*LeBron James is about to lose in the Finals for the second straight year. Thanks to the superior team that is the Golden State Warriors and the unbelievable skill of Stephen Curry the national narrative will become whether or not LeBron can win again, whether he was ever good enough, whether he will be remembered as the Buffalo Bills of this generation.
I have two examples that everyone who will be writing about LeBron James will recognize. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
Michael Jordan was undoubtedly the best player in the world during his early career. He was winning scoring titles and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the second half of the 1980s. As most basketball fans know, during these seasons the Bulls did not enjoy lots of postseason success as a team. It wasn’t until Scottie Pippen became an All Star level player that the team was able to get over the hump and win a championship. Eventually Pippen became one of the best 50 players in NBA history and the pair went on to win 6 championships in 8 years.
Similarly LeBron has been the best player in the league for approximately a decade. During his first tour of duty in Cleveland LeBron won Most Valuable Player awards and was talented enough to even drag a team with no other All-Star players to the NBA Finals. At this point most basketball commentators and fans empathized with James and saw that he helped the team overachieve. It was commonly accepted that if LeBron able to pair his talents with other great players he would be able to win championships. So he went to Miami and formed a super team.
Magic Johnson made the NBA Finals in 9 out of 12 NBA seasons (not counting his aborted comeback attempt). The big difference between Johnson and James is that Johnson came to a team that already had the all-time leading scorer in NBA history (Kareem Abdul-Jabber). Soon after Johnson got there the Lakers acquired another of the best 50 players in NBA history (James Worthy). In fact after Johnson retired due to HIV Worthy led the team to the second round of the playoffs – he wasn’t simply riding Johnson’s coattails. So as good as Johnson was, he never had to shoulder the load all on his own.
When Lebron went to Miami although he was teaming up with two perennial All-Stars he was undeniably the best player. Even Dwayne Wade (a former NBA Finals MVP still in his physical prime) admitted that the team would go as far as James would take them. LeBron was able to go in 4 straight seasons winning twice. Perhaps it is a bit of an underachievement to have lost to the Dallas Mavericks, but Magic Johnson also has such pitfalls in his career losing in the Finals four times.
The common denominator is having good teammates whether they were there when the superstar go to the team or whether they were acquired later, in the NBA history there are very few seasons in which a team with only one transcendent player wins the championship player.
This brings us to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. They are the people who would fill the “other star” roles on this Cleveland team. They are very good. But as we are finding out they aren’t quite good enough. While Russell Westbrook outplayed Stephen Curry for most of the Western Conference Finals series Kyrie Irving has not shown he is of that caliber. Depending on what you believe Kevin Love’s role is and/or should be he hasn’t lived up to his potential. He hasn’t scored the way Kevin Durant did, nor did he control the paint and rebound the way Steven Adams did – and I don’t think this is all his fault. Consequently the Cavaliers find themselves down 3 games to 1 instead of up 3 games to 1 as Oklahoma City did.
Yes it is a lofty standard to say that Irving and Love should play as well as players who are considered 2 of the best dozen players in the league. But I believe that is what the Cavaliers were expecting and that is certainly how they are paying those guys. At some point we as a basketball consuming public may have admit that Irving and Love were good enough to produce certain statistics when everything revolved around them but not necessarily when others needed to be considered.
The reality is that James has been the rare athlete to fulfill just about all of his potential. People projected him as perhaps the future best player in NBA history when he was still in high school. Such accolades created unrealistic expectations that James could not live up to even though he has maximized his basketball skill. And it is true that Curry may have passed him as the best player (I don’t think so but I acknowledge that LeBron is not a total force of nature anymore). But none of that should mean that we appreciate James less.
LeBron James the general manager (he is said to have had a role in constructing the team) is terrible and deserves to be criticized. LeBron James the player is about to get a bum rap.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.