The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007 after sweeping the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
While it’s been eight years since the Cavs made it, it’s LeBron James’ fifth-straight trip to the Finals and his sixth overall.
A part of the NBA world believes LeBron only has a few peak years left. Some believe he’s already on the backend of his career.
James didn’t win MVP this year, yet still averaged 25 points, six rebounds, and seven assists per game while shooting 49% from the field and 35% from three-point range in a “down season.”
The LeBron James effect is this: He’s a walking 50-win season. The Miami Heat won 18 more games than the previous season when he signed there in 2010, and the Cavs won 20 more games this year than last year. Even if his championship count isn’t as high as some people would like, he’s now 24-17 in Eastern Conference Finals games with career averages of 31 points, six rebounds, six assists per game, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst notes. Windhorst adds that LeBron has now won 15-straight Eastern Conference playoff series. He’s the first Eastern Conference player to make five-straight Finals appearances since the 1960s Boston Celtics.
This postseason, the Cavs lost Kevin Love to a season-ending shoulder injury after four games, and they lost Kyrie Irving to a knee injury for two games while he played injured for six others. James carried the team, nonetheless, particularly in the conference finals, where he averaged 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game.
The Cavs also ran into some injury luck — the Bulls lost Pau Gasol for some of the second round, and the Hawks fought trough injuries to DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and a Game 3 ejection to Al Horford. But in fairness to the Cavaliers, all of those injuries were equally as devastating as losing Love and Irving.
And despite the monstrous statistics, LeBron hasn’t been all that efficient. His jumper has mysteriously disappeared. He’s shooting just 31.7% from 8-16 feet away from the basket, 33.8% from 16-24 feet from the basket, and just 18% from three in the postseason.
He’s scrapping the Cavs’ offence with isolations — inefficient one-on-one plays that have him averaging just .68 points per possession and 32.5% shooting, despite going to them 22 more times than second-closest player in the playoffs, James Harden, and 89 more times than the third, Stephen Curry.
Despite this ill-timed slump, James is still finding ways to will the Cavs to wins. In a pivotal Game 5 against the Bulls, James overpowered defenders in the post en route to 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, and three blocks:
In a Game 3 overtime victory over the Hawks, James finished with 37 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 assists. The one caveat was his poor shooting, 14-37, but if you ignore his 0-10 start to the game, he went 14-27 the rest of the way, better than 50%.
Even as a one-man attack on offence, he was doing what he wants:
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who was an assistant with the Spurs in 2013 when they lost to the Heat in the Finals, says he can see a difference in James (via USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt):
“His confidence has gone to another level. Having watched and prepared — watching how he orchestrates and has a great command for where he wants his teammates and what’s important in the moment and the confidence that he has in himself to make the right play, whether it’s making a shot, making the pass. As a leader, he’s grown. His confidence has grown.”
If James and the Cavs play the Warriors in the Finals (assuming the Houston Rockets don’t become the first team to ever overcome a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs), it will likely be the first time this postseason where the Cavs won’t be the favourites. Without a healthy team, Cleveland doesn’t seem suited to match the Warriors’ depth.
However, that’s still not enough to rule them out. Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted in his podcast “The Lowe Post” that the LeBron effect is enough to keep you from ever doubting him, saying:
“If Cleveland is playing this way, and they’re playing this way with a seven-man team, they shouldn’t be good enough to challenge Golden State. They just shouldn’t be. Golden State is too good and too deep and too polished, but [the Cavs] have LeBron. And you always wanna say you can’t dismiss a team that has LeBron… LeBron is LeBron, and it’s scary to just say, ‘His team is going to get rolled in the Finals.’ It’s just, it’s too scary.”
James is the only player that can find so many ways to leverage his strength over an opponent’s. In the midst of this postseason, in which he’s playing below par in so many areas, particularly on offence, he’s still the focal point of every matchup.
Debating his all-time place is in the NBA is a fruitless task because such comparisons rely on too many variables. For now, LeBron is the most dominant player in the NBA and until he’s no longer capable of the performances we’ve seen this postseason, he’s still the biggest deciding factor in the NBA’s balance of power.
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