The NBA Finals are over. Golden State can now go celebrate its accomplishments , as Cleveland is left to wonder what might have been after a valiant effort fell two victories short of one of the greatest upsets in NBA history.
That’s neither here nor there for the Cavs. If a person outside that locker room is still contemplating the what-ifs of the Finals, they are going to miss out on what they should actually be doing, which is appreciating the absurdity of this Cleveland team’s success under the circumstances it faced.
It started, obviously, with LeBron James coming home. He left Miami, a place where he won some rings that were needed to silence his doubters, to return to the franchise that drafted him. LeBron attempted to become the first professional athlete to carry the city of Cleveland to its first pro-sports title since 1964.
Things fell into place rather quickly, too. One of the first transactions made by the Cavs after LeBron came home was scooping up the talented Kevin Love to join Kyrie Irving and the world’s best basketball player in Cleveland. Sure, the regular season had many early bumps in the road, which saw King James needing to take two weeks off, but it wasn’t long before the front office also brought in key role players like Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert.
No matter, though, right? Any team led by LeBron James wasn’t going to be judged by its regular season success. Sans winning 70-plus games, the Cavs could have won only by shooting the ball with their feet and no one would have given them any credit. Fair or not, people expect teams with stars, especially ones with a talent such as James, to compete for the title every season — everything else is merely window dressing.
The pressure on James, as it was every other season, was surreal in its magnitude. LeBron tried to temper expectations himself in the Sports Illustrated article heralding his return to Ohio, yet no one wanted to listen. I mean, they did for a short while, even giving early bumps in the road a pass while pointing to James’ first year with the Heat, but when the NBA playoffs started, all rational thought went out the window. It was to be title or bust because few can think outside of white and black.
It wasn’t long before James had more issues to overcome, the types of obstacles which made his first stint with the Cavs a reason to leave and chase NBA rings in Miami. He ended up being left with a roster that more similarly resembled a rich man’s version of the Sixers than an NBA Finals-type team.
With Kevin Love out for the playoffs after his arm was ripped from its proper place, and Kyrie Irving hurt in the Finals, one would think people would have changed their ideas of what they expected from LeBron and the Cavs in the sport’s biggest event.
They didn’t… because it was LeBron, a player whose success isn’t measured in tempered forms, but in a weird and singular dimension in which his every failure is coupled with comparisons to no one other than the all-time greats, most of all Michael Jordan. Thanks to social media being social media, the modern spotlight of globally visible sporting events amplified the pressure of facing something no other NBA player before him had to deal with. LeBron entered a situation in which people who were already on the negative side of the fence wouldn’t change their opinions toward him, because the goal posts were going to be constantly moved no matter what.
That last aspect is the worst part of it all. There will still be people, despite LeBron James having one of the greatest series in the history of the NBA Finals, who will use Cleveland falling two wins short of a title as a way to diminish his greatness, as well as the general success the team had as a whole.
Here at Crossover Chronicles, we have talked about it often: Cleveland had a rather wretched roster in the NBA Finals. Sure, some of the players made for great stories, others elevated their play, and many fans even pretended to act as though some of the Cavs were more than what they were — which is a polite way of saying: not very good.
But it was LeBron. Expectations were not changed. It didn’t matter to some that he was playing next to discarded Knicks, an undrafted player who shot under 30 percent in the Finals, and decomposing corpses of once good shooters — if he didn’t win it all he was a failure.
It should go without saying, but I will because some are dense in the cranium, that Cleveland — in its diminished, no-Kyrie, no-Love state — had no business competing as well as it did against Golden State. The Warriors were an all-time — metrically — great team. Had Golden State won before, or donned a Spurs uniform instead, few would have even picked a relatively healthy Cleveland team to win the series. It was obvious to the point of it being common thought: Cleveland didn’t belong next to the Warriors because the latter was so much better.
To be fair, theoreticals don’t matter, as it wasn’t a healthy Cavs team, but one depleted to the point of forcing David Blatt to use a six-to-seven- (barely) man rotation. This is a lineup which had to feature James in isolation sets because the other options were letting Matthew Dellavedova (30 percent from the floor in the Finals) shoot, or allowing a nonexistent J.R. Smith try to be more than a hot-cold volume-shooter. Truly, there were no other options — and despite all of it, James willed his team to two victories.
The outcome may have been the less preferred version, but Cleveland — as well as James — did not fail. Not in these NBA Finals, nor in a grander, wide-scope view of the entire season. It was as successful a year any team can have without winning it all, really.
Cleveland isn’t that far away from being back to the NBA Finals next year. No major overhaul is needed. If they can remain healthy next season, which is something that obviously can’t be planned for, many of the issues presented to the Cavs will be instantly fixed.
Offensively deficient? Insert Irving and Love (if he stays) to help carry the the load James was forced to bear himself. Getting those two players healthy will make depth much less of an issue. Basically, Cleveland needs to continue on the path it began to follow, by only needing to add a mere free agent or two to help offset the retirement-home players currently on the bench. (Hello, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion.) The foundation of a title-winning team was already put into place last offseason: LeBron.
King James came home to all the hoopla, pressure, and Goliath-sized expectations squarely placed on his shoulders. Like his much-hyped NBA debut as a rookie, not only did he meet those expectations; he actually exceeded them as well. There are no legitimate ways in which this season could be viewed as a failure for James or the organization, when adjusted for circumstances. Saying, “They didn’t win it all so it wasn’t a success” is an easy thing to say, but like a lot of easy remarks, it completely ignores the loss of two high-level players who would have instantly and substantially shifted the calculus of the NBA Finals. That kind of opinion-in-a-vacuum makes as much sense as it does to shower with a toaster-oven, but it doesn’t matter because that type of thought has as much merit as Shia LaBeouf has credibility.
If you want, continue to be the person who uses James’ NBA Finals record as a way to discredit him. Please continue to act as though getting as close to the pinnacle of the sport, but failing, is worse than not making the playoffs or losing in an earlier round. Point to James’ inefficient numbers as your proof that he’s not that good or won’t take this franchise to the top of the sport despite LeBron playing with a roster which, without him, would struggle to win as many games as the Sixers. If you hold LeBron’s Finals record against him, you do you — but you’re clearly married to an idea that was proven wrong more than once when James was with the Heat and shoved down your throat as recently as these very same NBA Finals.
If we are literally only viewing the success of James through winning titles or not, that leaves no room for appreciation. Basketball, like all sports, needs more nuanced discussions than that. There shouldn’t be clear definitive statements made, especially when circumstances surrounding the topic changed so severely that portions of the Cavs’ roster went from dynamic to wafer-thin in one postseason. I swear it: players, even all-time great ones like James, can fail to win a title but still have a wickedly successful year to the point it should enhance his stature, not diminish it.
There aren’t enough words of praise in the English language for LeBron James after Cleveland’s exit. Lavishing him with every possible compliment might seem a bit hyperbolic, yet it would likely be correct — after all, James is the greatest player in the game today, one of the all-time greats in fact, and was able to further cement his legacy as a probable top-five player when it is all said in done… in a loss.
Golden State was better overall. That is inarguable. The talent, depth, and multiple styles of play afforded to Steve Kerr gave the Warriors such an edge over Cleveland that a healthy Cavs team probably didn’t even stand a chance. All of this makes James’ acts that much more astonishing. Carrying a team on his back to two of the most shocking victories in the history of the NBA Finals offers more proof that he is so good he transcends criticisms. LeBron’s feats expose those who reflexively criticize him in such circumstances, as either blindly loyal to the hating of James or as basketball idiots… or both. (Probably both.)
We close with a simple question:
Was year one of “The Return,” of us “Witnessing” LeBron’s attempt to will the city of Cleveland to a title, a success in the end?
The focus on the word attempt matters here: LeBron might not have claimed the final result Clevelanders wanted, but everything about his effort to bring a championship to the Cavs deserves an A-plus — the leadership, the minutes, the facilitation of the offense, the rebounding, the development of teammates, and the ability to average 36, 13 and 9 in the Finals (leading every other player in those three statistics, points, rebounds and assists).
LeBron could not have attempted to win a title with more distinction or quality. The answer to the question above is a pure, unadulterated, and all-consuming yes.