Doubting LeBron James is a dangerous proposition

How did we get here when we were just here? Months after watching LeBron James jump up three steps at a time on his way to the GOAT throne like a little kid in the final seconds of a hide-and-seek countdown, we’re staring at a season in which, for once, James is the underdog. Even when he’s lost (and we’ve seen that plenty over the past 13 seasons), we’ve always come back to the totality of his dominance the next season — enough to make us believe he’d be around the next year, but never quite enough to believe he’d win the awards or championships we’ve decided are the means by which we’ll judge The King. 

Simply put, since his first MVP award in 2009 when he truly cemented his two-way dominance, James has been so above and beyond everyone else as an individual player that we’ve never had to wonder if he’d be in the thick of things the following season. However, that still hasn’t been enough for us to accept or assume he would come out on top.

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And yeah, he’ll be around this season. We’re still in the exciting infancy of a season in which parity and competition will become afterthoughts amid the intrigue of the Superest of all Super Teams’ run toward back-to-back regular season win records and a third consecutive trip to the Finals. James is on the other side of that show, leading the defending champions and with an easier path to the Finals, but he and his team are still easy underdog picks when compared to the stockpile of weapons the Golden State Warriors have accumulated. He’ll stick around, and he’s a trendy pick for Most Valuable Player, but the Dubs are about the biggest odds-on favorites we’ve ever seen. They’re the favorite in every game they play. That includes games against LeBron’s Cavs.

Huh?

Two seasons ago, LeBron fought through the awkward addition of Kevin Love, a tense relationship with David Blatt, and an unfocused and injured squad to push the Warriors to six games, almost single-handedly. Even having seen the unbelievable performances James put up in Games 5-7 of last year’s Finals, something about the 2015 series rings just as incredible. You try lifting an entire roster of grown men onto your shoulders like he did. Heavy stuff.

Somehow, every time LeBron has been put in a position to surprise us, we’ve let him. His greatness is never assumed. This is silly — he earned the assumption of magnificence long ago. I mean, I don’t have any idea how a human man pulls this off, yet here we are:

That’s after a sweet opening night triple-double.

If you were capable of looking past the “Not five, not six” garbage of the Big Three come-uppance in 2010, it was clear right away that the battle over late game possessions and overall role would grind some gears early on. LeBron passed to Haslem, Bosh took on his lowest usage in six years, and Derrick Rose snatched the MVP. We let doubt win.

Then Rick Carlisle signed a deal with the Devil, LeBron posted a 8-9-7 line in a defining Game 4, and the Big Three were vanquished. The doubt buried itself further. Perhaps that was warranted after a disappointing series — it appeared the narrative of James’ late-game struggles would follow his talents to South Beach.

Ha. It’s basically been a history lesson since.

The following season, when faced with the opportunity to bury his long-time rivals, the other Big Three in Boston, James threw up a 45-15-5 line that continues to define the Third Act of his career, even today:

Finally, comfortable transitioning between point forward, marksman, and postmaster all at once, James put Paul Pierce and Mickael Pietrus on his own sort of poster. He made the best game of Rajon Rondo’s career an afterthought, emerging victorious from a 3-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals. The player James became in that defining Game 6 is the destructive force he’s maintained in the five seasons since.

Might as well keep adding tracks to the best-of playlist while we’re here. This one was Gregg Popovich doubting James, or at least believing there was a game plan actually capable of controlling him. Pop tossed Kawhi and Boris Diaw (!!?!?) out there, told them to let James shoot, and wept at the result:

How did anyone on God’s Green Earth believe LeBron would miss that jumper after Duncan botched the bunny at the rim?

Somehow, despite rising to the highest heights of nearly any superstar in the NBA’s prolific history, LeBron’s corner is bereft of aggressive stanning or ridiculous homerism. He’s the superstar we never wanted, never appreciated, never earned. The currency of our relationship with The King is doubt — never once over the course of our time with him have we given him the benefit of it.

It’s forced James to rise above responding to haters or answering complaints, and he’s become better for it. He doesn’t feed off of the doubt. In fact, his complete shirking of any of the expectations laid upon him have allowed him to become actualized on and off the court in a way few players in today’s modern sports landscape are.

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In his first week of 2016-17 underdog status, LeBron’s averaged a 21-10-7 on 50 percent shooting against three competitive Eastern Conference Teams. He buried the Knicks alive like Will Ferrell does to John C. Reilly in Step Brothers. But he hasn’t been doing this as an answer to our call; he’s been playing within himself, pulling an ever-changing team through the initial slog of 82 games, and beginning his march toward Finals No. 8.

Lest you entered the season with a shade of denial about the magnificence of LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, allow history both recent and aged to guide a reversal of opinion. The Warriors may do things unheard of this year — breaking their own wins record, breaking offensive efficiency metrics, featuring four of the five All-NBA First-Teamers, who knows. But James has been doing unheard-of things for 13 seasons.

While we sit here in mock surprise that one of the greatest players of all time might stand a chance against a team he just beat, LeBron is content to make the 2016-17 season Track 14 on his Greatest Hits record.

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