I’ll be damned if that question didn’t pop back into my brain again during Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. A question’s that been brewing in the back of my mind for almost three years now. That question always seems to arise in crucial moments, with the game hanging in the balance. It’s a question that infuriates me as soon as I bring it up in my own brain or to a trusted confidant.
Why doesn’t LeBron James dunk on people anymore?
The Akron Hammer was capable of dunking on people in virtually every game you had a chance to catch on the tube, as the freakish phenom’s ability to get to the rim and do whatever in god’s name he pleases to do meant that oncoming defenders could only hope and pray that getting posterized would not be the end result. Throughout all of his Cleveland Cavalier career and even the beginning of his Miami Heat career, these thunderous dunks would be the exclamation point to any night, and his fellow teammates and fans would be lifted because of it. More often than not, the opposing team would also be deflated as well.
Here are a couple of examples.
LeBron vs. James Johnson
Aside from the gibberish that Reggie Miller speaks during this awesome clip, this is vintage Akron Hammer. LeBron has the ball on the wing, a defender (a “deceased” James Johnson) having the gall and audacity to try and play up on The King, and nothing but space and opportunity to the rim. One dribble, two and a half steps later, detonation occurs at the rim and everyone loses their collective minds.
LeBron vs. Tim Duncan
Hell, the man can even do it against said Spurs. Good grief, Tim Duncan, jump or something. This dunk will mean more in a few moments. Let me continue on with our journey.
LeBron vs. Kevin Garnett
This was the pinnacle of Akron Hammer Age. Boston, the team with Tom Thibodeau’s embedded defense and the personnel that could ground almost any aerial assault, was finally hit with the heat-seeking missile known as LeBron. LeBron tried and tried and tried again to find a way to get to the rim, and when there was a crack in the defense LeBron broke for daylight. What resulted as pure savagery, which is beautiful as hell.
Make note of the fact that all three instances being presented to you occurred during the playoffs.
The LeBron Of Today
In this day and age, we occasionally get to see the guy we used to know as The Akron Hammer. We all remember that wrong-place, wrong-time, alley-oop Jason Terry caught courtesy of LeBron a few months ago, but for the most part, the exciting dunks that come from LeBron are courtesy of the lob pass from any willing member of the Heat squad. These dunks are cool and all, but that’s not why we’re here. Take note of the play at the top of the screen.
Yes it was two points. Simple layup plus the foul. However, when you’re laying the ball up versus dunking, there’s always that slight uncertainty with putting it up off the glass or rolling it over the rim versus emphatically forcing it down the rim. A dunk is and always will be psychologically debilitating, however minor or major the effect may be. Sure the Heat were down, but there’s always hope with #6 on your side, and a dunk could possibly lift the troops. So with the game in the balance and the Heat making one final push, LeBron tries to get to the rim and does this …
… dog, what? Man, naw.
Now look, I hear what you’re saying. “Man, that’s good defense!” You’re right. Of course it’s good defense. LeBron has faced some of the toughest defenses of known to man in his 10-year career so this is nothing new. However, what made The Akron Hammer so special was his ability to be as relentless as he was uncompromising.
What I see when I watch LeBron now is someone who is trying to be as efficient as possible. If I’m LeBron, I’m going to the rim and I know I’m likely to get fouled. Let me control myself so I can absorb the contact and try to finish for a 3-point play. This is smart. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think it’s stupid and it’s totally wrong.
As a defender, if you know you have the chance of getting dunked on, the way you defend the rim could easily change. If you know someone’s coming in laying up the ball, then you’ll probably be more assertive. When LeBron’s getting to the rim, there’s 2-3 defenders waiting on him to stop his progress. In Game 5, you could see the frustration growing in LeBron’s face. Those layups turned into short pull-ups. Opportunities to attack the rim ended with a dish to another open player with the hopes of him scoring instead. LeBron’s ability to defer and facilitate is a beautiful thing, but it’s also painstakingly frustrating those chances are squandered by others when one man is totally capable of doing the job.
Miami hopes it has two games left in the season, and with the crowd on its side and the home uniforms on, a forceful attack at the rim with defenders feeling his wrath could go a long way. It’s the LeBron we grew up appreciating, and it might be the only LeBron that can save a season with so much riding on its conclusion.