The Triumph Of Dirk, The Failure Of LeBron

The difficult-to-answer question is: Who altered their legacy more over the past couple weeks — Dirk Nowitzki or LeBron James?

Nowitzki, over the past two months, was the best basketball player in the world. Not that he needed validation; he’s a 10-time All-Star, a league MVP, and a four-time first-team all-NBA selection. Yet his performance throughout the playoffs has him now being mentioned with the likes of Charles Barkley and Karl Malone on the list of history’s greatest power forwards — right behind Tim Duncan.

Along the way, Nowitzki reinvented his public image simply by being himself. He came across as engaging and humble and honest throughout the entire process and the countless interviews. And by the end, I was thrilled to see him win a championship.

Most important, he was the undisputed star on a team that played beautiful basketball, exemplifying the magnaminous nature of the sport. In “The Book of Basketball,” Bill Simmons writes at length about what he calls “The Secret” — the willingness of a player to subjugate himself for the good of the team. To understand it, you can read the book — or you can watch the Mavericks.

All of that was fascinating and uplifting. Yet it might not have been as compelling as LeBron and the Heat.

Make no mistake: If you have a soul, you were rooting against Miami. (Here’s what I wrote in January. It’s worth a read.) But even with that in mind, LeBron’s unwillingness — or inability — to rise to the occasion was shocking. The fourth quarters during the Finals turned into a PhD-level dissertation on the human psyche.

It’s not so much that James didn’t succeed; it’s that he didn’t really try. It’s that he wanted no part of the proceedings. It’s that he couldn’t get rid of the ball quick enough. It’s that he — and this is the amazing part — he looked ordinary. He’s one of the most compelling athletes in the world, and for long stretches of the game you wouldn’t even know he was out there.

I don’t mean that LeBron quit. I mean he had no sense of the moment, no ability to raise his game when his team needed him most. He had a look that said, “Hey, this is hard. What do I do now?” Sure, he’s only 26; maybe that will come. But he has been in the league for eight years, and for somebody that talented, the performance was beyond baffling. LeBron? It was more like LeFraud.

Oh, it’s not all on James. In talking about professional sports, we tend to put too much emphasis on championships, when titles are won or lost by teams.

In football, a quarterback is one of 22 starters on a squad — and that doesn’t include special teams. He’s the most important starter, but there are limits to his impact. In baseball, even the best hitter comes to the plate only four of five times a game. An entire series offers a very, very small sample size of his ability, and there’s a lot of luck involved.

But basketball is the one major sport where championships are a very strong indicator of a player’s ability. The best players have an impact on dozens upon dozens of possessions over the course of a game, and the team with the best player wins more often than not. In basketball, an extraordinarily talented player is more able to impose his will upon a game. Unless we’re talking about LeBron.

James’ performance was inexplicable, and the fallout will be immense. But it also will be unfair as it takes attention away from Nowitzki’s performance. With the 2011 playoffs, Nowitzki firmly established himself as one of the 20 greatest players in history, while James — for now, at least — dropped out of that group.

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