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James’s ascension complete

Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said LeBron James has “grown by leaps and bounds.’’ Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said LeBron James has “grown by leaps and bounds.’’ (Tony Dejak/Associated Press)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 1, 2010

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CLEVELAND — LeBron James is merely four months removed from his 25th birthday and yet he likely will be honored for collecting his second consecutive NBA MVP Award before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics Monday. Some wonder how much higher James can ascend.

His recent play has ended the debate regarding who is the game’s best player. As Kobe Bryant slowly descends at age 31, James is likely three years from his prime. NBA history tells us that the game’s greatest players did not peak until their late 20s, James a notable exception.

It is conceivable James could continue to produce at an MVP level for another seven years. He has avoided major injuries. His granite, sculpted body is unmatched in the NBA. There might be better scorers or rebounders or distributors or even penetrators, but no one amasses those skills into one punishing body of work as James does.

His 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound frame delivers as many hits as it withstands and James has made it a priority to be known as more than just a high flyer. Comparisons with Michael Jordan are natural, especially since both put downtrodden franchises on their shoulders and lifted them to elite status.

And what Jordan brought to the game in flair, athleticism, and dominance, James equals with strength, all-around skill, and speed. There is only one Jordan, but James is making a loud enough impression on today’s NBA to create his own mystique for a new generation of children to emulate.

“If you turn around, he has 35 [points], 8 boards, and 9 assists and that means he’s all-around, not to mention the steals and the blocks,’’ Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said. “He affects the game is so many different dimensions.

“Dominance is dominance,’’ Garnett said when comparing James and Jordan. “New era. New rules. Different tales of the tape. Apples and oranges. Both of them sweet. You love both of them. They are both good for you.’’

James is a cinch for MVP because he not only matched his 2008-09 season, he exceeded it. He averaged more points, more assists, and had a better shooting percentage. Despite averaging nearly 30 points, James was a stunning sixth in the NBA in assists with 8.6. He also finished ninth in steals.

Those numbers suggest he’s the most versatile player of our generation.

“He’s the only guy I know of like Magic [Johnson],’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “The steam-bullet passes. He throws cross-court passes that are going 100 miles an hour and it’s tough to react to. He’s a great passer and even though he scores a lot, he wants to pass sometimes.’’

The Celtics truly faced a one-man team in the Miami Heat, but Cleveland brings a more talented dimension because of James’s dedication to involving his teammates in the offense. James finished second in the league in scoring, but was just fifth in field goal attempts. And of the league’s top 11 in field goal attempts, James finished with the highest percentage.

The Cavaliers have emerged as more than just LeBron and the Boys. He is the nucleus of Cleveland’s well-managed offense and the Celtics learned from the 3-point shooting of Mo Williams and the easy layups off pick and rolls from Anderson Varejao that they can’t just focus on James. He won’t allow it.

“When I’m on the court, I am always looking to get my guys involved and myself involved, that’s just the nature of my game,’’ he said. “Sometimes what I do overshadows the rest of the guys. [The MVP award would] solidify a lot of hard work and dedication I put in in the offseason to get better as an individual and bring it to this team; just dedicating myself to become a better player this season.’’

Jordan did not win the first of six NBA titles until his seventh season, and many experts believe Jordan wasn’t successful until he pushed aside his selfishness and incorporated his teammates. James is aware of the perception he is Jordan-like in his scoring abilities and told reporters this season he could lead the league in scoring every season if he wanted.

But at a stage where most NBA superstars are more consumed with statistics and shoe contracts than championship trophies, James said he understands the Cavaliers won’t reach the pinnacle unless he brings out the best in his teammates.

“It kind of bothers me sometimes when I go out and have a big game as far as points and guys say I didn’t get my teammates involved,’’ he said. “But I still end up with eight assists. I end up with eight rebounds. It doesn’t make sense to me. I am probably one of the only guys in the league that can decide to get 30 points, 40 points, but I don’t get my teammates involved. I feel like my presence on the court as an individual automatically gets our teammates involved. No matter what goes on throughout the court of the game, I am always playing for the betterment of my team.’’

James’s emphasis on being an optimal teammate and using the talent around him is not lost on his coach. Mike Brown arrived in Cleveland when the Cavaliers were approaching as a contending team and has formed a unique bond with James that allows the All-Star to voice his opinion on team issues.

And Brown has worked feverishly to make the environment so comfortable for James that he won’t consider leaving this summer, when he can opt out of his contract.

“The two seasons that he’s had are remarkable,’’ Brown said. “It could have been his third or fourth [MVP] in a row. He’s a young fella. There are some things you could look at numbers-wise that he got better at, but you can feel it in his presence, the way he carries himself, his demeanor. He’s grown by leaps and bounds. And that’s not anything you can measure with numbers. The sky’s the limit for him with as many years as he has left in this league.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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