A.J. Hoffman: It's time to appreciate what you have in Lebron James
It seems we get to this point every year in the NBA playoffs. The point where we all start asking the same question.
“How far can LeBron James carry the Cavaliers this season?”
It’s not surprising that we ask it. Whatever you think of his standing on the “all-time” list of NBA greats, he has been almost unquestionably the best player of his era. Thus, just like we did with Magic and Jordan and Kobe, we dissect his every move almost to the point of absurdity.
2010 was the last time we had an NBA finals without LeBron. That 7-year streak is the longest of any player in history that didn’t play for the Celtics in the late-50’s to early 60’s (when there were four teams in each conference).
The fact that he is currently down in the Eastern Conference Finals is only surprising because, well, he is LeBron.
So far in these playoffs, James has been magnificent. He leads all playoff scorers with 33.1 PPG. He has averaged both 9.2 assists and rebounds in these playoffs. He had a 42 point, 10 rebound, 12 assist showing in Game 2 against Boston, in a game where he took a nasty shoulder to the jaw from Jayson Tatum.
This Cavaliers team, should they find a way to make it to the Finals, is probably the weakest James-led playoff roster since his first finals appearance back in 2007 when the Cavs were swept by San Antonio. The 2015 team that lost to the Warriors was injured (Kevin Love in the first round of the playoffs and Kyrie Irving in Game 1 of the finals) but still more talented than this team. They finished the regular season fourth in the Eastern Conference, the lowest a James-led team has finished since 2008 when the Cavaliers were a 4 seed.
The offseason went horrifically wrong for Cleveland, as Irving forced his way out and the Cavs got Isaiah Thomas back in return. Thomas never fit with the Cavs, and his style of play and lack of production made Cleveland look downright bad at times. It never quite rounded into the shape they had hoped, and at midseason Thomas and several other Cavaliers were sent packing, undoubtably at the behest of LeBron.
Does this mean he is personally accountable for how they perform? That is hard to say. While he has a lot of clout, more than any other player in the league, he isn’t a GM and he isn’t an owner. If the Cavaliers decided it was in the team’s best interest to make the moves that James wanted, is that on him or the organization? Cleveland is already in a precarious situation because they have to balance trying to win another championship while LeBron is still in town with trying to keep him happy enough to keep him around for the foreseeable future.
If the Cavs end up losing to the Celtics, it seems like there would not be much reason for LeBron to stay in Cleveland beyond this season. It would also, once again, subject him to the scrutiny of not only his detractors, but also the fans in Cleveland (let’s not forget how quickly they turned on him after “The Decision.” We will see the inevitable “LeBum” memes and there will be 29 fanbases calling him a sellout and a ring chaser. There will also be one fanbase who loves and adores him and realize that his mere presence makes them a favorite to contend for a title immediately.
What if he does find a way to pull this off against the Celtics? What if he carries a team where no other player is averaging six made baskets per night all the way to the Finals? With the modern NBA built on “super teams” and “Big 3s,” the truth is James will have dragged a pack of B and C-level players to yet another NBA Finals, where the nitpicking starts all over.
If the Cavaliers lose to either the Warriors or the Rockets, it will be another example for people to point to for the purpose of detracting from his legacy. It won’t matter if he is great in a losing effort. Look no further than the aforementioned 2015 Finals, where LeBron averaged 36 points per game and stretched the series with the Warriors to six games despite playing without Irving and Love.
If the Cavaliers were to win the championship, it wouldn’t matter because Michael Jordan never lost one and didn’t have to join up with Kevin Love to win his rings. Look no further than the 2016 Finals where he averaged 30 points per game and beat a team that had the best regular season in the history of the NBA.
The greatest player of this generation is still on the floor, and still fighting hard for another ring, and you have two choices. You can either appreciate his greatness and effort regardless of the outcome, or you can sit back and stubbornly pretend that he isn’t nearly as good as the media makes him out to be. Whatever happens in this series and beyond, try to put aside nicknames and all-time rankings and Player A vs. Player B comparisons, even if only for a little while. Just soak it in, and try to appreciate one of the best who has ever touched a ball go all out to add to his legacy.