As my insomniac twitter followers know, my method for keeping my sanity during these playoffs has been watching an episode or two of Twin Peaks every night after I’m done with my work. Every time I watch it, I can’t help but think of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay on David Lynch. One of the driving forces behind the essay is Wallace trying to find a working definition of what is “Lynchian.” DFW’s eventual definition of the term ended up being the blending of the grotesque, fantastic, and the strange with the everyday. Here are some of Wallace’s examples of Lynchian happenings: Jeffrey Dahmer putting body parts in his fridge beside condiments and normal frozen foodstuffs. A murdered housewife whose 50’s bouffant hairdo was left perfectly intact.
It’s impossible not to see the moments Wallace was talking about in Lynch’s work after reading his essay. Blue Velvet opens with a man collapsing and dying while watering his lawn. A cute dog coming over to drink the water out of the still-flowing hose is what makes it Lynchian. The second episode of Twin Peaks famously ends with a scene where Agent Cooper has a vision where a little person and a woman who looks exactly like Laura Palmer talk to him in a mysterious red room. Both of them were filmed talking backwards, then that film was played backwards to make it seem like they were talking forwards. Also, Cooper was in old-man makeup. Oh, just watch the scene. The point is that none of those elements are what make the sequence Lynchian. What makes it Lynchian is Cooper’s bed-head when he calls the sheriff to tell him that his dream let him know who killed Laura Palmer.
All of this has gotten me thinking about what it is that makes watching LeBron James different from watching any other player. It’s not just that he’s better than everybody else. He’s different, and that statement isn’t all compliment.
This has been said many times before, but the LeBron paradigm is different from the Jordan paradigm, which is what other elite perimeter players seem to be chasing. Jordan perfected the art of the perimeter game. LeBron isn’t chasing perfection. He’s attempting to redefine the perception of what is possible. Jamesian moments are the ones that make you think “Good Lord. As great as this man is, he might only be scratching the surface of what he’s capable of.”
There are a lot of times LeBron doesn’t seem like a great team sports athlete. He seems more like a Roy Jones Jr. or Anderson Silva; the guys who were so much better than their opponents that they needed to find new challenges for themselves and new ways to prove how much better they were than their competition.
When that works, it’s incredible. Look at this Roy Jones knockdown. That should be impossible. It’s also important to remember the following. When asked about the thought process that went into putting his hands behind his back during a televised prizefight, Jones explained that he was having trouble getting his opponent to exchange, so he decided to “chicken-fight”to get him to do what he wanted. Was putting his hands behind his back the maneuver that gave him the best chance of winning that fight? Probably not. But Roy Jones honestly and truly believes that it was. He was so talented that he was able to toss fundamentals out the door. And it worked. It didn’t just work; it produced one of the most memorable boxing highlights ever. I think LeBron has the exact same confidence in his heat-check threes or crazy attempts to go for the dagger shot.
When those things work, they flat-out work. When they don’t, people get angry. When Anderson Silva put his hands down and Matrix-ed Forest Griffin, everybody loved it. When he failed to finish Damien Maia because he was too busy showboating and dancing, fans turned on him instantly. People love to see athletes win with flair, but there’s few things they hate more than athletes that value flair over winning.
LeBron James is clearly the best player in basketball right now. It’s not particularly close. He’s not only the best player; he’s so talented that he can be the best player while he’s still trying to figure out what he can and can’t do on a basketball court. There’s no one gameplan he’s trying to follow. There’s no individual goal he’s trying to reach. Sometimes, he’s competing against himself and what he’s capable of as much as he’s competing against the other team.
If this was an individual sport, that would be fine. He’d be knocking guys out while dancing around them and putting his hands down. He’d be winning tennis matches by using crazy drop shots where a simple volley would have sufficed, or hitting winners from impossible angles when just going baseline would have kept the rally going. He’d be winning 100-meter races without running hard the whole time. We’d shake our heads sometimes, but at the end of the day we’d all acknowledge that LeBron is the best in the world and that it’s a privilege to watch him.
The problem is that basketball isn’t an individual sport. It’s a team sport. It’s the most star-dominated major team sport, but it’s still a team sport. Being the best individual doesn’t matter in a team sport. The goal of any individual in a team sport is to do everything in his power to help his team win. Because of that, he’s judged by how often his team wins. That’s why LeBron’s quest to find out his capabilities as a basketball player can be infuriating to watch as a Cavaliers fan.
If you put your hands down in the ring because you know your opponent can’t hit you, that’s one thing. When you try to prove a point on the court when you’re one of 10 players with the power to decide the game, that’s quite another. Making a pull-up three when trailing by two or a left-handed free throw in a playoff game would have done wonders to prove LeBron’s superiority over anyone else playing basketball right now. That’s not what he should be playing for. It should be about doing everything in his power to make sure the Cavs win every game. To be clear, I think winning is his first priority every time he steps out on the floor, and he only starts experimenting when he doesn’t think there’s a legitimate chance the Cavs will lose. However, every now and then LeBron’s curiosity about his own capabilities is counter-productive to giving the Cavs the best chance of winning. Again, It’s great to watch when it works. When it doesn’t, it’s maddening.
Instead of letting this drive me completely insane, I have learned to accept that LeBron is LeBron, and attempt to develop a working definition of “Jamesian.” I define “Jamesian” as a moment where LeBron doesn’t do something simple he theoretically should be capable of doing, but instead chooses to attempt to re-define the notion of what a basketball player is capable of.
Interlude: I’m not sure this paragraph fits here, but it isn’t a post of its own and isn’t completely out of place here. I’ve talked before about how great players don’t consistently make difficult shots; they consistently create easy ones. I think fans respond the most to players who consistently create and make fairly difficult shots.
Allow me to explain. When Shaq was in his prime and scoring 30 points a game with a baby hook, counter-spin, and a dominant frame, it didn’t quite look like greatness the way Jordan’s baskets did. When J.R. Smith chooses to launch 26-foot threes off the dribble rather than try to use his athleticism to get layups or just wait for open threes, that doesn’t look like greatness either. Jordan catching the ball on the perimeter, going hard to the basket, stopping on a dime, and draining a fadeaway? That’s more like like it. Kareem facing up his man, going into the lane, and rising up for an unblockable skyhook? There we go. Ray Allen running around a series of screens, catching a pass, and rising up for a catch-and-shoot jumper off a curl? Beautiful. Kevin Garnett catching it at the high-post, using a pump-fake to get his defender to crowd him, using the rocker-step to get space, then draining a reverse hook over his right shoulder? You get where I’m going with this. We love superstars that use their natural gifts to create looks and their skill to convert those looks. There’s a reason why game-winning jump shots stick in the minds of basketball fans like no other plays do; not only is it a player making a difficult shot, but the difficult shot was the best option available to him.
LeBron is odd. He doesn’t have signature “split the difference” moves, like a go-to pull-up from midrange or a series of moves from the post. He either dominates with his physical gifts or uses his range and skill to drain extremely difficult shots. There’s not much of a middle ground. When he goes to the basket, it seems too easy. When he pops a three off the dribble, it seems like he could have taken an easier shot. Look at that game five in Detroit; every shot was either impossible or impossibly easy. If you want to know why some people don’t love LeBron’s game, here’s why: LeBron’s aesthetics don’t match his effectiveness. It’s as simple as that sometimes.
Anyways, here’s my list of “Jamesian” moments:
-When LeBron misses the second free throw, the Cavs get the offensive rebound, and LeBron immediately nails the three.
-To continue with the theme, LeBron missed two free throws in the middle of his explosion at the Bradley Center last season.
-When LeBron is relatively quiet all game, then explodes for some and-1s late and makes fans wonder if he can do that whenever he wants.
-When LeBron gets it in the post, looks for the cutter or open three-point shooter, doesn’t find him, and reluctantly destroys his defender for an easy bucket in the post.
-When LeBron has all but put the game away and starts firing threes to put the cherry on top.
-When LeBron easily chases down Derrick Rose to get a block in the full-court, but is a step slow closing out Luol Deng for a mid-range jumper.
-When LeBron goes with a behind-the-back dribble into a jump shot for the first time in his career down the stretch against Detroit in game five.
-When LeBron looks over the defense and flicks a skip pass to the opposite side of the court like other players make a basic chest pass.
-When LeBron looks duck-footed and off-balance on defense late, and then you realize nobody can get past him anyways.
-When LeBron’s in transition, sees three defenders back already, says “screw it,” and gets the bucket or the foul anyways.
LeBron is maddening to watch and cover sometimes. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate how good he is, or give thanks every day for the opportunity to watch and write about this man play basketball. LeBron isn’t like any other player. Sometimes that’s frustrating, sometimes that’s confusing. Most of the time, it’s just spectacular to watch. LeBron is LeBron. At the end of the day, that’s about as big of a compliment as I can give.