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LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the Burden of Inflated Expecations

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LeBron James was the "Chosen One".  We made him as such by buying into the hype and from his rookie season drawing comparisons in every which way to Michael Jordan.  To be fair LeBron himself played to his crowd creating reason for such comparison from choosing to play with the famous 23, to getting a Chosen One tattoo across his back and this summer’s free agency which culminated with "The Decision", a one hour special which seemed as if its sole purpose was to insult all of Cleveland. 

It was always a battle to live up to expectations that he was ultimately always going to lose.  The Jordan myth that he won championships by himself has been protected for far too long by media types and fans who have placed him on such a lofty pedestal in NBA and sports history that anybody dealing with constant comparisons is doomed to fail.

To understand James’ decision it is necessary to examine the growing pressure from media, fans and bloggers alike to win a championship after leading the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007.  From that point on, anything less than a championship was almost always viewed as a failure.

From 2008-2010 LeBron James was the best player in the league by a significant margin.  During that time he elevated his scoring ability, efficiency, rebounding and passing while also becoming one of the best defensive players in the game.  His curse was that he did not have a player that he could lean on at times when he was having an off game. 

One bad game from James was a sure Cavaliers loss come playoff time.  We saw this against the Magic in 2009 where despite averaging 38.5 points, 8.0 assists and 8.3 rebounds per game the Cavs fell in 6 games.  A truly historic and legendary performance from James went unnoticed and in some corners was criticized by fools like Skip Bayless who claimed this proved James’ inability to win big games for his team and that he could in no way measure up with Jordan.

The Cavaliers followed that up this season by again finishing with the best record in the East only to fall to the Celtics in the second round.  This season’s loss can in many ways be blamed on James’ indifference in Game 5 and the final quarter of Game 6 in which it seemed that LeBron had quit.

As we now know James will be "taking his talents to South Beach" to play for the Miami Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  The move itself was one of the most unsavory sports spectacles in recent memory. 

It also signaled to fans, including myself, that James did not want the pressure of bringing a championship to Cleveland by his lonesome, wait for Donnie Walsh to build a complete roster around him and Amar’e Stoudemire in New York or play in Jordan’s shadow in Chicago chasing his six rings. Less than "The Decision" it could have been more aptly named "Death of a Franchise Player".

Say what you want about James’ extremely poor form in not responding to Dan Gilbert’s calls or texts and the extremely narcissistic nature of the special, but for me his choice told me that he was done dealing with the Jordan comparison that had dogged him from his days at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s.

At some point the comparisons became too linear between James and his idol that success became impossible.  Jordan had Pippen for all six titles and also had the services of one of the best rebounders and defensive power forwards in league history in Dennis Rodman.  James has never had the fortune of playing with another perennial All-Star or Hall of Famer in their primes.  In other words he’d never had another player he could depend upon to pick up the slack when he didn’t have it.

We never understood that though.  When he scored 25 straight against the Pistons and lead the Cavaliers to the Finals it signaled the end of the period in James’ career where we would be satisfied with anything less than rings.  He had spoilt us by becoming too good, too fast and our expectations began to exceed reality.

When the Cavs lost to the eventual champion Boston Celtics the next year in Game despite 46 points from James the questioning started to arise.  When Cleveland fell to Orlando in 2009 we heard about his inability to lift his team’s level of play despite carrying them for 6 games against an athletically superior opponent.  In those losses and previous ones we always saw LeBron fight until the end and leave it all on the court. 

At some point this season though, carrying his team without any significant help from another star (at least partially James’ fault) and the non-stop pressure from the media to deliver titles became too much.  In short James quit.

He no longer wanted to have that burden of delivering a title to Cleveland, New York, Chicago or anywhere else.  He no longer wanted to be viewed as a messiah or a savior that could bring a title to a team by himself. 

As a result he picked the perfect free agent destination for him in Miami where he could pair up with Wade, one of the top-4 players in the NBA and Bosh, one of the most skilled big men in the league.  He’ll will championships, perhaps many, but in the eyes of most he’ll never attain the status of players like Jordan, Bird or Magic.

LeBron shares a hand in this by encouraging such hype and expectation, but we also deserve some of the blame for obliging. 

Winning championships is what every player plays the game for, but no one player can win a title by himself.  Jordan had Pippen, Bird had Parrish and McHale and Magic had Kareem and Worthy.  Kobe Bryant, the player LeBron has been most compared to over the past 2-3 years had the luxury of playing alongside Shaq at his prime and currently has Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest to lean on. 

Championships are won by a team and when it came to LeBron James we all forgot that amidst the comparisons to His Airness.

Now in the wake of LeBron’s defection to Miami and his subsequent drop from the the league’s pedestal the search for the next league favorite has begun. 

Enter Kevin Durant. 

Up until now everything has been gravy for Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.  In his rookie season, nothing was expected of a team in a full fledged youth movement and in his second year, the Durant and the Thunder showed improvement as a team on the rise.

This past season though OKC exceeded everybody's expectations by winning 50 games and fighting hard against the Lakers before falling in 6 games to the eventual champions.  Durant also exploded onto the season becoming the league's leading scorer and the youngest in the history of the league, before being named All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career.  In all a great year for Durant and the Thunder and one that certainly raised expectations.

While the Thunder will be expected to continue their rise in the Western Conference the burden of those expectations will in large part be placed upon Kevin Durant.  He will be held responsible for the team's successes and failures and if they fall short of expectations the blame will fall on Durant, fair or not.

As fans it is easy to get caught up in expectations, but it is important that such expectations are built on a solid foundation grounded in reality.  The expectations surrounding James to not only win championships, but live up to Jordan’s accomplishments were unrealistic considering the magnitude of MJ’s achievements and their respective supporting casts.   James’ move to Miami however makes those comparisons impossible due to the caliber of players he now has next to him in Wade and Bosh that almost has no comparison in the modern NBA. 

However in OKC Durant may be on the verge of having such comparisons thrust upon him.  Not only has he developed into a dynamic player on both ends of the floor, but he has the comfort of knowing that in Russell Westbrook he has a player that can alleviate the pressure on him any given night.  With the continued improvement of players like Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Eric Maynor the Thunder look to be developing a team that could contend for years to come. 

Let’s allow it to happen though.  Let’s let Durant blossom into the once in a generation type of scorer that we already think he should be.  Let’s let Westbrook become one of the league’s elite point guards which we believe he is after a great series against the Lakers.  Let’s not confuse flashes of brilliance from Ibaka, Harden, Sefolosha and Maynor as a sign that they are ready to consistently deliver on the game’s biggest stages.

None of these players are finished products and none of them deserve to have championship expectations thrust upon them forget the pressure of delivering a title in order to validate Durant as a player.  Making the second round next year in a stacked Western Conference should be considered an accomplishment for a team who’s franchise player will turn 22 a month before the season begins. 

Durant has a chance to enter the pantheon of all-time greats among the ranks of the league’s all-time best.  However that will come at the end of his career when we evaluate it as a whole, not just on championships or scoring titles.  A great player is great regardless of those things.

If Jordan hadn’t stopped playing ball for two seasons would it make Olajuwon or Drexler any less of a player for not winning a ring?  Would Magic not be as great if had only won 2 rings instead of 5 with the Lakers if he didn’t have the fortune of playing with Kareem?  Does it devalue Kobe’s incredible consistency and scoring prowess if he never played alongside dominant big men?  No.

Franchise players are a large part of building a championship squad, but finding pieces to fit alongside them is also a necessary part of the process.  Teams win championships based on the contributions of everybody on the roster.  Some players contribute more to the cause than the others, but without each little contribution along the way a championship is not possible.

Somewhere after Jordan retired and in our desperation to find his replacement that’s been forgotten. 

LeBron James has been narcissistic and conceited.  He’s been unprofessional and consumed with marketing his brand (very poorly this summer I might add).  Hell he screwed a sports franchise and a city that gave themselves to him unconditionally, championships or not and he threw it away for the inevitability of a title in Miami

Why?  Because the shadow of Jordan has grown too big for any individual to live up to.  He couldn’t handle the pressure of delivering a title on demand and when it became apparent that winning titles was the only way he could quiet his critics and doubters, he went to a team where winning multiple championships is destined to happen sooner rather than later.

Cleveland was robbed of its savior because of the national pressure and will now feel the economic affects of losing a player who’s departure is expected to drop the franchise value of the Cavaliers by over $100 million.

Now Durant will become the league’s newest young star.  The next one who will be expected to be the face of not just the Thunder, but the league and who we will not just expect, but demand he delivers multiple titles.  Regardless of the situation around him expectations will be inflated because Durant is so good right now he can exceed those expectations and cover the flaws of his supporting cast to a large extent and that is the danger.

While Cleveland looks to recover from James’ devastating departure it’s important that as a whole we do not repeat our mistakes, because as Edmund Burke said, "Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it." 

Remember that if Durant’s Thunder make an extended playoff run, longer than expected.  At 22 Durant has his entire playing career in front of him and by all accounts is a level-headed kid that is about to enter the center of the NBA consciousness.  Let’s hope the unrealistic burden of accomplishing a career’s worth of achievements all in the next 2-3 season isn’t placed on him. 

LeBron encouraged it and when we obliged began to slowly wilt under the pressure until he couldn’t take it anymore.  Let’s not repeat that mistake again.