After the Cleveland Cavaliers built a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors made smart adjustments and the Cavs looked burned out from playing a shortened rotation because of injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
That the Cavs were even able to make the Finals close and exciting is a testament to the unprecedented workload LeBron James had to undertake. James basically had to play every minute of the Finals, conduct the Cavs’ offence on every possession, and average 40-point triple-doubles to give the Cavs a chance against the stacked, healthy Warriors.
To criticise LeBron for falling to 2-4 in the NBA Finals is to ignore that this Cavs team, down Love, Irving, and center Anderson Varejao since November, had to rely on LeBron to be at his peak at every moment in the Finals.
On Zach Lowe’s podcast “The Lowe Post,” Lowe spoke to ESPN NBA analyst and former head coach Jeff Van Gundy about where the Cavs team from the Finals would be without James. In Van Gundy’s opinion, they wouldn’t even be in the playoffs.
“If you flipped LeBron James to Golden State and you flipped [Stephen] Curry to Cleveland, what would the series be?” Van Gundy asked. “It’d be a sweep. It’d be a sweep, and that’s not knocking Curry, Curry’s had an unbelievable year… But there’s no doubt who’s the MVP of this series.”
Van Gundy continued by saying, “What other player could have two wins and two other competitive losses — and I’d even say Game 4 was competitive until the start of the fourth, right? Who else could have pulled this off? Anyone?”
Lowe then wondered where the Cavs would be if an elite forward like Carmelo Anthony was in LeBron’s place. Lowe said he doesn’t think the Cavs would be a playoff team, and if they were, they’d be knocked out of the first round. Van Gundy replied:
“Oh, they don’t win 30 games. That’s no knock on Carmelo Anthony… I think he’s an outstanding player, and his season where he led the Knicks to the division title and they won 54, I think spoke to just how great he was or is. But that being said, this team, with this rotation, this lack of depth, you couldn’t go on and win enough games to make the playoffs. I just don’t see how. Listen, let’s just say you took James off this team, and the rest of the guys were left to play a regular season. Would they win 15 games in a regular season? … No, they couldn’t average — they wouldn’t be able to average 80 points.”
This is, of course, one man’s take on the importance of James, but stats did back up that the Cavs were basically helpless in the Finals when James wasn’t on the floor.
Without LeBron James on the floor this series.JR Smith 0/9 FGDelly 0/7 FGJ. Jones 0/3 FGShumpert 0/2 FGTotal 0/21 FG
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 17, 2015
For the entire Finals the Cavs’ offensive rating was 93.8 points per 100 possessions. With James on the floor it jumped to 97.3. With James off the floor, it fell to 50.9. The Cavs scored 51 points per 100 possessions when James was on the bench. They were inept without him on the court. He only sat for a total of 23 minutes over the course of six games, during which time the Cavs made just six field goals.
FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Payne used advanced data to rank NBA players’ supporting casts in the Finals and found that this year’s Cavs team was 60th of 62.
James shouldn’t be blamed for coming up short in the Finals. Bringing the Cavs two wins away from the championship with a depleted roster puts into context just how great James is.
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