Undoubtedly, the addition of LeBron James would make any team in the NBA an automatic playoff contender. Becoming the first player since Bill Russell in 1966 to achieve five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, surely it’s safe to say that James’ dominance in the postseason is no fluke.
Currently in his 13th season, James has managed to get past the first round in each of his playoff appearances. Although early exits are not a usual situation for James, lingering and arguably haunting his career is his 2-4 NBA Finals record.
The four series losses tie the amount of NBA Finals losses by Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Larry Bird combined.
Despite his five consecutive visits to the NBA Finals, James has lost back-to-back championship series as well. While with Miami, James and the Heat were nearly swept by the San Antonio Spurs losing the series 4-1 in the 2014 NBA Finals. After gaining a 2-1 lead, LeBron and the Cavaliers endured a 4-2 series loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals.
Unable to three-peat as a championship winner, a sixth consecutive NBA Finals appearance this season could warrant an undesired three-peat of three consecutive title losses for King James. Simply put, James cannot afford another championship series loss.
Commonly critiqued for abandoning the Cleveland Cavaliers and “buying” his back-to-back championship rings by teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh while with the Miami Heat, James’ career and legacy remains incomplete without a ring in his native state of Ohio.
A three-peat with Miami would have elevated James’ stature in comparison to the success of NBA legends Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who have both achieved the feat in each of their careers (Jordan twice). The absence of the Larry O’brien trophy in the city of Cleveland can certainly be attributed to LBJ’s return to Cleveland last season.
After last season’s NBA Finals loss, the time is now or never for the sake of James’ legacy as one of the greatest to play the game to win a much-needed third championship ring.
With the Cavaliers currently in first-place of the Eastern Conference with a 52-22 record and eight games remaining on the their regular season schedule, the routine ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ mode that James enters each postseason — disengaging from all forms of social media — may need a sooner start than the beginning of the NBA Playoffs on April 16.
Aside from the hysteria surrounding James’ subliminal social media statements, skepticism regarding his relationship with teammates and other distractive storylines that continue to surmount, the Cleveland Cavaliers currently don’t look like a team capable of winning the NBA Finals.
Possessing a 6-4 record in their last 10 games, hindering the Cavs’ case in the lasting stretch of the season, has been recent losses to subpar teams such as the Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz, along with a blowout loss to the playoff contending Miami Heat nearly two weeks ago.
Although Cleveland’s latest antics haven’t been convincing of it winning the NBA Finals, there remains no doubt that the team from ‘The Land’ will represent the Eastern Conference come this June.
Sure, the Toronto Raptors, who are on pace to set a new franchise wins record in addition to being just 2.0 games behind the Cavs for first place while holding a 2-1 tiebreaker advantage, along with the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics or Miami Heat each have a chance to meet Cleveland in the conference finals, but can any of these teams truly compete and win a seven-game series against the Cavaliers?
Nonetheless, fueling the Cavaliers journey to the NBA Finals are last postseason’s losses of Kevin Love in the first round of the playoffs vs the Celtics and Kyrie Irving in overtime of Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Prior to Cleveland’s return to the playoffs since James’ departure in 2010, neither Love nor Irving had a postseason appearance.
While Love’s presence in the Finals would have only enhanced the Cavaliers’ matchup against the Warriors, the loss of Irving was most devastating to their chances of winning.
The team’s leading three-point shooter at 41.5 percent and second in scoring at 21.7 points per game last season, the dependence of Irving as another ‘go-to’ player was lost as he fractured his left knee cap in overtime of Game 1 of the Finals.
While it is nearly impossible to refute the Warriors’ championship victory, Irving’s presence could have reduced the Cavs’ overdependence on James. A definite top-five point guard in the NBA, the now three-time All-Star had 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks in the series opening game along with the game saving block to help send it into overtime.
Still, there is some cause for concern as the Cavaliers have struggled against top-tier opponents this season. Moreover, Cleveland is 19-15 versus teams with a record of .500 and above, while it is 33-7 against teams below .500.
After firing David Blatt in his second year with the team despite the Cavs’ 30-11 start this season, now under the helm of first year Head Coach Tyronn Lue, Cleveland is 22-11 since Lue’s hiring on Jan. 22.
With the postseason approaching, one must wonder if Lue, in his first year as Head Coach and will enter the playoffs with 41 games coached at the end of the regular season, is capable of helping pave the way for the Cavaliers to win it all? Not to mention, is the team really HIS team? Throughout a majority of the Cavs’ 106-100 loss to Houston Tuesday night, James was seen on the court, sideline, and even in the team’s huddle during timeouts making commands as if Lue wasn’t there.
Blamed for the firing of Blatt, it’d be wise for James to accept his role as a player with regard to helping his coach receive as little scrutiny as possible as there hasn’t been much of a difference in the team since Lue’s takeover which only leaves eyebrows raised at if the Cavaliers bothered a situation that didn’t need tuning.
But Lue has somewhat borrowed a page from Spurs’ Head Coach Gregg Popovich’s book by resting players like James, Love and Irving as the postseason approaches in hopes of preserving their health. The decision can only be beneficial for the players, especially James after missing a career-high 13 games last season in addition to having played nearly 40,000 career minutes.
Yet, in attempt to add some playoff experience to its roster, Cleveland’s additions of veterans such as Richard Jefferson during the offseason, Channing Frye in free agency and the return of Mo Williams show the Cavs’ effort to close in on its first NBA title in franchise history.
Whether Cleveland faces Golden State or San Antonio in the NBA Finals, James seems to be aware of the foreshadowing pressure surrounding his legacy and the urgency to win another ring. Nonetheless, adding to this pressure is the continuous championship drought that has burdened the city of Cleveland since 1964, in which the Cleveland Browns won a championship in the pre- Super Bowl era.
With players like Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard earning the nod in the conversation of being the NBA’s best player, there’s no doubt that a chip is sitting on King James’ shoulder to remind the world that the 4-time NBA MVP is still around.
Yet, it is both of these players and their respective teams that have stifled James in the past. If either manage to defeat him again, it may be the foretelling of the ‘King’s’ dethroning.