Since bursting into the national consciousness in 2001, LeBron James has been anything but an underdog.
A teenaged phenom from Akron, Ohio with boyish looks and grown-man game, LeBron James became the obsession of American sports. With a magnitude of national interest never before witnessed or approached since, the trivial high school games of a 16-year old kid became appointment viewing. Draped in his unprecedentedly popular and recognizable wide-cut number twenty-three Saint Mary’s jersey, tattoos obstructed by white bandages, a wide-smiling explosion of swaggering confidence, adolescent James dazzled America as he blew past and jumped over his competition, displaying a physical prowess never before seen at his age. Unlike the laundry list of child stars American culture had, and continues to, whittled down with over exposure and heaps of unobtainable pressure, LeBron didn’t crack under the nation’s microscope.
No, he embraced scrutiny by weaving it into motivation.
He dealt with the trappings of being uber-famous with unmatched and matured grace. He brushed off the infamous silver Hummer controversy and the throwback jersey farce, managed to remain focused and driven despite the bidding war of shoe companies that culminated with James signing a $90M contract before bouncing a NBA ball. Finally the lottery balls were plucked, and the two-year certainty that LeBron James was to be the 2003 first-overall draft pick became a reality. His Cavaliers premiere, an irrelevant October road game, was as anticipated as a regal coronation—one befitting of his nickname, King James.
Rare is it for hype to be met, more rare is it to be exceeded.
An element that has amplified the enjoyment of experiencing LeBron’s career has been the divisive discourse examining his every sentence, shot, or non-shot. It seemed everyone found themselves entrenched in two specific and equally illogical camps. Both supporters and dissidents displayed a severe patience deficiency. Every win LeBron mounted was evidence of his greatness, each loss a nail in the he-isn’t-Jordan coffin. Both sides of the debate were wrong, as they each were measuring the accumulation of snow before the storm was over.
LeBron’s storm continues. It has spanned twelve years, eleven All-Star games, four MVP’s, two championship rings and numerous iconic performances. No matter which side of LeBron James public opinion spectrum you reside, the Chosen One’s greatness has achieved bipartisan consensus, even from the stubborn cul-de-sac’s of Kobe Bryant sycophants or the staunch corners of Jordan stalwarts. What remains of the debate is the degree of his greatness.
The 2015 Finals are already being built as a Litmus test, an opportunity for LeBron to further his greatness. Though he won’t admit it, his Cavaliers are significant underdogs entering their showdown with Golden State.
According to Vegas, if Cleveland were to win the Finals this year they would be the greatest underdog to win since the Detroit Pistons toppled the Lakers in 2004. After securing his fifth consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, while dragging a mediocre cast that featured three Zombie-Knicks, an undrafted point guard, and a one-way floor-spacer who was deemed too long-of-tooth to garner a single minute in the 2011 NBA Finals, and a head coach who doesn’t actually coach, LeBron has been receiving appropriate recognition for his already impressive and unexpected achievement.
Considering the steep odds, is it fair for the result to shift the narrative in the other direction? Would a loss detract from LeBron’s greatness?
In sports, we wrongly compartmentalize history by only preserving the surface result. We disregard the minutiae, and the wealth of commentary it provides. Fossilized in time is the push-off game-winner Jordan hit in the 1998 Finals. Deleted from record is the inefficient 15-35 Jordan shot in that pivotal game. We rarely account for the events and the circumstances that rendered the result.
Below are two accumulated stat lines from a NBA Finals series.
Player A: 28.6 PPG; 8 RPG; 3.9 APG; 2.1 SPG; 40% FG.
Player B: 28.2 PPG; 7.8 RPG; 4.5 APG; 1.7 SPG; 57.1% FG.
Looking at the two lines, Player B is quickly discerned to be the better Finals performance considering significant advantage in efficiency. Yet, history remembers Player B as coming up short, whereas Player A’s performance is showered in roses.
Player A is Kobe Bryant during the 2010 Finals. Player B is LeBron in the 2014 Finals.
We fail to examine losing as binary the equation it is. We don’t say, “Tom Brady and the Patriots lost the 2007 Super Bowl, but….” We say Brady and the Pats lost, they’re overrated and everything else becomes tertiary. Even though the 2007 Patriots are one of the greatest teams in NFL history, we disregard them as overrated.
In real time, LeBron’s 2007 overmatched Cavs were celebrated for winning the East and securing a Title birth. Little criticism was heaped at the 22-year old LeBron when they were dismantled by the far more talented Spurs. The time-proven doctrine that hero ball had never, and will never, succeed at the NBA’s highest pedestal was offered as LeBron’s hall pass. The failure wasn’t his, but that of his front office.
Yet, over time, the public lost perspective. They forgot that the 2007 runner-up’s second best player was Drew Gooden. They forgot what it looked like when time after time Zydrunas Ilgauskas leaped off balance after Tim Duncan pump fakes, or how easily Tony Parker drove past Boobie Gibson, and how grotesque it was to see Sasha Pavlovic guard a full-haired, quick-stepped Manu Ginobili. Time boiled down the series to its final result: LeBron got swept.
The 2015 Finals will be decided by how each team assigns defensive matchups, and how they counter those assignments with subsequent strategic adjustments. The deadliest weapon in the Golden State’s armory isn’t their three-point shooting, their drop-of-a-dime runs, or even their possession of two league’s most dangerous heat-check threats. No, Golden State’s power punch is their defensive flexibility.
The top-ranked defensive unit in terms of efficiency this season has numerous options to defend the League’s best player. They will likely start Harrison Barnes on LeBron, with the instruction to drop below screens and to give LeBron the perimeter jumpers he has struggled with this postseason—he is just 33% on long 2’s and 17.6% on 3’s this postseason. If he finds his jumper, they will throw Draymond at him and live with the consequences of Tristan Thompson snagging offensive boards over the smaller Barnes or the slower Bogut. All the while, they blanket Klay on Kyrie, if he’s playing effectively. If he’s hobbled and forced into a Mike Miller stand-in-the-corner role, they have Klay chase J.R. Smith around.
On the other end of the court, Cleveland will likely throw Shumpert on Curry, who has the length and quickness to contain the MVP. Golden State will employ a flurry of Thompson, Green and Bogut picks at Shumpert, hoping for a switch that leaves Curry on an island with Irving, Thompson or Mosgov guarding him. Each of those scenarios are grim for Cleveland. When healthy Irving is a liability on defense, when slowed by injury he becomes as abhorrent defensively as Steve Nash.
I see only two roads to victory for Cleveland, and both are as claustrophobic as the alleyways of Sarajevo.
The first and most unlikely road is that LeBron disproves the time-proven doctrine that hero ball can’t win a title by offering four game-six-in-Boston performances. He does what Allen Iverson did in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, only four times over. To do this he would need to find his lost jumper, return to his Miami Heat efficiency, and erase either Klay or Steph’s offensive output on the other end. And that still might not be enough.
The second and more travel-friendly road is to get Draymond Green in foul trouble. Largely consequence of limited exposure from playing in the Pacific Time Zone, the debate on whether Draymond Green would get a max contract this coming offseason was a fun conversation to entertain. Traditionally he would be a role player, but his skill-set is tailor made for the style of basketball being played today. If he hadn’t already asserted himself as a top-15 player, these playoffs have cemented Green as such, and eliminated the conversation of warranting a max contract. That is now a point of fact. The secret is out on Steve Kerr’s Swiss Army knife, and calling him underrated has become an erroneous statement. Green is the V-8 engine which drives the daunting Golden State defense. His ability to stymie bigs and guards alike is as valuable to the Warriors as Steph Curry’s lighting-quick release.
To get Green in foul trouble, Cleveland will have to employ the staple of the their opponents offense: movement and on-ball pick and rolls. LeBron’s band of misfit toys have rarely utilized P&R’s this season. Their primary offensive action is for LeBron to absorb defenders and kick out to open shooters, which as far as stretching a definition goes, is analogous to calling Rick Perry a liable presidential candidate or Iggy Azaela a musician.
If Cleveland trots out this archaic offensive approach, Golden State will make quick work of the series. They will simply sag off LeBron, drape Cleveland’s perimeter shooters, and dare LeBron to beat them by shooting 35 times a game. The most effective way to minimize LeBron is to take away his assists.
However, if Cleveland evolves and deploys LeBron-Thompson P&R’s and collects early fouls on Green, they stand a chance. If Cleveland can dispatch Green to wave towels with David Lee on the Warriors bench, they force the Golden State to play Bogut-Barnes-Iggy/Livingston-Klay-Curry units, which allows for Cleveland to stash the hobbled and defensively-adverse Kyrie Irving on Iggy/Livingston. Offensively, it forces Barnes and/or Klay Thompson to attempt to fight over Mosgov pick-and-dives, in fear that LeBron will have Bogut switched onto him.
If Cleveland can couple a few games of Green in foul trouble with LeBron super-stud games, they shorten the talent gulf between the two teams. If they can’t, we’ll see the impossibly-adorable Riley Curry Schmoney dancing onstage as Commissioner Silver awards the Warriors the Larry O’Brien trophy.
No matter how well LeBron plays in the 2015 Finals, if Cleveland loses, the immediate response will be negative. Twitter will overdose on memes of Kermit drinking tea, only with Wade and Pat Riley and Michael Jordan’s heads photoshopped in place of the Muppets character. Analysts will be quick to remind audiences that Jordan never lost in the finals. Skip Bayless will arrive to the First Take set fully erect, ready to shout 2-and-4 from the vaulted and, unfortunately, persuasive ESPN mountaintops. The defunct LeBron-isn’t-clutch narrative will be dredged back up, despite the litany of evidence dismissing its merits.
History will not remember the insurmountable odds that beset them. We won’t remember that LeBron wasn’t supposed to reach the the Finals this soon. History will likely forget that J.R. Smith was his second best player and will almost certainly misremember how hobbled Kyrie was—that three of the Cavs four highest paid players were injured. We won’t credit Golden State as the juggernaut that they rightfully are.
We might even forget that the 2015 season was the first time in NBA history that a player commanded full control of a NBA franchise, dictating coaching and front offices decisions alike.
Hopefully my fears will be unfounded. Perhaps history will act outside of its nature and the surface result won’t cannibalize the narrative. Perhaps it will honor LeBron’s 2015 campaign the way it has honored Allen Iverson’s 2001 march to the Finals. Not a title, but as impressive a defeat as there is. But more than likely, history will treat it like it did Dwight Howard in 2009, LeBron in 2007, Dirk in 2006, Reggie Miller in 2000, and Shaq and Penny in 1995: as nothing more than a failure.
What a shame that would be.