Shoot for It: With John Beneville ’16 and Alex Lee ’16

by John Beneville and Alex Lee | 10/29/15 7:01pm

LeBron James returned to the court for the first time since his loss in the National Basketball Association Finals last June. It was hard to know what to expect from James, but it was immediately apparent that he slimmed down in the off-season. The Cleveland Cavaliers lost a close one to the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday by a score of 97-95, with James getting blocked by Pau Gasol in the closing seconds and failing to catch an inbound pass before time expired. There were several story lines from this game, especially with Derrick Rose back in action and Gasol’s success, but none are bigger than LeBron James. In this week’s “Shoot For It” column, we will be talking about James’ performance and what we expect from him this year.

Alex’s Take: I’m worried about Lebron James. By this point, you all know how big of a Lebron fanboy I am, so it takes a particularly poor performance for me to admit something like this. Though he put up a reasonably good 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, Lebron James looked small out there.

At least from what we saw on Tuesday night, it seems like Lebron James’ athleticism has declined tremendously this past offseason. The Lebron of old was physically overwhelming. He had the bounce of Gerald Green with the strength of Zach Randolph. I remember a particular moment in the 2008 playoffs when Lebron James posterized Kevin Garnett in a head-above-the-rim kind of dunk — I highly suggest you look it up. Sadly, I can not imagine Lebron posterizing someone anymore. He’s kind of like Kobe Bryant now in the sense that when he dunks, it is a big deal — not the kind of player you want to be!

In our first article, I talked about how Lebron has changed his game to more skill-based play, and he certainly has increased his soft play skill-set tremendously to supplement for his decreased athleticism. But can someone who has made his fame in this league off of his unparalleled explosiveness adjust completely? Is he still the best player in the league, especially on a night when Stephen Curry exploded for 40 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

Lebron certainly didn’t look like the most valuable player when Pau “Camel” Gasol swatted Lebron’s layup in the waning seconds of the game. I understand that he has a bad back right now, but at times it even seemed Jimmy Butler was physically overwhelming for Lebron.

My concerns extend beyond Lebron’s scoring ability. Lebron’s ability to make others better has been what has made him so great in the past. Often times, though, this had to do with the fact that other teams had no choice but to play help defense on Lebron, which would often bring up wide open looks for his teammates to hit three-pointers. If opposing teams choose to single cover Lebron, will he still remain that ultimate playmaker that he was in his Miami days?

I certainly hope so, but I am worried. A subpar performance against the Grizzlies of 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists certainly has not assuaged my concerns.

John’s Take: Well it certainly seems like the “King’s” reign has come to an end. Alex is absolutely correct in his assessment of LeBron — he looks nothing like the athletic freak of old. LeBron looks like he went on a Weight Watchers diet and attended yoga classes this summer. I mean seriously, some guys drop a few pounds in the off-season to take the weight off of aging knees, but LeBron looks like Lou Williams out there. I don’t think that he’ll be able to have his way in the paint the way he used to, and I expect power forwards and centers to pose much more of a challenge for him.

LeBron didn’t look terrible in his first outing against the Bulls, but he did look terrible in the last 10 second of the game. I’ll give LeBron some credit here and say that I admire him for not shying away from taking the last shot. I’ve often criticized LeBron for deferring in crucial moments, and it was refreshing to see LeBron drive the lane and look for an easy two or a foul in the closing seconds. That being said, I’m not sure why it’s only been in the past couple of years that LeBron has figured out that’s what he should be doing.

Back to the first game of the season, we saw LeBron driving on a revitalized Pau Gasol, who, by the way, has been absolutely outstanding over the last year. I’m not sure what the athletic trainers are doing over in Lakers Land, but Pau Gasol looks five years younger than when he was in Los Angeles. LeBron drove on Pau Gasol and the Spanish giant stepped up and swatted his you know what. LeBron fell to the court and Pau gave one of his classic “bird of prey stares,” making me smile for the first time all game.

The Cavs still had the ball with a few seconds left, and so LeBron was tasked with boxing out Jimmy Butler on the in-bound in order to get the ball. With just over five seconds on the clock, Butler out-muscled LeBron and out-jumped him. Butler tipped the ball away from LeBron and the ball rolled to the other side as time expired. What a great victory for the Bulls, and what a sad defeat for LeBron and the Cavs.

I’m not sure how much stock we can take in this first game, but it isn’t a good sign for “The Chosen One.” I’m sure LeBron will have plenty of great games this year, but showing such weakness so early in the season is a bad sign. That, combined with the injuries that he has already suffered in the pre-season, makes me think that LeBron is aging about as well as the one-fourth bottle of Andre that’s been in my fridge for two weeks. It’s just not what it used to be.