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Friday, December 4, 2009
LeBron James, thinking like an MVP

By Henry Abbott

Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst's new book "LeBron James: The Making of an MVP" capitalizes on the two Ohio-based sportswriters' deep knowledge of LeBron James and his career to date. They have been kind enough to let us excerpt the book on TrueHoop. Chapter 18 is called "I Have to be 10 Times Better" and occurs just after the Spurs humiliated the Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals.

LeBron James' journey to the 2009 Most Valuable Player award began in silence.

It was the day after the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept out of the 2007 NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs. As is usual at the end of the season, the players arrived at the arena to clean out their lockers and talk a bit to the coaches and media about the season.

LeBron James: The Making of an MVP
Available in paperback.
LeBron had nothing to say -- to anyone. He was exhausted. He was discouraged.

He didn't take much satisfaction from the Cavs knocking out the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. What bothered LeBron was knowing that the Cavaliers were not good enough to win a championship. He'd never say it, but when any serious basketball person thought of a starting backcourt for a contending team, Sasha Pavlovic and Larry Hughes didn't come to mind.

In fact, it was amazing the Cavs had won 50 games with those guards. That they had knocked off Detroit in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Or that a team with only three notable big men in Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao had even played in the Finals. The team needed work, and LeBron knew it.

He looked back at the San Antonio sweep and knew it wasn't all the fault (or lack of talent) of his teammates. In those four games, he shot 36 percent from the field. In those four games, he made 22 turnovers. In those four games, he couldn't get to the basket as he wanted; he couldn't find the touch on his jumper. In those four games, he felt very human. "I need to definitely get better," LeBron said immediately after the Finals. "Once I get better, our team will automatically get better, and I know that. I have to do everything that I've done well and try to improve in order for us to be a better team next year."

LeBron noticed the Spurs were daring him to shoot ... not just long distance from three-point range, but closer to the basket. They gave him open 18-footers. Open 15-footers. He even struggled at the foul line, making only 69 percent.

"We went up against a better team in this series, and everybody has to be better coming into next season," LeBron said. "I have to be ten times better. Our team has to be ten times better. We have to be better. Me, as an individual, I have to be much better on and off the court, and that will carry our team to higher levels. I think it starts with me first and then it will trickle down to everybody else."

This is where it's so easy to forget that LeBron was only 22 years old, so easy to forget that athletes of any age tend to make excuses for themselves and their teams -- or settle for finishing second. It would have been natural for LeBron to think about how no one expected the Cavs to beat Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals, much less play for a title. It would have been tempting for most players to shrug off the poor shooting in the Finals as a product of not having much help from his teammates. Larry Hughes was hurt, having played only two games and scored a grand total of two points. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had had a rough series, shooting only 45 percent and averaging 7.8 points. Other than Drew Gooden (12.8 points, 8.3 rebounds), no other Cavalier even played his normal game against the Spurs.

More than a few players in LeBron's position would say, Hey, I carried this team on my back all season. I had to score 29 of the last 30 points in Game 5 at Detroit to even put us in position to win the Piston series. But he didn't. Nor did he ever mention his stats from the final four games of the Detroit series -- all victories -- when he averaged an eye-popping 31.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists. Those are Hall of Fame-level numbers.

LeBron played more total minutes during the 2006-07 regular season than anyone in the NBA. He was asked about being tired as a reason for his poor performance in the Finals, but at the press conference, he said: "I felt great throughout the season. Everyone is injured at this point, everyone is a little fatigued. It's not an excuse ... My turnovers are uncharacteristic, a lot of unforced errors, me losing the ball or making bad passes. It's all things I can control, and I wasn't able to do that."

As a basketball player, this was the first time that LeBron believed he had failed. Not that he had expected the Cavs to beat the Spurs, although LeBron goes into every game, every series, convinced he can find a way to make his team win. But just as certain, LeBron never, ever, even in his worst nightmare, expected his team to be swept out in four games. This was worse than losing the state championship in his junior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary, when he failed to make a big play at the end of a close game. That was one game, one play. It hurt, and there were tears when it was over, but it felt more like a fluke. In that game, LeBron's team lost 71-63 to Cincinnati's Roger Bacon High School. LeBron scored 32 points, but had seven turnovers and only three rebounds and six assists. In his heart, LeBron believed if his high school team had played a best-of-7 series with Roger Bacon, it would have won.

And in his heart, LeBron knew that no matter how many games the series would be with those 2007 San Antonio Spurs, the Cavaliers would have lost. He had struggled against that defense. To shoot 36 percent? To make 22 turnovers in those four games? To not even be sure of where he wanted to go on the court to get a shot? Over and over, those thoughts haunted him. It wasn't just that his team had been swept. He believed he had let the team down.

That trip to the 2007 NBA Finals whispered this to LeBron, "You are not good enough. Other players are better." LeBron never said any of this out loud, but it haunted him when he took off two weeks following the season. It demanded that he realize something else -- by the Finals, he was physically tired, emotionally drained. He may have been one of the most unique physical specimens in the NBA, but LeBron came to the realization that not only must his game improve -- but he had to get in better shape.

LeBron didn't stay on the court to watch the Spurs receive their championship trophy. "I didn't turn around to look at it," he said. "I've seen other teams win a title before, me watching on TV. I knew what they were doing. But I didn't want to look at it."

After the series, Spurs star Tim Duncan told LeBron, "Someday, this league is going to belong to you."

Those words had significance for him, but he knew there was a long road for him to travel if he wanted to reach Duncan's MVP and championship level.

Adapted from the book "LeBron James: The Making of an MVP" 2009 by Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst. Reprinted with permission of Gray & Company, Publishers. This text may not be reproduced in any form or manner without written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers. For more information about the book, visit the Gray & Company website.