May 01, 2006

The LBJ Shuffle

On a playoff weekend filled with incredible late game moments, it may have been the most memorable – but for the wrong reasons.

Late in Friday night's Wizards-Cavs game, with the Cavs trailing by one, LeBron got the ball with Antonio Daniels guarding him. He crossed over once, then twice as he maneuvered towards the basket. When he got close, he picked up his dribble and up faked, getting his man in the air. A moment later, he was elevating, double-pumping, and kissing an improbable shot off the glass. Cavs win.

Unbelievable moment, right? Only one problem:

It was a travel.

You might have missed it the first time you saw it, but if you looked a second time there was no denying it. After picking up his dribble, LeBron took not one, but two full steps from a dead standstill as he went to the basket. Yet the officials made no call. It's almost as if it was so blatantly illegal that they couldn't believe anyone would dare do it. Ever accidentally stolen something by walking out of a store with it in your hand? Sometimes the most obvious approach is the most deceptive.

And for the most part I wouldn't have a problem with this – I understand late in games that officials don't want to blow the whistle unless it's completely necessary. But with LeBron, it's becoming a chronic problem. We may not want to admit it because he's so much fun to watch, but King James reigns supreme when it comes to getting away with illegal footwork. Has anyone else noticed this? Watch LeBron closely going to the basket and you'll see he's constantly adding an extra step (or two) on his way to the hole.

I'm not naïve enough to think that LeBron's the first player to get away with traveling, or that he's the first NBA star to get away with illegal moves. But the travel is a particularly tough one to come to terms with as a fan because it looks bad, and it's impossible to ignore even if you want to. You can't really appreciate a move when it's so clearly illegal. It's one thing for a star to get away with the occasional push-off, because there's actually some skill and timing involved in the subtlety of it (MJ hooking Bryon Russell's ankle comes to mind). You've got to be sneaky with your push-off or the ref's going to spot it. But with LeBron traveling, you get the feeling that the refs actually know he's doing it (how could they not?), but they're too scared to stop it because he's LeBron. The refs in this case are like crappy summer camp counselors, and LeBron's the rebellious kid. He pushed the limits at the start of camp to see what he could get away with, and the refs didn't stop him. And when he got away with it enough times, it became an established move. LeBron – like the kid at camp who's inexplicably allowed to go where he pleases and skip activities if he doesn't want to do them – has made the refs accept his illegal footwork. And now they're too afraid to call him out on it because of his status as a superstar.

I think most NBA fans will agree that the League's officiating is pretty deeply flawed, but this is one instance where the refs could easily enforce the rules if they'd just get the guts. LeBron's so big, fast and powerful with the ball that he doesn't need the advantage. The refs shouldn't be allowed to turn a blind eye to something so blatant. The extra step has got to stop.


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