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Thursday, January 13, 2011
Blake offers window into LeBron's past

By John Krolik

On Jan. 12, 2004, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers came to Los Angeles to take on the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavaliers weren't setting the NBA on fire, and had long been one of the worst teams in the NBA, but hope had arrived in the form of a 6-foot-8, 240-pound rookie named LeBron James, who had come into the league as the most hyped rookie in NBA history and immediately justified some of that hype by averaging 23 points, nine rebounds, and 8.5 assists in his first two NBA games.

The Cavaliers weren't a good team yet, and their record wouldn't even become respectable until they won 11 of 13 games during a late February/early March stretch, but for the first time in years they were something to see. The Cavaliers might not have been the favorites to win on any given night, but there was always that chance that LeBron was going to do something special. Maybe it would be one play that showed just how prodigiously gifted of a basketball player he was, or maybe it would be a wire-to-wire performance that hinted at just how dominant he could become if he managed to get his game together. Either way, the 18-year-old James was more than worth the price of admission.

The Lakers, meanwhile, were the only team anybody really wanted to talk about, and for good reason. Shaq and Kobe had established themselves as two of the best players in basketball. They were both in their primes, and adding Karl Malone and Gary Payton in the off-season gave the Lakers a starting lineup that featured four potential Hall-of-Fame players. There were also off-the-court factors that made the Lakers so fascinating -- Kobe Bryant was the NBA's most controversial figure after being accused of sexual assault the previous summer, and many wondered if his image would ever recover.

Everything was set for a matchup between the league's most talented team and an upstart squad led by a young superstar whose maturity and team-first attitude had repeatedly been praised

But the actual game was anticlimactic: LeBron was held to 16 points on 6-for-20 shooting from the field. Shaq and Malone both missed the game with injuries, while Kobe scored only 10 points before leaving the game with an injury of his own, and the Lakers were able to cruise to an 89-79 win that featured no real fireworks on either side.

Seven years to the day after LeBron's Cavaliers played the super-Lakers, a lot has changed. LeBron has added at least 25 pounds of muscle, switched positions and become a small forward, turned his formerly abysmal outside shot into a strength, transformed himself from a mediocre/below average defender to one of the best defensive players in the league, taken Cleveland to the finals and won two MVP awards. He has suffered disappointing playoff losses twice, become the best player in Cavalier history, the most hated athlete in Cleveland sports history, the most controversial figure in sports, and has ultimately replaced the teammates he suited up with seven years ago -- Erik Williams, Carlos Boozer, Kendrick Brown, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Arroyo, and, well, Zydrunas Ilgauskas. (Kobe, meanwhile, may or may not have led to Shaq getting traded, missed the playoffs, watched Shaq win a championship with LeBron's future team, win an MVP award, win two championships, and become the most respected player in basketball.)

Seven years after LeBron led his Cavaliers into the Staples Center, it was his Heat who were the favorites against Blake Griffin, the most exciting and productive rookie since LeBron, and the upstart Clippers, who have won eight of their last 11 games after a dismal start to the season. Unlike LeBron's Cavaliers in 2004, Griffin's Clippers were able to pull off the upset and snap the Heat's road winning streak behind 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists from Griffin. The rookie never appeared the least bit tentative against one of the best defenses in the NBA, nor was he afraid to keep his team from losing the lead when the Heat made runs and threatened to take over the game.

The only thing more exciting than Griffin's performance were the glimpses Blake showed of how much better he can become. Only one of Griffin's nine field goals came from outside of the paint, and there were a few moments when Griffin blew a finish at the basket after freeing himself up with a beautiful up-and-under or spin move. Griffin's energy, athleticism, and intelligence have made him into one of the league's best power forwards as a rookie . When he starts making his jump shots and free throws more consistently, improves on his already-prodigious ability to face his man up and beat him off the dribble, and gets more comfortable with advanced post moves, he'll be frightening.

Before the game, LeBron praised Griffin's talent and compared him to Karl Malone, Antonio McDyess (the young version) and Shawn Kemp because of Griffin's ability to play above the rim. Those are all favorable comparisons, and LeBron meant them as compliments to Blake, but think of all the things that prevented those players from winning a championship.

Kemp was a victim of his own immaturity. Malone was struck down by Michael Jordan. Injuries kept McDyess from reaching his potential  and LeBron James prevented him from going to the finals when McDyess played for the Pistons. Microfracture surgery, a lack of commitment to defense, and the "leaving the bench" rule have kept Amare Stoudemire from reaching the finals in his career, although he's currently having a great season for the Knicks. Even LeBron, who entered the Staples Center as more or less of a finished product last Wednesday, has failed to win a championship thanks to inferior teammates, bad luck, and bad performances at the exact wrong times.

Blake Griffin and LeBron James would be the first people to tell you that they're different in a lot of ways. Blake is a power forward who lives in the paint, loves crashing the boards and has an intuitive sense of how to work off the ball to free himself up for dunks. LeBron is a perimeter player who passes and handles the ball as well as any point guard in the league, can drain a 3-pointer from anywhere on the court and is only now learning how to work without the ball in his hands. Off the court, Blake is soft-spoken. He snuck up on the league somewhat after missing what would have been his rookie year with a knee injury, while LeBron is an extrovert who has been the focus of tremendous hype and controversy since Sports Illustrated called him "The Chosen One" as a high-school junior.

Still, it's impossible to watch Blake Griffin now and not remember what LeBron James was seven years ago -- a thrilling young player with all the talent in the world, the savvy to use his strengths to take over games, the drive to shore up his existing weaknesses, the maturity to be a historically poor team's franchise player as a rookie and the hopes of a long-suffering fanbase on his shoulders.

Will Blake ever take his game to the level that LeBron took his to? Will the Clippers be able to surround Blake who complement him the way LeBron's supporting cast in Cleveland did or have the kind of talent LeBron's current teammates have? In 2018, will we be wondering why Blake hasn't won a championship yet? Will we be thinking about him at all? Or will we be wondering if he's the greatest forward since Tim Duncan? And will he ever become as important to the Clippers as LeBron was to the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland, or as unpopular as LeBron is now both in and outside of Cleveland?

Nobody knows the answers to those questions, and now probably isn't the time to ask them. There will be plenty of opportunities in the years to come to analyze Griffin, pick apart his physical and mental weaknesses, put his performance in context, talk about what he does or doesn't represent about his generation, scrutinize every statement that comes out of his mouth or smartphone, talk about what Duncan would have done in a given situation, ask him to be responsible for a group of people he never met or asked to represent and forget about what it is that made Griffin so interesting to us in the first place.

Now is the time to marvel at a 21-year old rookie sealing a win against the NBA's best team by ducking under a Wade clothesline, double-clutching, hanging in the air, and slamming the ball through as 19,803 of the most historically downtrodden fans in NBA history lost their collective minds in appreciation. There will be plenty of time to tear down or build up Griffin for our own purposes later.

Now is the time to simply appreciate how good he is already, and dream about how great he may some day become.