Ramadan is a month for physical sacrifice, mental exercise and spiritual nourishment. It is also a time for charity.
Myself and millions of Muslims around the world will be acting in accordance with the Prophet Muhammad’s words – that charity extended during this month of fasting and prayer is the best form of charity.
But in at least one area, I’m going against my charitable nature this Ramadan: I’ve decided to stop feeding trolls.
The NBA Finals are underway. And for six years and running, the Finals have served as a collective player-hater’s ball for critics of LeBron James, the most scrutinized athlete of our time.
Most of the rocks thrown at LeBron are troll-istic duds full of contradiction, double standards, impossible expectations, misguided devotion to LeBron’s rivals – past or present, real or imagined – and just good ol’ fashioned hating.
But there are some very reasonable and valid criticisms of LeBron.
One of the most popular of the credible knocks on LeBron is that, for all of his talent, he does not possess the “killer instinct” basketball fans most commonly associate with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Killer instinct is that take-no-prisoners mindset that allowed MJ to single-handedly take over a game, impose his will and, like Superman in a pair of Jordan’s, bend an L-shaped steel pipe into a W.
It’s that ability Kobe had to flip the switch in a high-pressure situation and morph into a cold-blooded mamba, so icy that he could play the Nino Brown role to his opponents’ G-Money, delivering that fatal shot to put upstart foes down for good.
Because Jordan and Kobe were probably the two most skilled scorers the game has ever seen, as fans and media we’ve come to expect the killer instinct to show itself in a fusillade of shots; in a dominant scorer burying an opponent in buckets.
LeBron has shown flashes of that dangerous trait – like his 45-point effort in a must-win Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals in Boston, or his 37-point performance in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals – but it’s not consistent.
And a lot of people believe that’s why LeBron has gone 2-4 in the Finals, and why he’s halfway to a fifth championship series loss heading into Wednesday’s Game 3 against the Golden State Warriors.
That Kobe-like, Jordan-like scoring barrage from LeBron with his back against a wall – or with his opponent struggling to stay alive – is a sometimes thing, not an every-time thing. (It wasn’t really an every-time thing for Jordan or Kobe either, but nostalgia is a powerful cleanser.)
LeBron is not wired like those two. He doesn’t have that killer instinct. Or, at least, he doesn’t have it in as much abundance as those two.
And that’s perfectly OK.
LeBron is not Kobe. He’s not Jordan. And it’s beyond time that we stopped trying to make him into one of them.
Look past the stardom and look at the style. Understand that we’re comparing a pass-first forward to two shoot-first guards. Realize that we’re taking one basketball icon and the younger icon who emulated his every move, then expecting an even younger icon who was crafted from an entirely different mold of clay to emulate both of them.
And we were warned not to do that.
Back when LeBron James was a high schooler just introducing himself to the mainstream sports audience, those who had been following him before he became famous were almost unanimous in their analysis: This kid was not going to be the next Michael Jordan. If anything, he would be the next Magic Johnson.
The dunking and scoring was impressive, but it was always the passing that set LeBron apart from the pack. He had the size and skills to be a 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9 point guard, but with more speed and strength than Magic. That was the astute comparison.
Somewhere along the way, the stardom must have overshadowed the style.
Because even though LeBron actually did come to resemble Magic in the NBA, the fact that he also stepped into the same face-of-the-league role previously occupied by Jordan and Kobe made it so eventually, the only comparisons that seemed to matter were to Jordan and Kobe.
So here we are today, with LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers trailing 0-2 in the Finals to the Warriors, and the basketball world – fans, critics and trolls alike – looking for that killer instinct to kick in and for LeBron and make this series competitive.
Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan and Kobe, compared LeBron’s situation to one in which Jordan was facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit and was having his commitment and character questioned.
“It did something to Michael Jordan,” Jackson told the New York Daily News. “You learned something about pulling the cape of Superman. It’s not a good idea. He was a man possessed after that. I think it’s going to take something for LeBron to step into that. Put his cape on and say, ‘I’m going to have to take over a lot of this series, doing the things beyond my level or my normal capacity.’ He’s been a team player up to this point but I think he’s going to have to step beyond that.”
A lot of people don’t believe that LeBron can do that.
The reality is that the LeBron James version of a takeover doesn’t look like a Kobe or a Jordan version. It’s like expecting Kehinde Wiley to recreate a Jacob Lawrence. Let the artist do his thing his way, and while the style may be different, you may be equally impressed with the result.
To see the ideal template for a LeBron takeover, take Kobe and Jordan out of the mix. Take a look instead at Magic’s championship resume:
1980 NBA Finals, Game 6: The L.A. Lakers had a 3-2 series lead on the Philadelphia 76ers, but went into Game 6 on the road without the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who had averaged 33 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks in the series). Magic, a rookie, famously lined up in Kareem’s center position and put up 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers clinched the title and he was named Finals MVP. Magic’s performance has gone down in history as one of the greatest championship performances ever, but many forget that L.A.’s Jamaal Wilkes scored 37 points that night. Michael Cooper, defensive specialist extraordinaire, doubled his career scoring average with 16 points for the Lakers.
1982 NBA Finals, Game 6: The rematch. After getting blown out by 33 points in Game 5, the Lakers had a chance to close out the Sixers in six and avoid Game 7 in Philly. The Lakers won, with Magic going for 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists. He took three shots from the field, making two of them. Wilkes scored 27 while four other Lakers – Kareem, Coop, Bob McAdoo and Norm Nixon – scored at least 16 apiece. Again, Magic took three shots in the title-clinching game. And he was named Finals MVP.
1985 NBA Finals, Game 5: After giving up 148 points to the Celtics in Game 1, the Lakers had bounced back to tie the series 2-2 going into Game 5. Aiming to avoid a 3-2 deficit, Magic had 26 points and 17 assists. He was L.A.’s third-leading scorer, as Kareem dropped 36 and James Worthy added 33.
1985 NBA Finals, Game 6: In position to close out the series in the Boston Garden, Magic was again the Lakers’ third-leading scorer. He had 14 points (on 15 shots), 10 rebounds and 14 assists. Finals MVP Kareem scored 29 and Worthy scored 28.
1987 NBA Finals, Game 6: After taking a 3-1 series lead on the Celtics, the Lakers lost Game 5. If they lost Game 6, they’d be facing a fully confident Larry Bird and Co. in Game 7. Magic responded with a 16-point, 8-rebound, 19-assist stat line, securing another Finals MVP. Kareem scored 32 and Worthy chipped in 22.
1988 NBA Finals, Game 6: Trailing the Detroit Pistons 3-2, this was a must-win for L.A. They got the job done, with Magic scoring 22 points and handing out 19 assists. Worthy scored 28 and three other Lakers starters cracked double figures.
1988 NBA Finals, Game 7: To finish off the Pistons, Magic put up 19 points and 14 assists. Worthy, the Finals MVP, had a triple-double with 36 points, 16 boards and 10 assists. Byron Scott added 21 points. Cooper and Mychal Thompson each scored double figures off the bench. In his fifth and final NBA championship-clinching victory, Magic went for 19 points and 14 assists.
Did you notice a few trends in those games?
Magic had double-digit assists in almost all of them, threatening to get 20 dimes on a few occasions.
A teammate or two often scored more than Magic, with another teammate or two meeting or exceeding the offensive production expected of them.
And these weren’t players who had forgettable NBA careers. These weren’t Lakers teams full of decent players whom Magic made better by spoon-feeding them only the easiest shots. Many of them are legit Hall of Famers and known All-Stars
Did you notice what you didn’t see in those games?
Only once did Magic score 30 or more points. He wasn’t taking 25 shots each night. He wasn’t burying them with buckets. He wasn’t doing anything resembling the “killer instinct” basketball warrior we imagine today. He showed that one can be deadly without being a killer.
And has anyone questioned Magic’s competitive drive? Has anyone questioned his status as a winner? Has anyone suggested he wasn’t clutch?
That is how LeBron James can take over a game or dominate a series. Not in the Jordan/Kobe style of dropping 50 points, but in the Magic style of helping two of his teammates combine for 50 while getting his points as needed.
The catch? LeBron needs teammates capable of doing what Kareem and Worthy and Wilkes and the rest did for Magic.
LeBron can find Kevin Love with his elite vision and passing, but Love must make the shots. LeBron can draw enough defensive attention to clear paths for Kyrie Irving, but Irving must take advantage of those luxuries. LeBron can help clean up some of his teammates’ defensive mistakes, but he can’t guard all of the Warriors, especially when they’re running nine or 10 deep right now.
LeBron can take over the 2016 NBA Finals. He can turn in some all-time great performances. But his masterpieces aren’t going to look like those produced by Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
It’s not about making excuses. It’s not about giving free passes. It’s not about lowering expectations.
It’s about changing the scope of those expectations. It’s about recognizing what we should have seen all along: That the new Magic can pull off this trick without doing it like the old Jordan.