Sunday, July 20, 2014

LeBron James' return puts him within reach of Michael Jordan

LeBron James return to Cleveland set the stage for the storybook ending that still caught many people by surprise. Reports were inconclusive prior to his announcement on July 11 in a Sports Illustrated exclusive that he would indeed return. Leaving Miami defied logic, something that James’ former teammate, Mario Chalmers, was quick to point out.

(The indomitable Chalmers even took his anger to Instagram in a not-so-cryptic shot at his former teammate.)

Chalmers may feel this way, but what he doesn’t realize is that LeBron put himself in a better position to become the greatest NBA player of all time. Moving back to Cleveland is a step in the direction of being able to surpass Michael Jordan.

Skip Bayless said that LeBron “no longer views winning as his ultimate goal and priority” and that the two-time champ eliminated himself from contention for basketball’s Mount Rushmore. He could not have misread LeBron's move any more.

What Skip and everybody else missed is that the genius that is LeBron James knows that winning championships alone is not enough. Even if he were to win six championships in Miami, he would need more. The label of “ring chaser” could not escape him. It might as well have been tattooed across his back overshadowing "The Chosen 1."

One simple change fixes that: returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bringing a championship to his hometown would be special. The taste of the ultimate sports glory in a city that ranks atop the list of the Pro Sports Hall of Shame would be historic. Cleveland hasn’t seen a championship since 1964. The city has gone a staggering 144 individual-team seasons without tasting that champagne. No other city has seen even 100 seasons without a championship. His forgiveness of Ohio and Dan Gilbert, his owner that brutally crucified him after his nationally-televised departure in 2010, adds yet another dimension to the story that could be read to put children to sleep on Christmas Eve.

Suddenly, LeBron’s next ring makes him more than just a three-time champion. His next championship is greater than basketball. That is exactly what he needs to catch Michael Jordan.

The Cavaliers were awful last year. Their 33-49 record last season only begins to tell the story of the franchise that has won 19, 21, 24, and those 33 games in the four years post-Decision. Mike Brown was exposed. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters feuded. 33 wins in the East is equivalent to at most two wins in the West. Cleveland was throwing up prayers with each brick that hit the rim that they would land consecutive number one picks (oh wait, that prayer was answered). So now, in even a pure basketball sense, LeBron has the ability to do something that nobody else has dared do. He’s running headfirst at a tornado trying to save everybody in it. He brought a perennial cellar-dweller to the Finals in 2007. Now he's aiming for the only echelon above that.

LeBron learned from his poor choice of words four years ago. In that SI article announcing his return, he said “it will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.” The Akron native is not promising a championship. His coach has not played or coached a single minute in the NBA. For LeBron to say that his patience will be tested is the understatement of the year.

With his chess move, LeBron is still moving his pawns, diminishing awareness of how grand his goals are.

Becoming a great player requires something more than just the tangible proof of winning. Shaquille O’Neal articulated after being traded from the Lakers that even the then-three-time champ Kobe Bryant was missing something. Shaq calls it "the little things” but then says it separates Kobe from the likes of Michael Jordan and other NBA greats (skip to 3:10):

You have to make the players around you better. Many superstars have passed through the league as supremely-gifted players. Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant are the latest iterations of offensive superstars but they have not made the jump to make the players around them better. Kobe never made that jump, but he was great enough to win five (albeit with solid supporting casts). Allen Iverson, another all-time great offensive player, never won one. Michael Jordan, in all of his six titles, never really made his teammates better. (But he did help the Jordanaires get paid, as Sam Smith discusses in his 1992 tell-all, The Jordan Rules.)

If LeBron can bring a championship to a team that has been so horrendous, he will prove in the loudest way possible that he is not only great himself, but he can make his teammates better


Less than eight hours after LeBron James announced his return, the Cavs sold out their season tickets. Less than two weeks later, the store sold out of LeBron Cavs jerseys…and the man has not even made a decision as to what number he will wear.

Time reported that LeBron could bring the northeast Ohio $500 million next year. Let me say that again…LeBron could bring a city in the Midwest $500 million. In. One. Year. I’m no economist, but I think we can agree that’s not normal for one human being to do.

The icing on the cake was making everybody in the media look like middle-school students prank-texting their friends. LeBron's one-man paparazzi, Brian Windhorst, and ESPN’s Man-With-The-Sources, Chris Broussard, were kept in the absolute dark on this one. In an era where journalists tweet draft picks before they even happen, nobody found out where the best player in the NBA would land until LeBron’s co-written letter with Lee Jenkins hit the internet air waves. Chris Broussard even went so far as to confirm it after everybody already knew:

The media circus surrounding LeBron’s decision has settled, so maybe that will hurt this column’s visibility (so thank you to the few people who have read this far). Yes, one more championship will not be enough to crown the King as the NBA’s GOAT. But maybe two more Finals MVPs and one or two more league MVPs with maybe a Defensive Player of the Year Award sprinkled in there? The numbers will be near Michael Jordan if that can happen.

That top spot in NBA lore requires something more than just pure basketball achievements. Bill Russell is no longer the NBA’s greatest player of all time despite his 11 championships. Michael Jordan proved that rings are only part of the equation in calculating greatness. 

LeBron James return to Cleveland could prove that case once again.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

LeBron James 2-3 NBA Finals record is no big deal

LeBron James has won less than half of his appearances in the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan was 6-0 in the NBA Finals, with six MVPs. This is the story that pundits like ESPN First Take host, Skip Bayless, paint with regards to LeBron’s most recent failure in the Finals. In their eyes, LeBron’s team has not come out on top and he has not performed perfectly on the NBA’s biggest stage, his legacy as an all-time great is diminished.

While these numbers are factually correct, the picture it paints is far from complete. You might as well say Dwyane Wade had an awful, injury-laden career, based off the fact that his last two seasons were a struggle in terms of health.

Twelve players are on a team. Five players are on the floor. A general manager, head coach, and owner are all vital to an NBA team’s success. But the media, market, and fans hype up the individual superstars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James because they are the most entertaining and what ultimately bring sponsorships and revenue to the league.

If anything, these 2014 NBA champion, San Antonio Spurs, should have taught us that it’s the twelve players combined not solely the individual superstar that wins titles. The evidence is right in front of our faces. While some people may be crazy enough to argue Kawhi Leonard is a better player than LeBron because he had a better Finals series this year, here’s something that we can all agree on: if you were to pick one player out of the two 2014 NBA Finals rosters to build an organization around, that player would be LeBron James.

One player can win regular season games. One player wins a regular season MVP. It takes a team to win an NBA championship—something I emphasized in an old column discussing why rings don’t equate to greatness. Where this nuances is how far a great player can take you in the playoffs.

A great player should be able to carry a greater percentage of the load that it takes to win an NBA game, season, and championship. This is something that puts great players in more frequent contention for titles.

Mario Chalmers was doing a whole lot of nothing to help Miami win the 2014 NBA Finals.

My problem is this establishment of an arbitrary difference between losses in the preliminary rounds of the playoffs and the NBA Finals. A great player will be able to defeat teams with superior depth for so long in the playoffs. That ability to carry a team may last through the first or second rounds, or it may last until the Finals. In some cases, a great player may even defeat a superior team in the Finals—you could certainly make that argument for the 2013 NBA champion, Miami Heat.

LeBron lifting a relatively poor Heat team as far as he did is a testament to his ability. His engine carried the Heat to the Finals but the strategic bumps placed by Gregg Popovich stopped the LeBron train in its tracks. Even the inconsistent Pacers had a deeper team than the Heat, but LeBron was able to push through. Sure, the Eastern conference was horrendous compared to the West, but the Heat won the East. The hypotheticals of how the Heat would have fared in the Western conference playoff bracket are entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to this particular discussion.

Michael Jordan was not undefeated in the playoffs. His first six seasons he did not even make it to the NBA Finals. In his first three seasons, Jordan won a grand total of one playoff game. For comparison, LeBron took the Cavaliers to the Finals in his fourth season and won seven games in his third season. These numbers suggest not that LeBron is better than Jordan (or even that Jordan is better than LeBron). They show that great players are only able to do so much.

When discussing the NBA greats across and within generations, you cannot isolate a statistic like an individual’s record in the Finals and claim it alone differentiates two players. As I have done in my own analysis of the greatest NBA players of all time, there is too much more to consider. LeBron’s window to become the GOAT is slowly closing. But, if he gets to five or six championships and six or seven MVPs along with all the other accolades he has earned, maybe the LeBron vs. Jordan comparison becomes relevant again. Regardless, the fact that two of his three Finals losses were to superior teams should not detract from his legacy in any way.

Monday, June 2, 2014

2014 NBA Finals Preview: Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs

Miami vs. San Antonio, Round 2. Somehow Ol’ Man Duncan and Manu managed to climb atop the Western conference yet again…but this time they didn’t catch me by surprise. After making anyone with a predictive bone in their body stick their foot in their mouth last year, I made sure to give the Spurs some love back in September—vaulting them to the no.1 seed that they would indeed eventually earn. The Miami Heat unsurprisingly made it back for the fourth consecutive time in the LeBron era…and a year where the Eastern conference was particularly pathetic.

Even though Miami is undoubtedly one of the top teams in the league, it’s like comparing Andy from Shawshank Redemption fighting through raw sewage to escape prison to some guy just handing you the key to the prison gates. Would you rather face Dallas, Portland, and Oklahoma City…or Charlotte, Brooklyn, and Indiana? Alas, the parity between the two conferences is something that has been questionable for years and is just a fact of life at this point.

Harvey Araton of the New York Times believes that there is an even greater problem within the NBA in terms of parity. While there is merit to his claim that there is “no place for a miracle on hardwood” he neglects the overarching differences between the NBA and other professional sports (MLB, NFL, and NHL). While I could spend an entire column on this subject (hmmm…) the NBA has smaller rosters and fewer players on court, which allow for superstars to have an overwhelming impact on the game. Moreover, the playoffs have seven-game series, unlike the NFL, which limits upsets for the obvious reason that it’s more difficult for an underdog to pull off four upsets than it is to pull off one. Enough of that discussion for now, let’s get on to the 2014 NBA Finals matchup…

Adi Joseph of the USA Today acutely pointed out that “LeBron James is LeBron James,” in his Finals preview but the Miami Heat bring more than just the King to the table. Rashard Lewis stepped up in the final two games of the Eastern conference finals, drilling 9-of-16 threes and scoring 31 points. Ray Allen went berserk in Game 3 of the conference finals, hitting all four of his threes in the final quarter to help seal a critical win for the Heat.

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have also been valuable to Miami’s success. At this point in time, Wade might be the most underrated player in the NBA, simply because so many people have counted him out. The coaching staff did limit his minutes during the regular season…but that was all in preparation for this very moment. Wade’s playoff contribution of 19-4-4 on 52 percent from the field, 39 percent from three, and 80 percent from the line will be of paramount importance to expand upon in the Finals. James is well aware of Wade’s abilities and strengths, namely driving to the rim and scoring off of backdoor cuts, and has been instrumental as usual in getting the best in his teammates, like Wade.

Bosh’s offensive game has morphed into something deadly for opponents. During this regular season, Bosh shot almost five times more threes than his career average, and made a respectable 34 percent of them. In the playoffs, he’s jumped to hitting more than 40 percent of his 4.2 3PA per game. This added wrinkle to his game is vital not only to putting points on the board but also to spread out opposing defenses. Bringing David West and Roy Hibbert out to the three point line provides room for Bosh to take them to the basket or gives LeBron and Wade spacing to do that themselves. Gregg Popovich will have his hands full trying to decide how to match up with Bosh for that very reason. Duncan and Tiago Splitter on the perimeter is a bad idea. I would look for Boris Diaw to spend some time on CB. Offensively, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka mildly resemble James and Bosh, so I expect Popovich will figure out a way to match up and limit Bosh and LeBron as much as possible.

Tony Parker’s ankle soreness will probably subside by the time the Finals start, but if it doesn’t, that will certainly impact the way the series plays out. Cory Joseph stepped up in Game 6 of the Western conference finals when called upon to fill in during Parker’s absence and there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be effective in the Finals. Whether it is Parker or Joseph, the prospective defensive assignment of Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole is not very intimidating.

Kawhi Leonard will undoubtedly spend heavy minutes defending LeBron James. In case you missed last year’s Finals, here’s how LeBron felt when he saw Kawhi was checking back into the game during Game 5:

This is the series—and team—that the Spurs have been preparing for all year. Most NBA fans will probably be rooting for Tim Duncan to win one final championship and ride off into the San Antonio sunset, but I would argue a San Antonio championship provides something more. Nobody on the Spurs has the ability to go off for 35 points (unless Danny Green his 10+ threes in San Antonio…and maybe I shouldn’t rule that out). Their fluid offense and reliance on ball movement should be something that other teams seek to emulate because if the Spurs can make it this far—and possibly win a championship—win no bona-fide superstar, then other teams should seek to mold their personnel in a similar manner.

Danny Green’s consistency is the X-factor going into the Finals because if he cannot find his three-point stroke in Miami…it is going to be a long (or perhaps more aptly, a short) series. LeBron will be the defensive stopper for Miami and spend time on some combination of Parker, Ginobili, and Sugar K Leonard, whoever is hottest at a given moment. Spreading the attack will be key for San Antonio. It’s something they have been able to do all season long, and Miami’s defense won’t be able to silence that entirely. This will definitely be a long series, and I don’t expect many blowouts like there were in the Western conference finals. But just like I said at the beginning of this year that I wouldn’t discount the Spurs because of their age, I’m not picking against LeBron with his current squad.

The San Antonio Spurs has their hands full, facing now both the MVP and the best player in the game in the same post-season. I don't see them beating both. Miami in 7.