By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard that the NBA has dodged a ratings fiasco, and LeBron James has led the Cleveland Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals for a rematch with Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors.
But even if we can’t help but be impressed by the fact that James will be making his sixth straight appearance in the NBA Finals, we don’t have to like it.
Rematch made in heaven: Curry's Warriors vs. LeBron's Cavaliers. https://t.co/EqgOZkSUC3
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 31, 2016
Just like polarizing superstars of the past, such as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, James has legions of faithful followers who’d gladly make some ridiculous sacrifice just to breathe the same air as their hero. At the same time, he also has countless critics, naysayers, and haters hellbent on witnessing, and even contributing to, his on-court demise.
For the majority of NBA junkies beyond the ever-expanding reaches of Cleveland’s fan base, the basis for disliking James is annoyingly simple — he’s extremely talented and doesn’t play for your team. From there, adding to the animosity is easy, and entering this year’s NBA Finals, it’s never been easier.
James has become one of the league’s best actors over the past few seasons by combining the favor that all veteran stars eventually earn with NBA officials, with an unrivaled ability to make his body react to even the slightest contact as if it had absorbed an exploding grenade — an art now commonly known as flopping.
In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Toronto Raptors, James unintentionally gave us a perfect example of all that angers us about the perennial all-star when he flung his linebacker-like frame to the floor in a dramatic overreaction to what turned out to be a mild shot to the chops from teammate Tristan Thompson.
While James is far from alone in his passionate pursuit of the flop, there’s just something irritating about an elite, six-foot-eight, 250-pound athlete who dedicates so much effort to something so deceiving. Remember, we’re not talking about some bullied, sub-six footer — this is a player who’s been blessed with more basketball-based gifts than the Saturday morning cartoon version of Jordan we once saw on Pro Stars.
But, after former Chicago Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau accused the King of taking more than a few deliberate dives during the 2013 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, James essentially told the Associated Press (via the Huffington Post) that he was above committing such a disgraceful infraction.
“I don’t need to flop,” said James. “I play an aggressive game. I don’t flop. I’ve never been one of those guys.”
That’s funny, because it doesn’t seem to matter if his team is winning by 25 points — James will drop at any moment. And if the occasion calls for it, James has also proven that he won’t hesitate to take a dribble-less stroll through the lane while attempting to draw yet another flop-fueled foul.
Of course, when asked about the NBA’s anti-flopping policy by Ken Berger of CBS Sports during the Miami Heat’s 2013 playoff run, James’ response was a good indication of what was to come.
“It’s year one [of the policy], so you’re not just going to go cold turkey,” said James. “Guys have been accustomed to doing it for years, and it’s not even a bad thing. You’re just trying to get the advantage. Any way you can get the advantage over an opponent to help your team win, then so be it.”
Facing the Warriors in Game 4 of last year’s NBA Finals, one of the King’s many attempts to gain the sympathy of the game’s officials backfired when his overreaction to a foul committed by Golden State’s Andrew Bogut resulted in a collision with a cameraman and a small cut to the head.
After the game, Bogut told USA Today Sports exactly what everyone who saw the replay already knew.
“I think he [James] jumped into the cameraman,” said Bogut. “Yeah, I think he came down and took two steps and then fell into the cameraman. I definitely, definitely didn’t hit him that hard.”
But it isn’t just James’ constant flopping that we find frustrating. It’s everything from the way he held the NBA hostage before bailing on Cleveland and deciding to “take his talents to South Beach” on his very own television special nearly six years ago, or the damage he’s done to Kevin Love’s game, to the way he constantly tried to out-rank and overshadow former Cavs’ bench boss David Blatt, to how he dared to cast doubt over the selection of Curry as the NBA’s unanimous M.V.P. without actually saying anything negative about the league’s long-distance darling.
"We're better built to start the Finals than we were last year." -LeBron James https://t.co/jZNM0RVSb6
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 31, 2016
Sure, Jordan had his haters, and nothing ever stung opposing fans quite like one of his trademark game-winning jumpers. But whether he was winning his first three titles against the best of the West, struggling as the world’s most famous minor league baseball player, or taking enough shots to make James Harden look unselfish, he was always genuine, and LeBron is not.
It hasn’t always been this way. During his first few years in the league, James was adored even by those outside of Cavs-land as a game-changing prodigy who’d actually lived up to his highly-publicized hype, and a young man dead-set on carrying Cleveland to a string of curse-killing NBA championships.
But that version of King James hasn’t existed in years. And while we have no choice but to acknowledge that LeBron’s sixth straight NBA Finals is an individual accomplishment worthy of basketball’s hall of fame, we definitely don’t have to like it.
[Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images]