LeBron James wants to be known as the greatest player ever. It’s not enough for him to be compared to Jordan or Wilt or Russell. He wants to be it – end of discussion.
Unfortunately, for LeBron, reality gets a vote. Reality has voted against LeBron in at least four ways:
- His biological clock – LeBron turned 31 this winter. Like dog-years, 31 in the NBA is different than 31 in the MLB or NFL. Watch Brady or Manning this weekend and you’ll see
that they are cheating age in a way that LeBron never will. To picture LeBron’s decline, look no further than Kobe Bryant. An explosive fast-twitch game doesn’t age well. Either your body breaks down or your game slows down.
- LeBron’s about LeBron. To quote from the movie, Remember the Titans, LeBron is “going to his” and the team be damned. You can see this in two significant ways:
- Lack of defensive effort that’s contagious. Positionally, LeBron’s never been very good defensively. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get blocks and steals – his athleticism gets him those. But being in the right place? King James hardly ever is at that spot – at the non-glamorous end of the floor. Unfortunately for him, that lack of defensive effort is contagious. His Heat teams were not good defensive teams and the Cavs aren’t either. What the Spurs did to the Heat in the 2014 finals is what the Warriors (2015) did to them – ball movement, unselfish offense that has very little trouble finding the uninterested Cav defender in the 24-seconds allotted.
- Scoring > passing in LBJ’s mind. When he passes, he’s among the best in the NBA, but the ‘when’ is the critical word. Almost without exception, whether it’s Dwayne Wade, or (now) Kevin Love, LBJ believes the best chance his team has to win is when he scores. Like the Bulls before Phil Jackson, there’s a lot of “watch him go to work” offense in the Cav’s schemes.
- He wants control and doesn’t trust people. Don’t listen to press conferences, watch how he plays. Blatt’s firing won’t change the “I know what’s best for me” mojo. He’ll still pull himself out of games when he wants. He’ll still change plays when he wants. LBJ’s problem is that that level of control erodes trust. If I repeatedly see you do what’s best for you, not the team, what do I conclude? Spoelstra is a good young coach, but did he tell LBJ anything? Especially sets and bench-time that LeBron didn’t like? I don’t think so.
- He doesn’t want to do what it takes to have his team win – be humble. No matter what’s said about Jordan and Jackson, their magic was they understood each other. When Jackson pitched Jordan on running the triangle, Jordan subordinated his game for the team’s offense. Was the change immediate? No. Long-term did the Bulls become a team that was damned near impossible to defend? Yes. Why? Because Jordan was willing to take less shots and thus give up some control. Jordan also became the Bull’s most consistent defender. Starting a virtuous virus, MJ showed the likes of Pippen and Kukoc (not exactly a stellar defender when he started) that effort was supreme. Be in the right spot first and then you have a great chance to make the play. MJ lived that – there was zero doubt that he was eating what he was cooking. Can LBJ’s teammates say that? Does he put forth consistent maximum effort at the defensive end? Should they?
Bottom-line: With every passing day, LeBron’s chances of lifting the NBA title trophy fade further. He is getting older, slower and weaker (just check his cortisone prescriptions this season). Father Time is especially cruel in the NBA. A new coach, even one LeBron likes (for the moment) can’t make chicken salad out of chicken sh%t.
The Cavs will (or should) win the East. But that’s where the road ends. If you’re not sure, think about these 2 hypotheticals:
#1) Put the Cavs were in the west, would they be in 3rd, 4th or 5th place?
They wouldn’t be 1st or 2nd – the Spurs and Warriors have shown particular dominance over LeBron’s team this season. If you don’t like that one, ponder this one:
#2) Place them in the 7-game series, is the Western Conference champ (pick either Warriors or Spurs) more or less resilient (tough) than the Cavs?
We’ve all seen the NBA playoffs – they go from ugly to uglier to ugliest. Night in and night out, over a 7 game haul, it’s a war. 3 things stand out in those ugly wars (you can look to last year’s finals or the (Heat) year before) to see this:
- Defense wins championships. I love watching Golden State. Their offense is a thing of beauty, but they defend. There are no divas on their team at that end. You need someone to step in the paint and take a hit, everyone will – including Curry. Can the same be said of Cleveland?
- Offensive creativity is a must. Ask Doc Rivers, a great defensive coach, about trying to run the same set for games 4, 5 and 6? Doesn’t work. Not only does your coach have to prepare something new, but you (as a team) have to be good enough to execute against ugly defense when the playoff refs swallow their whistles.
- Benches matter. Over 7 games, those 2nd-unit minutes pile up. If your 2nd unit isn’t as good as your opponents; or worse, doesn’t play as hard as theirs, you’re toast. Those deficiencies get stark after game 5 or 6 or 7.
On all three counts, the Cavs lose to either the Warriors or the Spurs. They don’t defend every possession. If your offense goes through LBJ every time you need a score, creativity sucks and the Cav’s bench is no match for either the Spurs or Warriors.
LBJ may win one more NBA title, but I don’t believe it will be this year and the closer he gets to Kobe-retirement age the more those odds slide toward zero.