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The Inbounds: The Gambit vs. LeBron James

By Matt Moore | NBA writer
Will he stay at the level we last saw him on? (Getty Images)

The Inbounds focuses on one element, thought, question, or joke in the league. It appears daily Monday through Friday on CBSSports.com.

“Life is a gamble at terrible odds, if it were a bet, you would not take it."

-Tom Stoppard



The NBA season tips off Tuesday night, and if you want to know what's happening in this environment? Everyone but one team is gambling.

The Celtics, who most pundits are in love with this season, are gambling that Jason Terry's regression last year was not tied to age, that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett can hang on for one more year, that Jeff Green's preseason is the real Jeff Green, and that you can win with a rookie in a major role in the playoffs with limited athleticism.

The Lakers are gambling that they can stay healthy, that you can throw a bunch of guys with different styles together and have the talent when out, and not only that, but you can use an offensive fit that doesn't correspond to that talent at all.

The Thunder are gambling that they don't need James Harden.

Denver's gambling that you can score without shooters, Indiana that you don't need offense at all, New York that isolation is the way to salvation, the Spurs that you don't need defense, and the Nets that all you need is talent and Jay-Z.

But then there's Miami.

And they're not playing with house money, not yet.

A title should mean validation, a shift from desperation to cool confidence. But for James (and Wade, and Bosh) it will always be multiple titles. Two's not even enough. Not three, not four, yada, yada, yada. The standards are impossible because that's what he set. He put himself in a corner and now he has to fight his way out of it.

But there is one enormous difference, which became apparent in Game 5 against the Pacers, in Game 6 against the Celtics, in the Finals and this summer for Team USA.

LeBron James is no longer struggling with the struggle. He's no longer intimidated with the challenge. He's not asking himself if he can do the things he wants to do, not trying to figure out how to reach where he wants to go.

A friend of mine asked me a few years ago what the secret to a good marriage is. I have very little experience since my wife and I haven't been married long, but I told him it's the same thing I've learned about being good at anything. It's about not worrying about how to do it, or trying to find a philosophy of how to do it, and just doing it. The function reveals the result. There's no rocket science to it, it's simply putting in the work.

And for James, he's reached that point. It's not about trying to understand who he is as a player or what mental approach he needs. Somewhere, sometime after Game 5 in Miami, "Good job, good effort!" still ringing in his ears, James let go of the struggle, of striving for joy or understanding of his own gifts. He just played.

I commented after Game 6 that I'd never seen James like that. He wasn't smiling. He wasn't laughing, or giggling, or dancing. He did nothing but play basketball, drink Gatorade, and beat the hell out of the Celtics for three quarters until they were broken.

And he took that same approach in the Finals, and won the title. He took that approach in the Olympics, and won a gold medal. He was the best player on Earth well before last spring. But the gap now is wide enough that you start to wonder what it takes to beat him.

LeBron no longer has to gamble on his talents. He doesn't have to search for understanding or meaning or validation. He's the King, he's the champ, he's on top. Will he respond to that with cruel and emotionless domination? Will he slack off, relying too much on past accomplishments as an assurance of spring success?

There are thousands of questions going into any NBA season, and this one is no different. The season tells a story which leads to many more questions. But for all the uncertainty and desperate or brilliant gambles from the rest of the league, the 2012-2013 NBA season begins and ends with this question.

Is LeBron all in?

Because if so, it's going to take more than cards and dice to save the rest of the league.

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