Commentary

LeBron James and hunger

Updated: June 13, 2013, 3:39 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

There is no psychological or neurological or otherwise scientific reason to believe that non-sociopathic men can't be extremely good at professional basketball. You probably don't have to be a mean, egotistical, self-absorbed cretin to become historically important in the NBA, but it might seem that way after the War on Niceness broke out earlier this week.

Shaquille O'Neal says Dwight Howard isn't mean enough. Chauncey Billups says Blake Griffin is too nice. Apparently the road to an NBA title is paved with flying elbows and general arrogance.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty ImagesLeBron James is an excellent passer. Sometimes, though, the best team play may not be the best decision by him.

Not to disparage their semantics -- especially those of a wordsmith like Shaq -- but I think they're mistaking the word "mean" for their real target: hunger. Athletes can be fiercely competitive but still not possess the type of single-minded, one-note focus that creates hatred among opponents and mere dislike among teammates.

Think about the most vicious competitors of the past 20 years. Who you got? I'll take Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, Roger Clemens and Kobe Bryant -- not a fuzzy personality in the bunch. They all competed with an attitude that seeped from their athletic endeavors and into their everyday lives.

Here's someone who's not yet on the list: LeBron James.

There was a play late in Game 3 on Tuesday night that exemplified the LeBron Conundrum. As he beat his man and drove through the lane on the way to the hoop, he saw Norris Cole open in the right corner. Two steps from the hoop, LeBron kicked it out to Cole, who missed the shot.

Viewed through the lens of Good Team Basketball, it wasn't a bad decision. The Heat were down by a ton, and three was probably a better idea than two. It was perfectly defensible if you're a sixth-grade CYO coach or a guy trying to teach the team concept to a high school kid who's infected with the AAU virus. But from an alpha dog standpoint, the only one that should matter to someone as transcendentally talented as James, it was a terrible decision. The alpha dog decision -- the one that sends a message for Game 4 -- called for LeBron to wind up and dunk the ball and three Spurs through the hoop with it. Sometimes the best play is the statement play.

James' willingness to share the ball is one of his most admirable and endearing qualities. The outward flow of his talent -- the source of all that nonstop talk about his desire to get his teammates involved -- makes him far more likable than most überstars. However, there are times when an admirable quality becomes a detriment on the court. If LeBron played by Kobe's philosophy -- roughly translated as Everybody Shut Up and Rebound -- there's no doubt in my mind he'd be up two games to one today on his way to his third NBA championship. He's just that good.

I think this is what Shaq and Billups were getting at: Introspection is the enemy of the superstar. The guy who, like James, thinks about his teammates and their feelings -- Is Chris Bosh getting enough touches? -- is destined to be forever tortured by the expectations of his talent. On a Heat team that is beginning to look more and more like his old Cavs teams -- meaning: a one-man show -- he doesn't have the luxury of delegating or deferring.

When you see him be as indecisive and ineffective as he was in Game 3, it's a sign that he doesn't fully own the idea that he, and only he, should be dictating the terms of engagement. The Spurs might have a remarkable game plan to slow him, but he seems to need the occasional reminder of his place in the basketball universe. He's simply too good to care about anybody else.

Shaq and Billups weren't talking about James. In fact, most of the time an ex-player or ex-teammate issues a critique as a thinly veiled attempt to remind everybody how good he was. It's funny how often an ex-player, such as Shaq, decides to criticize a current player for not having a quality the ex-player had in abundance.

Still, the idea is sound. It takes a certain anti-social bent to be truly exceptional. You can't care about anybody else. You can't worry about feelings. You have to concern yourself with you first and everybody else second or third. I don't know about Howard and Griffin, but I don't think LeBron is fully invested in the concept. It's what makes him a compelling human being. It's also something that could have people forever discussing how good he could have been.

There are times when greed, one of the seven deadlies, is a virtue. Down two games to one on the other guy's court, for instance.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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