If you’ve watched LeBron James the first few games of these playoffs, you may have seen a guy that appears to be a little bored. Sunday’s game between the Cavs and the Celtics got physical as Boston fought for their playoff lives, and the aggressive play resulted in a fine for Kendrick Perkins, a two-game suspension for J.R. Smith, a one game suspension for Kelly Olynyk, and no Kevin Love for the conference semi-finals. In all of this drama, LeBron was essentially unseen.
Part of it is because he’s never been a guy to get into an altercation with another player. For all the insults and trash thrown his way, LeBron is one of the more impeccable role models of today’s sports. He’s never had an issue off the court. He’s married to the mother of his two children and he’s never swung at anyone in the heat of the moment. Some call him soft, but I prefer to call him smart.
That being said, things always intensify in the playoffs, and for someone who’s as competitive as LeBron, he doesn’t seem to have an edge to him, but rather a collective calm. For all the talk of LeBron being past his prime, for not being as good as he was when he was in Miami, this calm, peaceful LeBron is the scariest version I’ve ever seen. I watched him, game 6 in Boston, where he tore the Celtics apart to force a game 7 (and eventual series win) in Miami. This is different.
LeBron’s been here enough that no matter how scrappy a team is, a first round opponent is a first round opponent. The first round is only the warm-up, and regardless of what he may say about expectations, Cleveland is built to win a title this year, and that’s not lost on them.
As a member of the Heat, he’d reach his prime and developed his game in a way we hadn’t seen. Whether it was his improved three-point shooting, or his work in the post as a point-forward, LeBron found a new way each year to scare his opponent. This year, however, though, he’s regressed in a way only he could.
So why does LeBron in Cleveland scare me more than LeBron in Miami would?
Before I answer that, let’s talk about Mad Men.
For those who don’t follow the show, Mad Men follows the men and women of an ad agency throughout the 1960s, but primarily focuses on the life (or lives) of Don Draper. Don, whose real name is Dick Whitman, is man continually escaping his past, but finds himself running the same course each year. As a man who grew up in a brothel, poor and orphaned, he believes work, women, and money are the keys to his happiness, but as we watch the show and watch it wind down, we see that no amount of wealth or success is going to make Don happy. As a viewer, I look to Don and suspect that what he’s really missing is a sense of purpose.
Currently Don and company are caught in a four-year contract with a long-rivaled company. Roger and Don have only ever worked for themselves in the time-line of the show, but if they ride out this contract, they are millionaires. I suspect that the end of the show will be something along the lines of Don finally quitting the ad business, forgoing his millions, and returning to the humble beginnings he spawned from, or maybe even returning his real identity.
Back to LeBron James. In Miami, he was successful, beloved, and poised to make a championship run for years to come, but as is the theme of this final season of Mad Men, he had to wonder to himself, “Is that all there is?”
I fear a Cleveland LeBron because I believe he harnesses that sense of purpose that Don Draper is missing. Returning home, bringing a championship to a city so starved for one, LeBron can feel the moment and can see the Larry O’Brien trophy ahead. Would I put money on the Cavs, especially if they face the Warriors? Probably not. Kevin Love is out for a series, J.R. for two games, and there’s only more physicality awaiting them in either the Bulls or the Bucks. It isn’t going to be easy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened this year. There’s a difference between dissatisfaction and pressure. Pressure comes with being expected to do something you may not be capable of doing, whereas dissatisfaction comes with a unwillingness to accept anything less than what you know you can do.
Don and LeBron have both been to the mountain top, and while Draper is still wondering if that’s all there is, LeBron has found a renewed sense of purpose that makes him more dangerous than ever. Remember, before Don reached the top, he was the best in the game too. Maybe you should go home Don, or should I say Dick. Maybe you’ll find happiness on a different mountain. Maybe you’ll find yourself in Cleveland.