Animated Minute: LeBron no favorite in Finals

June, 2, 2015
Jun 2
1:54
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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Start of 'hero ball' LeBron? Not likely

June, 2, 2015
Jun 2
2:00
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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videoAn hour after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in Atlanta, LeBron James was asked about J.R. Smith. It was a celebratory night for Smith, who had just drained eight 3-pointers in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ big road win, and thus, it was an opportune time to revisit why James wasn’t nearly as concerned as everyone else about his midseason acquisition.

“Get him here, and I've got him,” is how James said he approached the potential acquisition of Smith with the organization.

James wasn’t banking on Smith individually so much as his belief that he would ensure the conditions for his success.

He can pull that off because he has earned so much credibility as a teammate that he has essentially become the great supreme basketball leader. It’s hero ball without all the macho connotations.

James’ mere presence on a team is enough to crack the J.R. Smith combination. However you want to characterize Smith’s shortcomings, they’re neutralized because LeBron has communicated those conditions of success to Smith. He can tell Smith that he is appreciated and, if there’s love all around, he’ll be a star in Cleveland, and Smith will believe it.

LeBron uses what he has at his disposal, as evidenced by his turning Smith into an offensive machine. Lately, that has included a bit more isolation. It’s impossible to know for certain whether LeBron’s high-volume 2015 postseason represents a pivot that’s going to define the second half of his career or a temporary detour in a strange postseason for his team. But he has logged a few low-efficiency, isolation-heavy games this postseason when he has dribbled into heavy traffic and launched contested midrange jumpers.

He has confessed as much. After Game 1 in Atlanta, he said, "In the fourth quarter, I played way too much isolation basketball, oneonone basketball [with] a lot of defenses set, and I was letting the clock run down way too much. I just had to take the shot, or I was giving it to my guys late in the shot clock, and they couldn't do nothing with it besides shoot it or turn the ball over. So I will do a better job. I'll probably watch the game over again tonight as I try to get my body ready for Game 2. So it starts with me."

James is more committed to the inner struggle between selfish and unselfish than any superstar in recent memory not named Tim Duncan. The East bracket has been pretty forgiving; combine that with Kevin Love’s absence and Kyrie Irving’s condition, and it’s possible LeBron has been more permissive than he otherwise would be. We’ll get a clear indication over the next couple years, when his teams are closer to full strength, but I’m skeptical that his relatively inefficient playoff run reflects a change of philosophy, so much as it is a function of circumstances.

LeBron James isn’t Kobe Bryant. With Kobe, context is virtually irrelevant. He’s taking the shot, whatever it is, whenever it is. He believes the greatest talent on the floor should take the biggest shots -- not all things being equal, but as an abiding principle.

This has never been LeBron’s game, which is predicated on context in every way hero ball is not. For LeBron, events dictate actions. So if the defense comes from the weakside, or his help defender gets caught, or the pass is just so there, a play is made. As John Krolik wrote in 2009, LeBron understands that the most valuable skill in basketball is “not the ability to convert difficult shots but create easy ones.” He is averaging more assists per game than any previous postseason.

The same principle holds on defense. One of the smaller pleasures of the postseason has been LeBron’s premium-grade defense. It’s a great show because he plays defense like he plays offense -- with vision, speed and reaction. This year’s playoff performance might be his best on that side of the ball since 2007.

Maybe it's the rise of social media and the easy circulation of basketball opinion, whether from a studio panel or a Hall of Fame coach’s cranky Twitter feed. Or maybe it’s success of the 2013-14 Spurs or this season’s Warriors, two teams with strong convictions about how to build specific systems and cultures. Whatever the source, the NBA world is embroiled in a great debate about what a successful team looks like, from its assembly to its best practices to the way it should look on the floor, possession by possession.

Whether you believe the glory of the superstar wins championships or trust between teammates does, whether you believe in the value of size and strength or speed and stretch, LeBron can be your Exhibit A. He is both a timeless legend and a modern one.

In covering all this territory, LeBron has solved the ultimate basketball riddle: By not insisting on being the hero, he effectively became the hero, the one guy who can take this roster and give it a legitimate shot at an NBA title.

The BIG Number: Steph Curry and the 1,000 club

May, 29, 2015
May 29
4:36
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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TrueHoop TV Live

May, 29, 2015
May 29
12:31
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Join us at 2 p.m. ET.

Pitino Game: Houston Rockets

May, 29, 2015
May 29
12:22
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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TrueHoop TV Live

May, 28, 2015
May 28
2:02
PM ET
By ESPN.com
ESPN.com

TrueHoop TV: NBA After Dark

May, 27, 2015
May 27
6:22
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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Before the start of Warriors-Rockets Game 5, join Amin Elhassan at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday for a lively discussion of the conference finals, the NBA Finals and more.

TrueHoop TV Live

May, 27, 2015
May 27
12:48
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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West Finals not over yet

May, 27, 2015
May 27
12:32
PM ET
By Henry Abbott and David Thorpe
ESPN.com

Pitino Game: Atlanta Hawks

May, 27, 2015
May 27
12:29
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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The BIG Number: Howard's Kryptonite

May, 26, 2015
May 26
6:23
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Cavs should rest LeBron in Game 4

May, 26, 2015
May 26
6:22
PM ET
By Henry Abbott and David Thorpe
ESPN.com

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TrueHoop TV Live

May, 26, 2015
May 26
1:24
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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The BIG Number: Harden-Howard disconnect

May, 22, 2015
May 22
3:36
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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THTV The Podcast: This is not a four-player draft!

May, 22, 2015
May 22
2:53
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, Devon Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Aaron HarrisonAP Photo/James Crisp

On another edition of TrueHoop TV: The Podcast, David Thorpe explains why this year's "four-player" draft can't be the case. And why there is crying in basketball, and that's a good thing.

Listen: TrueHoop TV: The Podcast  Listen

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