That LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players (and athletes) of all time is an incontestable fact. It’s also true that LeBron is over 250 pounds of powerful muscle; a freak athlete, by any standards. But the most important fact is that, due to the way he plays and treats the game, the King shouldn’t complain to the referees for calls. It’s simply impossible to officiate him in a fair manner.
For many NBA junkies, the above is close to blasphemous. LeBron has become so revered and loved by NBA fans — following his heroic 2016 finals performance and amazing statistical season this year — that increasing numbers of observers regard LeBron has the greatest to ever take to a court — ahead of even Michael Jordan. While I’m yet to be persuaded that LeBron is in fact the GOAT (I still hold that Jordan is better and by a considerable amount), that debate is for another day. Instead, what I want to discuss is why LeBron, who has been famous for his berating of refs for their lack of foul calls, should drop it and accept what happens.
A look back at Shaq
First off, you need to look back at Shaquille O’Neal. He is one of the greatest as well, and for a 5 year stretch, was the most unstoppable Center the league has ever seen. Shaq was often a problem to officiate. He was so big that the refs treated him differently, allowing centers to hang on his back, and to take full clubs at his arms. Whenever he was in the post, a foul was committed 95% of the time, and probably only 50% of them were called. However, you can understand the defender’s point of view as well. Shaq had some good post moves, but he wasn’t ducking under people and faking them out of their shoes like McHale or Olajuwon. Instead, Shaq’s favorite move was to take 2 big dribbles while slamming into the defender, taking elbows into their face and dunking.
It was effective and could just be classified as physical, but you also could’ve called a push-off on Shaq or even a flagrant foul if his elbows clubbed someone in the head. Just watch the infamous 2002 Kings-Lakers Western Conference Finals, where Shaq got just about every call even though he was practically brutalizing Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Scott Pollard in the post. But that was probably more due to the fact that David Stern rigged that series with Game 6’s unforgettable 27 4th quarter free throws for the Lakers.
The benefit of the doubt
But back to the point at hand. LeBron is very similar to Shaq. LeBron is bigger and stronger than anyone in the league, and when he drives to the basket, defenders smack his herculean arms in an effort to stop him. And as long as he makes the shot, officials typically assume that no foul occurred. So you would think that LeBron has had to deal with smaller players hammering to no avail of the officials his whole career, and to a small extent, you’d be correct. But he is also a potential offensive foul anytime he enters the paint.
LeBron is constantly the one who engages the contact and foul of his helpless defender, who is doing all they can to back up and avoid challenging the King body to body. And if dealing with his physicality wasn’t enough, LeBron’s drives also are often accompanied by an uncalled travel. LeBron isn’t the only player getting away with traveling — as the epidemic has taken the league by storm — but LeBron was the catalyst of the movement with his Miami 3-steps every time he dribbles into the paint. LeBron is lucky that he is usually given the benefit of the doubt on both, as refs usually shoot 1 for 10 on calling him for definite travels every game. For his whole career, he has only fouled out 6 times despite his foul-prone backdowns in which he lowers his head and rams it into unsuspecting defenders.
You may remember in 2017’s famous Cavs-Wizards thriller that LeBron fouled out because he had almost never been in foul trouble before, and he stupidly went for blocks when he was in bad position. Or how in Game 1, LeBron was incredulous at a call, only for the Warriors’ announcer to say it was James’ first foul in the whole game even though he had played the majority of the minutes available. I don’t know about you, but I find it impossible for a player as physical LeBron to go 40+ minutes and commit zero fouls. Of course, the refs will miss foul calls on everyone, but that is just ridiculous.
A hopeless situation for the refs
My point is that LeBron complains far too much considering the benefits he has received throughout his career. He rams his head and arms into anyone or anything, and he uses his freakish arms to hold off and hook guys in the post making his layups all the more easier. At the same time, he is constantly horse-collared by trailing players that are desperate to slow him down, and his opponents don’t get the flagrants that they probably deserve (see Marcus Morris’s ride in game 7 this year).
The refs really are in a lose-lose situation. You can see how LeBron deserves his free throws and you want to stay on the good side of the league’s best player, so they usually rule in his favor. However, refs also feel bad for bullied defenders just trying to hold their ground, which they have to right to do, and eventuall the refs will get fed up with LeBron and rule against him. There is no call that’ll be entirely correct, and because of that I would appreciate if LeBron fans understood that officiating is far from their biggest problem in this series. The King is incredible and the most talented player to ever live, but he still deserves criticism for his constant gripes with refs despite the hopeless situation that he consistently puts them in.