By John Schmeelk
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Before we start, everyone needs to slow their roll. LeBron James had a bad series but he is still a great player.
If there were to be an NBA draft tomorrow, he would be a top three pick. Miami is a good team, just two wins shy of a championship. The signing of their big three was not a disaster, and will still likely lead to a title for the Heat down the road. Their supporting cast will only get better.
With all that said, it's pretty obvious there are issues that need to be resolved.
The crux of the problem comes down to one thing. The issue that made me believe LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would never end up on the same team last July: they are similar players with identical games. James and Wade do not make each other better. Their games do not compliment. Both players need the ball in their hands to be at their best.
Despite their great numbers throughout the regular season, it is difficult for both to be their most productive in the same game. There simply aren't enough basketballs to go around for both to ply their trade. It should be no surprise that, while Wade thrived in the finals, James did not. In the Eastern Conference finals, it was the opposite. It's a structural problem that does not allow the Heat to get the most out of their talent.
Of course, LeBron has it in his power to solve this problem himself. If he took the offseason improving and changing his game so he played off the ball batter, the Heat would be far more formidable. It wouldn't take much and he certainly has the physical ability to do it. All he'd have to do is develop a post game, learn to shoot off the catch and score off of cross-screens and curls. These are fairly fundamental skills that anyone should be able to improve with practice.
Unfortunately, LeBron has never shown any desire to change his game. He has improved from year to year, but he has never changed how he goes about his business. We've seen Dirk Nowitzki transform himself from a three point shooter to someone who plays in the mid-post and uses his body to get high-percentage shots. That, as much as anything, made the difference between the Mavericks losing to the Heat in 2006 and winning this year. Miami needs LeBron to make a similar fundamental change.
Changing his mental approach will be far more difficult. LeBron is not a choke artist. He has played great in too many big spots (Pistons in 2007, vs. Bulls this year) for that to be true. A more apt description would be "front-runner." When things are going well, LeBron is great. He can build on his own success like nobody else. When he is hot he will pour it on and annihilate everyone in front of him. He is an unstoppable force.
Unfortunately, he is too easily taken out of that zone.
When things go bad for LeBron, he steps back instead of fighting through it. When he misses a few straight shots, he stops believing the next one is going to go in. That's why he stops shooting in so many important situations. He genuinely believes the team has a better chance of winning if he passes. That's how quickly and badly his confidence can just disappear. Such a reaction was unthinkable to Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or even Wade.
Like Charles Barkley says, James is a front-runner. It's the sign of a mentally weak player. LeBron lacks mental toughness.
It's something he can get over. In fact, he can copy the way Dirk obliterated the "soft" label he was hammered with after the 2006 Finals. If LeBron wins a championship in the next three years and wins a Finals MVP, most people will forget these conversations even took place. However, for it to happen two straight seasons would be disturbing and would bring the amateur psychoanalysis business to untold levels.
Can Miami afford to risk that he will finally figure it all out?
Next year, there is a very good chance the Heat will be given the opportunity to break up their core three. It doesn't look like Dwight Howard will resign with the Magic, and when Orlando comes to that conclusion they will trade him, Miami is a likely destination.
Put on your Pat Riley "slicked back hair hat" for a moment. If the Magic call and say we will trade you Dwight Howard for either LeBron or Wade, what do you do?
First, you agree to the concept. Howard compliments Wade or James better than each other do. Howard would also play well next to Chris Bosh, who likes to float on the perimeter. Superman makes Miami a better team.
The second part of the question is tougher. Do the Heat offer Wade or James?
The argument for LeBron is that he is bigger, younger, and more durable. Wade will not be the same impact player in five years, but LeBron will be. The argument for Wade is simple: Right now he has a better killer instinct than James, finishes games better, and is the unquestioned leader of the Heat. To win in 2011-2012, the Heat are a better team with Wade-Howard than James-Howard. I think LeBron would be Orlando's preference.
It seems far fetched now but it is a decision the Heat front office might be faced with in the middle of next season. Politically, could they bail on their big three so quickly?
Could they give up on LeBron after only one title run? Could they deal Wade, the man that brought them their only championship?
They are questions Miami shouldn't have to ask themselves, but they probably will. James has forced their hand in that regard. The most important part of LeBron's career is coming this offseason. He needs to recognize his weaknesses, hit the gym, and eliminate them. He needs to stop shooting commercials, movies and being a media superstar.
This summer needs to be about basketball for LeBron or the Heat will have to start thinking about some tough decisions they don't want to make.
Follow me on twitter throughout the NBA draft at http://twitter.com/#!/Schmeelk.
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