OAKLAND, Calif. — LeBron James is so good, he makes everyone around him better and worse at the same time. This isn’t a knock on James, only an acknowledgement that his talent, intelligence, physical gifts and overall brilliance are uplifting but also overshadow so much that little else can be recognized. James is back where he’s supposed to be, in the NBA Finals, but he is with a team that few consider worthy of this stage — or on par with the Golden State Warriors.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are here for the fourth straight year because James refused to let Kyrie Irving’s forced trade to Boston, Kevin Love’s occasional injury misfortune, roster upheaval at the trade deadline and little to no time to develop any semblance of chemistry serve as excuses. James has made producing mind-numbing statistics routine, expected and easily taken for granted. He has an internal generator that allows him to fight off mental and physical fatigue. And he has displayed so much shape-shifting and hole-plugging ability that his teammates have only needed to provide just enough help for him to steer the Cavaliers where only James could take them.
Though he has been the lone constant throughout this strained season and has lacked a consistent All-Star sidekick, James hasn’t done it alone. James couldn’t hold the Boston Celtics to just 79 points in Game 7 by himself. Someone — Oh, is that coach Tyronn Lue over there? — had to devise a scheme. He certainly spooked out Toronto in the second round, but Love and Kyle Korver had to make those open looks while the Raptors stood around in frozen panic. And while James was bloodied by the Indiana Pacers, the series wasn’t won until Lue trusted that Tristan Thompson could give the team something, anything, in Game 7. George Hill, J.R. Smith and Jeff Green have also had their moments, but not enough to change the perception that this is the worst — or second-worst — team that James has dragged out of the Eastern Conference.
“Throughout the whole course of the playoffs, we had guys step up,” Lue said, “so I don’t really read into that.”
Aside from Love, who made his fifth All-Star appearance this season, the other non-LeBron contributors don’t have the kind of consistent, high-level success that sells in a star-driven league. And even if they did, the presence of James would diminish their accomplishments. This phenomenon isn’t new. Even after forming that initial super-team in Miami in 2010 with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it wasn’t long before the separation in talent and skill began to emerge. Wade and Bosh eventually had to find roles to complement and acquiesce James for that experiment to work. James bailed on the Heat after four years when he realized he’d need younger, better support elsewhere to continue his pursuit of not two, not three …
As the greatest player of this generation and a rare talent capable of entering any greatest-of-all-time debate, James is a dynamic force who was actually undersold by his considerable hype before entering the league. It’s not enough to call him the best player on his team because he’s also the best at virtually every measurable skill — scoring, assisting, rebounding, you name it. He’s always surrounded by shooters because others on his team can do it better or almost as well, but James is whom the Cavaliers want shooting with the game on the line. His ability to make shots and plays for others makes it easier to defer to him, and James never carries himself as if he is being asked to shoulder too much. James is always asked to do all of the above. And more.
Since James returned to Cleveland, the outside perception has always been that the four-time MVP is also running things as general manager and coach. Though James has scoffed at that assessment and always acknowledges the moves former Cavs general manager David Griffin made to put the team in contention every season, owner Dan Gilbert decided last summer that Griffin was expendable. Lue overcame a late-season health scare to make his third straight Finals appearance but rarely gets mentioned as one of the league’s promising young coaches, despite being younger than his opponent in the previous round, Brad Stevens.
“I’m a big fan of Ty’s. I don’t think he gets enough credit, frankly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But that’s probably the burden of coaching LeBron. There’s a lot of benefits, but there’s a burden, too.”
The burden for Cleveland is such: win, and avoid criticism while James gets the praise. Lose, and assume all of the blame. Saturday Night Live recently produced a skit called “The Other Cavaliers” that only enhanced James’ reputation as a one-man show. Earlier this season, Love spoke about the challenge of playing with a superstar who attracts an inordinate amount of attention — and potential scapegoats if the situation turns sour. “You just grow accustomed to it,” Love told Yahoo Sports. “I just try to go about my business and not really think of or hear the outside noise anymore. As far as the scrutiny of being labeled a certain way or this team having so many expectations of going to the Finals every year, that kind of comes with the territory. And we have to try and back it up.”
James’ performance in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, when he scored 25 consecutive points and 29 of the Cavs’ last 30 in a double-overtime win at The Palace of Auburn Hills, was the moment the wunderkind became more than the promise of things to come. But that arrival as a truly transcendent player would also capture the burden he’s carried for much of his career, as the man lacking help. Drew Gooden, the starting power forward on that 2007 team and the man responsible for that other point, joked afterward that he’ll be able to tell his kids about the time he and LeBron combined for Cleveland’s final 30 points. That Cavaliers team is generally regarded as the worst Finals squad of James’ career. Star power was certainly lacking, but what often gets overlooked is that James didn’t have to summon super-hero performances that entire postseason run, only when desperately needed.
This postseason, the Cavaliers haven’t had the luxury of being able to bail out James. If he’s been subpar, they’ve been bad. But James is so much better than he was when he made his first Finals appearance — hardened by disappointment, emboldened by overcoming challenges and motivated by chasing ghosts. Unburdened by the need to respond to critics, James hasn’t waste much energy publicly complaining about what he doesn’t have.
“He doesn’t walk around acting like he’s carrying a team, like he’s carrying an organization,” Korver said. “He doesn’t walk around like that. I mean, he knows he’s LeBron James, and he knows who he is. But he’s really for all of his teammates. He’s always talking to guys, trying to help them get better. He’s a really great leader.”
James doesn’t ask for sympathy for his predicament and doesn’t deserve any, either. The Cavaliers are where they are because he put them in a position to maximize his prime — however long he seems capable of extending it — without taking the future into consideration. He’s always held the leverage to leave after each season, which pushed the organization to make long-term commitments to role players that clogged up cap space and limited flexibility. He’s always been the ultimate teammate, pushing his guys through inspiring words, dedication to his craft, a subtweet here or there and even matching suits and Jodeci boots. But the agreement has also been on his terms, his way, which works for most but inevitably pushed away Irving. James has made up for the latter by being more than anyone could’ve imagined from someone in his 15th season and seven months shy of his 34th birthday.
The compromise of a partnership with James is guaranteed Finals appearances and the possibility of feeling the exhilaration of what happened in 2016, when the Cavaliers completed the most unlikely comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win the franchise’s lone championship. Cleveland is in position to claim another, even as an extreme underdog, against a Warriors team that seems preordained for a third title in four years — a team whose individual talents, remarkable as they are, also take a backseat to James.
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