for meaning. He has come to understand that, and reporters/columnists have done a nice job breaking that down without resorting to over-the-top hyperbole. This postseason, the story of LeBron James has been chronicled appropriately—with a discerning eye on his accomplishments game by game and with a critical eye when he doesn’t perform as expected, which hasn’t happened often.
Take that Chicago game when he made the winning shot at the buzzer. James acknowledged he didn’t want to run the play David Blatt drew up during the timeout. It turned into a story about James overruling Blatt, when it doesn’t exactly work like that. Coaches and players, especially stars, have those discussions all the time about plays, but because it’s LeBron James, it turns into drama: Blatt vs. James. And James at first didn’t want to volunteer all the information about that play, but reporters in the locker room got details of how that play unfolded and had specific questions for James about the play Blatt originally called. But again, James, Blatt and the Cavs as an organization understand why it’s a big deal to reporters and those who want to read the stories.
This coverage of him this postseason has been more than fair and rightfully so. For the most part and especially through three games of the Finals, he has been fantastic and the coverage reflects that from the national and local reporters. He’s not shooting the ball particularly well, but he understands efficiency shouldn’t be the focus with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love out with injuries, and reporters have recognized that. Instead of killing him for his shooting percentage and high-volume shooting, he has been praised for ability to rebound, pass and score and do what’s necessary for his team to win even if it’s a bit ugly. It can be easy to nitpick his game, and sometimes he invites criticism, but I haven’t seen a lot of nonsense written about him. There seems to be less criticism of him this postseason than there has been in previous postseasons with the Miami Heat.