After perhaps the worst performance of his six-year career, LeBron James has become the butt of jokes and endless speculation across basketball.
Just don’t laugh too hard. Guys like that generally find a way to get even.
Regardless of the city James plays in next year, regardless of the color of threads he dons, he’ll continue to be the best player in the world. And there isn’t a person in basketball (possible exception: Bryant, Kobe) who doesn’t fully understand that.
James’ team will make the playoffs. And they’ll be a force to be reckoned with, no matter who ends up doing the reckoning. A star this dominate can change the league, and James has done just that.
With the 16th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls select: James Johnson, Wake Forest University. There were better, more talented options. But the Bulls marked their man, with good purpose.
Johnson is a 6-foot-9, 257-pound small forward with the strength, length and potential to be an excellent defender. And even as we watched “King James” make a mockery of Johnson in the first round of the playoffs, the ideology was clear: Just as was the case 15 years ago with Michael Jordan, LeBron James is a player who must be stopped.
He’s not alone. Between James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, today’s top players at the three have nothing “small” about them. They’re wings, only in the sense that their arms are so long they appear capable of flight.
The NBA title does not run through LeBron James. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s unreasonable to believe that a player of his unique and dominant skill set will be ignored.
Curious thing, though. Guarding LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony isn’t easy. Players big enough, strong enough and defensive-minded enough to handle the task don’t fall off trees. Johnson, for instance, might have fit the bill on the first two components, but as a rookie, he disappointed in the third.
The NBA is a reactionary league though. Just as Cleveland added Shaquille O’Neal simply for a potential Eastern Conference Finals match with Orlando and Dwight Howard, teams in the title hunt know they must solve potential matchup problems before they become an issue.
Most experts will tell you, the key to successful drafting is to grab the best available player. Clyde Drexler can figure out a way to play with Michael Jordan. But NBA teams, particularly ones who believe themselves to be in the title hunt, are consistently looking for the missing piece.
Damion James seems to fit the bill perfectly. The forward from Texas is a proven, polished college star with the size, strength and defensive abilities to lure a team into taking him, perhaps, a few picks too high.
On talent and potential, the 22-year-old looks to be a tweener without much handle who spent most of his college career at power forward. But he’s got the look of a potential defensive stopper.
This is not to say any of these players will be overdrafted. That will be determined by workouts and interviews and tape and tape measures. In a way, this article serves as instruction. Crucial to the future of any NBA hopeful playing the small forward position is proving he can match up with the league’s elite. And right now, there may not be a tougher position do that at.
Near unanimous opinion states that James and Durant should be the best players in the league in three years, and Anthony isn’t far behind. And while the trio has just four games of NBA Finals experience behind them – you might remember the Spurs’ four-game massacre of Cleveland in 2007 – it’s tough to imagine that will hold true in upcoming years.
There was a time when we looked to Craig Ehlo and Bryon Russell and Joe Dumars as Jordan stoppers. Of course, no one actually stopped Jordan. And maybe, no one will stop James as he continues his assention through the ranks.
But that won’t keep teams from trying. Do they have a choice?