11 months ago
Athletes can drive each other to new levels of excellence. Or they can wind up trapped in a giant’s shadow. LeBron James keeps a big chunk of the NBA in the dark.
Having already collected four MVPs and three titles/Finals MVPs, he looks to win the Eastern Conference for the fourth straight time with the Cleveland Cavaliers. This would extend his personal streak of Finals appearances to eight, including all four of his seasons with the Miami Heat.
This season his Cavaliers had a series that was harder than expected (getting taken to seven by the Pacers) …
And one that was surprisingly simple (sweeping the Raptors) …
Both times LeBron was ultimately the best player on the floor, just as he has invariably been throughout his 15 seasons. (That’s more than either Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain played—Michael Jordan retired after his fifteenth, having missed the playoffs his final two years with the Washington Wizards.)
LeBron’s sustained level of play has gone past the point of impressive to … well, plain confusing.
“I have no idea what’s going on there,” says Scott Raab. The Cleveland-born Raab is the author of The Whore of Akron and You’re Welcome, Cleveland: How I Helped LeBron James Win a Championship and Save a City, as well as a central figure in ESPN Films’ 30 for 30: Believeland. “How can this possibly be true? It’s not just the minutes, but the playoff minutes. The maximum intensity.”
It’s enough to make a big chunk of the NBA go: I wish that guy had stuck with football.
The Alternative Career Path
Basketball wasn’t the only sport LeBron played in high school: James was an all-state receiver too. Tom Brady has said of LeBron’s gridiron potential: “Tight end. Split him out, just throw it up. He’d come down with a lot of them.” (A similar approach has worked pretty well with Brady’s slightly less massive tight end Rob Gronkowski, who stands 6’6” to LeBron’s 6’8”.)
Even today, some cling to the hope LeBron will try a new sport. Pittsburgh Steeler receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster actively recruits him: “LeBron has done everything in the NBA. He can be the best athlete EVER if he makes the move to the NFL and wins a Super Bowl with Steeler Nation… #LeBronToPittsburgh”
Sadly, LeBron describes himself as a “tank top and shorts guy,” suggesting he’ll continue deflating the hoop dreams of others for some time to come. (At least, he will come the playoffs: Raab notes LeBron has “learned how to coast at the appropriate moments, which at this point in his career means the entire regular season.”)
We can still imagine. This is how the NBA would look had LeBron taken his talents to another game altogether.
Kevin Durant Would Be a Serious GOAT Contender
A scoring champ with four MVP awards who wins titles with two franchises and apparently has a lot of great basketball still to come.
That’s what LeBron James is and what Kevin Durant might have been. Three times when James won MVP, Durant was runner-up. The one season Durant’s Oklahoma Thunder reached the NBA Finals, LeBron was waiting with the Miami Heat. (They won in five, bringing James the first title of his career.)
Durant has an MVP, an NBA title and led the NBA in scoring four times. (LeBron’s only done it once.) He developed into one of the best shot blockers in the NBA, ranking in the top ten the last two seasons. He even beat LeBron in the Finals last year.
But barring his own triumphant return to OKC and subsequent title, Durant will always be known as the player who took If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em to heart by losing a tough series to the Golden State Warriors and promptly signing on as a free agent.
A wise man (Ric Flair) has been known to observe, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
Durant joined the man while LeBron went home and took care of business. No matter how many times titles Durant wins with the help of Steph, Klay, Draymond and Andre, that won’t change.
Atlanta Might Have Emerged as San Antonio East
Mike Budenholzer spent 18 years as an assistant coach in San Antonio, winning five NBA titles. (The Spurs went 2-1 against LeBron in the Finals during that stretch.)
In 2013, Budenholzer finally took his shot as the head coach. While the Atlanta Hawks went 38-44 his rookie season, his second year they surged to 60-22. He collected Coach of the Year and his team had four players named to the All-Star team: Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver.
They then reached the Eastern Conference Finals, where they met the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Hawks had home court—the Cavs went 53-29—and twice as many All-Stars. (Cleveland’s were Kyrie Irving and take a wild guess.)
They met in the playoffs in 2016 too.
Cleveland sweep again.
Today all four of Atlanta’s All-Stars are gone. Atlanta’s record this past season was 24-58—Budenholzer and the Hawks agreed to go their separate ways.
But LeBron wasn’t content just to burn Atlanta to the ground: King James one-upped Sherman by pillaging them too. That’s why you can now watch Korver taking passes from LeBron and doing this:
Larry Bird Would Be a Much Happier Man
Bird will forever be associated with two franchises: Boston (where he won three MVPs and three titles) and Indiana (where he won both Coach and Executive of the Year).
During the last eight seasons, LeBron has knocked each of those teams out of the playoffs four times and may well add to this total against the Celtics in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
LeBron beat the Pacers and the Celtics in the Eastern Conference championship series twice each, personally stopping them from reaching the Finals.
Bird is LeBron’s only real competition for the title of best small forward ever. Even though their playing days didn’t overlap, it’s as if LeBron has made it a mission to destroy Larry Legend’s legacy and permanently cut off the debate.
Clearly, the Hawks, Celtics and Pacers have all suffered. Yet only one franchise’s pain has international implications.
Canada Would Not Have Been Crushed
As the lone franchise north of the border, the Toronto Raptors literally carry the basketball hopes of an entire nation. (In particular, Drake’s.)
For three seasons and counting, LeBron has delighted in smashing them.
This isn’t the first time a team developed a terrifying whammy on another. For instance, the Boston Celtics beat the Lakers in six NBA Finals in just eight years during the 1960s.
But at least the Lakers competed: They were never swept and pushed the Boston to the limit three times.
Cleveland has now won ten straight games in the playoffs against the Raptors, including this year’s sweep. (A particularly humiliating defeat because the Raptors were seemingly in position to be the sweepers and not the sweepees with their #1 seed.)
Raptor guard Kyle Lowry is a four-time All-Star.
DeMar DeRozan is too.
Yet their on-court performances are often overshadowed by their joint post-loss interviews. This is when the pair seems less like losers in basketball game than a duo who narrowly avoided a car accident seconds earlier—they look like LeBron has left them in actual shock.
But LeBron doesn’t just bring pain—he also relieves it. At least, he does for Ohio.
Cleveland Would Be SO Crestfallen
Entering the 2016 NBA playoffs, Cleveland had not won a championship in any major sport since 1964.
The Cleveland Browns’ NFL title was so long ago the Super Bowl did not yet exist. Then the Browns left for Baltimore. (Where they promptly won a Super Bowl.)
The city suffered The Fumble, The Drive, The Shot and a world of hardship involving the Indians, in particular, their 1997 World Series Game 7 loss to the Marlins. (They gave up the tying run in the ninth and lost in the 11th.)
“It was miraculous until… they didn’t actually complete the miracle,” Raab recalls.
Cleveland had a complicated relationship with LeBron. Yes, he was the Akron boy turned superstar, but he fled the city for Miami and left behind a perception of a massive talent with, as Raab put it, a “spoiled, entitled attitude.” Indeed, Raab observes the Cavs, in general, didn’t have the greatest rep, noting Cavs employees (“not front office people”) described Irving to him as a “d-ck” who “treated people poorly.”
(Raab adds, “I’ve never met even Kyrie Irving,” and that criticism should be taken with a grain of salt: “[Y]ou hear stuff all the time.”)
Then the Cavaliers were trailing in the Finals against the defending champion Warriors with only one win and three losses—yet they did it. (More accurately, LeBron did it: 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, 2.3 blocks—he led both teams in all five categories.)
“If the Cavs had not won that championship… in retrospect it seems more miraculous,” Raab observes.
Indeed, the win went beyond basketball—suddenly all city sports seemed a lot brighter. It made even the ’97 World Series (which Raab found the most traumatic of Cleveland’s traumas) a bit more manageable: “I would say the Cavs winning a championship softened the edge of that memory and made it no longer necessary for at least this Cleveland fan to rank the disappointments in terms of bitterness.”
Consider what Cleveland has been through since then. Imagine if, without LeBron and the Cavs breaking the streak, they had to endure recent additional hardships including:
-The Cleveland Indians forcing extra innings in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, only to lose anyway. (And to the Chicago Cubs, as if the universe was telling them, The misery is yours alone now.)
-The 2017 Indians winning 22 straight games (baseball’s longest streak since 1916) and taking a 2-0 lead in the Division Series, only to drop three straight to the Yankees.
-The Cleveland Browns going 1-15 in 2016… and somehow getting worse with their 0 for ’17.
There is no exaggerating how much pain LeBron removed from Cleveland. And for the foreseeable future, he will continue to redistribute it to the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Below, see a little bit of LeBron James playing football in high school and making the grim realization so common to receivers: You’re only as good as your quarterback.