- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A funny thing happened to LeBron James on the way to becoming a hybrid of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.

He has gotten worse.

As a rookie, James was the best 19-year-old in NBA history.

The following season, he was one of the top five 20-year-olds in league history.

Last season, James remained among an elite group of players. Only Shaquille O’Neal, Julius Erving (ABA) and Michael Jordan were better at 21 years old.

This season, not only is James not one the best 22-year-olds of all time, he might not be one of the top 15 players in the league.

Most of the regression is because of his career-low .682 free throw percentage, which has declined every season.

The rest is shrouded in conspiracy theories and circumstantial evidence.

Among the accumulating pile of it, James isn’t playing as hard as last season and might even be trying to get Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown fired.

The Cavaliers play the 10th slowest pace in the league, which isn’t good for a young, athletic player like James and another reason some of his numbers are down.

Last month, James questioned Brown’s style of play.

“We don’t get easy buckets,” he said. “I don’t get easy buckets like I used to. Easy buckets can always help. It doesn’t hurt. At times, it’s fun to get up and down and throw lobs. I’ve probably caught two lobs this year. That’s a career low.”

Another emerging criticism of James is he believes his own hype, even more than Nike, the company that spews it.

Asked his goals in a recent ESPN interview, he said: “Global icon.”

Does that come before or after making the conference finals?

In the two years since he fired agent Aaron Goodwin and hired LRMR Marketing (his friends), James has procured two endorsements — Microsoft and Cub Cadet lawn mowers.

James hasn’t peaked or plateaued as a player.

His career will play out over 20 years, not the last four. Maybe Mike Brown is simply playing the part of Stan Albeck, Michael Jordan’s second coach.

But James is discovering one of life’s truths: It’s easy to be a wunderkind.

It’s easy to be gifted. It’s easy to produce when nothing is expected. It’s easy to produce when your coach, your team and the whole league is pulling for you.

Then expectations increase, and things become more difficult. It’s hard to produce with 33-year-old Eric Snow as your point guard and your coach playing stall ball.

Growing up is hard.

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