It's LeBron's league now.
After years of paying off the mortgage, he finally holds the title. Every NBA arena is his domain. Sure, the A-listers courtside in Los Angeles will be chanting for Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul. The Oklahoma City fanatics in blue or white T-shirts will shout themselves hoarse for Kevin Durant. The retired numbers hovering over Kevin Garnett will remind the Boston diehards of his place in the Celtics' pantheon. None of that will matter when LeBron James takes the floor. Wherever he is playing, the game will revolve around him.
At 27, James is more than the reigning MVP and the best player on the champion Heat. He has created a style of play that didn't exist—didn't even seem fathomable—until he came along. His fulfillment didn't come easily; his mistakes were punished and his confidence pummeled before he was able to celebrate in June. Good luck to anyone trying to stop James now and prevent Miami from winning a second straight title. Because no one in the league can come close to beating LeBron at his own game.
Before James a few NBA champions had single-handedly changed the way pro basketball was played:
October 29, 2012
• George Mikan, the first prolific big man.
• Bill Russell, the most influential leader of all time, who established defensive teamwork as the path to championships.
• Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who showed future generations that tall men could display the skills of smaller stars.
• Michael Jordan, a shooting guard so dominant that he turned the NBA into a perimeter league.
• Shaquille O'Neal, who renewed the importance of the low post.
There was no answer to any of these stars at their peak—not to Mikan's revolutionary scoring, Russell's shot blocking or the inspired playmaking of Magic and Bird. Once he figured out how to beat the Jordan Rules, Jordan won championships in each of his last six full seasons as a Bull, even though every defender knew where the ball was going at crunch time. And opposing contenders stockpiled 7-footers in a futile effort to overwhelm (and for a while, hack) Shaq, who wore them out on his way to four titles.
The 6'8", 250-pound James has built on all the advancements of his groundbreaking forebears. Russell protected the rim to become the greatest defensive player of his era; James has made his presence felt more expansively. "LeBron may be the first guy who can literally guard every position," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "He can guard the centers, he can guard the fours, the threes, the twos and the ones. Think about everybody he's guarding: He's guarded Kevin [Garnett], and he's guarded Derrick Rose."
The ascension of Magic, Larry and Michael led to rule changes that spaced the floor and created driving lanes. James won a pair of MVP awards in Cleveland by simply and insatiably using those lanes to attack the basket. But James didn't become a champion until he balanced his slashing perimeter style with an array of skills in the paint, which allowed him to create the types of mismatches that Mikan enjoyed. Now that he has learned to score and pass from the low post, enabling him to excel whether he is facing up or has his back to the basket, James has established an unprecedented offensive versatility.
James can set up inside as a power forward or center (think baby Shaq) to take advantage of a league that has, for the most part, grown neglectful of low-post play. Or he can play off the ball as a perimeter scorer who can drive or shoot threes, depending on the strategy of the defense and the needs of his team. Or he can direct his team on the break or in the half-court, √† la Magic. Miami doesn't need to waste timeouts or make substitutions to match up because James, dominating from any spot on the floor, has a sufficiently high basketball IQ to alter the team's look on the fly.
"This is a small forward who weighs five pounds more or less than Karl Malone, and he runs like a point guard," says Rivers. Adds Isiah Thomas, who led the Pistons to two championships in the era of Johnson, Bird and Jordan, "You've seen people change positions the way he does for maybe three or four minutes in a game, but you've never seen anybody do it for an entire season like he does. He's a transformer."
When injuries kept Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and other potential centers out of the London Olympics this summer, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo had James attack opposing big men. "Athleticism, quickness and speed—that's where this game is today," Colangelo said.
Miami affirmed that trend in the off-season by deciding not to invest in clunky 7-footers to man the pivot but rather to entrust the position to the lithe, 6'11" Chris Bosh and further space the floor by signing shooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. "If you were to put Andrew Bynum on the Heat," says an Eastern conference advance scout, "he would actually make that team worse, because he'd plug up the middle and hurt the driving for LeBron and Dwyane Wade."
James's talent for instantly recognizing and attacking weaknesses inspired Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to seek out Oregon football coach Chip Kelly during the 2011 lockout for clues on how to spread opposing defenses. Last season's success has inspired Spoelstra to explore ways to play even faster through Wade, Bosh and Allen.
But the most effective accelerant of all is LeBron—especially now that he's playing with the confidence of a champion. "Think about what I'm saying here," says Thomas. "On the planet Earth there is nobody better than you, and that gives you the confidence to walk around and say, I'm bigger than you, I'm better than you, and the only thing you can hope for is that I'm having a bad night."
In that long summer after his humbling loss to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, James invited Thomas to spend a few days at his home in Akron. "It was about him getting clarity and confirmation that the path that he was pursuing was the correct way," says Thomas. One year later the rest of the league is hoping to find a way to block that path. "The champion who has changed the way the game is played always has a year or two head start on the rest of the league," Thomas says. "And by the time other [teams] catch up with changes and trades, that champion has fine-tuned and gotten even better at what he does."
While James is at his peak, his rivals are endangered by their age or their youth. Bryant and Steve Nash of the Lakers, Garnett and Paul Pierce of the Celtics, and too many Knicks to count have all sustained heavy mileage as they approach the ends of their careers. And the Thunder's Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are 24 or younger and haven't battled through the adversity that James has.
"I've long said that when [James] wins one, it's going to be hard to stop him," says Rivers. "It can be done, but it's harder now because he's been through it. LeBron is almost the exact opposite of Tiger [Woods]. Tiger was so dominant that he'd never seen negative, and now that he's seen negative, it's freaking him out a little bit. Well, LeBron had never seen positive—or team positive. Now that he's seen that, it may freak him out in a good way."
That's why the Heat will beat the Lakers and repeat as NBA champions. Just as teams failed to stop Russell and Jordan and Shaq in their primes, so will Los Angeles—and every other challenger—be overwhelmed in the end by LeBron. History is on his side, even as he continues to shape how the game will be played.
For complete coverage of the 2012--13 season—including extended Enemy Lines and the Point Forward blog, featuring insightful analysis of all things NBA—go to SI.com/mag
*SI's regular-season ranking for each conference