Ever since LeBron James led the Miami Heat to the NBA championship last spring, everyone insists that the much-maligned three-time league MVP stepped up in a way he never had before. James finally took charge and delivered in the clutch in a way that was supposedly different from how he performed in the first eight years of his career.
Bill Russell does not think so, though. In Russell's eyes, James did not show any improvement during the Heat's run to the title. The greatest winner in NBA history was not knocking James, either. What Russell was saying was that James did not need to elevate his game — it was already elevated enough.
"He played the way he's always played," Russell said in an interview with NBA.com. "And he learned a lot over the years. I remember watching him in the 2007 NBA Finals versus the Spurs and he was extraordinarily good. And he's just gotten better at what he does and he does the same things."
Few players with multiple MVP trophies have ever been as widely criticized as James. (Wilt Chamberlain comes to mind.) Even with a ring on his finger, James still does not take the final shot as eagerly as many fans would prefer, and every facial expression and gesture he makes is analyzed to find some evidence of arrogance or immaturity.
This is a player, to build on Russell's reasoning, who averaged more than 30 points per game twice before he turned 24 years old, who won back-to-back MVPs at ages 24 and 25, and who needed only eight short seasons to set the Cavaliers' scoring record. Criticize the way in which he departed Cleveland for Miami if you like, but keep in mind that despising James as a person can be separated from appreciating him as a player.
Russell, who has won more championships than any American athlete, apparently thinks James is doing just fine. Long ago, Russell said the same thing about Chamberlain, who went out and shattered almost every individual record in the book. Maybe we all should start listening to this Russell guy. He might know what he is talking about.
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