How Much Blame Does LeBron James Deserve for Cleveland's 0-2 Deficit?You may have heard the cliche "A series does not start until the home team loses." By that way of thinking, the 2016 NBA Finals have not started even though the defending champion Golden State Warriors enjoy a 2-0 lead. Don't believe the hype, because 31 teams have previously fallen into a 2-0 hole in the NBA Finals and only three of those teams came back to win the series: 1969 Boston Celtics (in the last of Bill Russell's record-setting 11 title runs), 1977 Portland Trail Blazers (in the first title of what may have become a dynasty were it not for Bill Walton's balky feet and knees), 2006 Miami Heat (in the last of Shaquille O'Neal's four title runs, as Dwyane Wade emerged as a superstar).
Cleveland may very well extend this series but it is highly unlikely that the Cavaliers will beat the Warriors four times in five games. Channeling Rick Pitino, it is fair to say that Bill Russell, Bill Walton and Dwyane Wade are not walking through that door.
No, the future Hall of Fame Cavalier who is walking through that door is LeBron James, whose NBA Finals record is about to drop to 2-5.
The excuses for James are adding up even more quickly than his turnovers and missed shots. I was going to wait to recap this series until it was over but (1) as noted above, the overwhelming likelihood is that this series is over (in terms of outcome, if not duration) and (2) so much nonsense is being spewed that I feel compelled to provide some correction.
A Sports Illustrated piece suggested that the Cavaliers' problem is that James is saddled with the weakest supporting cast that he has ever carried to the NBA Finals? Really? We are supposed to believe that the supporting cast that went 12-2 during the Eastern Conference playoffs--the supporting cast that includes two All-Star caliber players in the prime of their careers, plus a host of talented veteran role players--is the problem? In the many years that passed before LeBron James won his first championship, I repeatedly asked the question, "How much help does LeBron James need to win a title?" During James' first stint in Cleveland, he had a 66 win team and a 61 win team--and those teams coasted to the finish line because they had lapped the field or else they could have easily won several more games. The Cavaliers had so much talent at that time that guys like Shannon Brown and Danny Green--who both later played significant roles for championship teams--could not even get on the court. Yet James could not even take those teams to the Finals.
Now, James has even more talent around him than he did back then. He has his hand-picked roster and his hand-picked coach. Until Kevin Love suffered a concussion in game two, the Cavaliers were fully healthy.
No, the "LeBron James does not have enough help" story line belongs squarely in the fiction section, because it is not plausible as non-fiction.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst decided to bury the lead. Instead of focusing on how poorly James is playing, Windhorst started his post-game two analysis with this sentence: "LeBron James once destroyed the promising core of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison by beating the Washington Wizards three years in a row in the playoffs." What exactly does that have to do with the 2016 NBA Finals? Windhorst then went on to wax poetic about how James supposedly dismantled the Pistons and the Celtics, capping off with the bizarre comment that the San Antonio Spurs "had their souls crushed in the 2013 Finals and James performed the coup de grace personally in game seven. He will always have that one and the Spurs will probably never fully get over it."
Sure. The Spurs were so soul-crushed that they routed James and his Miami Heat 4-1 in the 2014 Finals, posting historic margins of victory that looked like they would stand for decades but may be eclipsed by the end of this week as the Warriors obliterate James' Cavaliers. I think that Tim Duncan finds some comfort in his five championship rings and his 2-1 Finals record over the self-proclaimed "best player on the planet." If Duncan's soul has been crushed he is hiding it very well.
As for the Wizards, that overrated collection of unfocused talent dismantled internally, exemplified by Gilbert Arenas challenging a teammate to a gunfight, not realizing that this teammate was a Crip who a few short years later would be sentenced to 23 years in prison for manslaughter. The quirky media darling Arenas is lucky that Javaris Crittenton did not blow Arenas' head off. The Wizards were never going to make it past the second round even if they never faced LeBron James.
No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Wizards.
As for the Pistons, while James had a tremendous series against them in 2007 it is clear that the Pistons were at the end of their run by the time James arrived on the scene; Larry Brown had already departed and key members of the championship core soon followed him out the door as well. Bizarre decisions such as trying to build around Rodney Stuckey had more to do with Detroit's decline than anything that James did.
No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Pistons (and it is odd that Windhorst believes that the Cavaliers' victory against the eighth seeded Pistons this season is somehow an extension of James' alleged dismantling of the Pistons).
What about the Celtics? The Celtics' Big Three (plus Rajon Rondo) was put together to win immediately, not sustain excellence. The Celtics captured the 2008 title and returned to the Finals in 2010. James did not take the Cavaliers to the Finals at all between 2008-10 and he did not win a championship until 2012, after he fled to Miami to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Celtics.
Windhorst's paean to James fits in with ESPN's modus operandi for years: praise James no matter what (don't forget which network hosted the ill-considered "Decision"), while also taking shots at any potential or perceived rival to James (hence the ridiculous attacks on Kobe Bryant by Henry Abbott, Michael Wilbon and others over the years).
Forget the Wizards. Forget revisionist history. The stark truth is that LeBron James has already been on the wrong end of two of the most lopsided losses in Finals history: a sweep in 2007 and a loss by a historic ppg margin in five games in 2014. Now, James' Cavaliers have lost by an unprecedented margin in the first two games of the 2016 Finals. This is not just about James' Finals record but also about how poorly he has performed on the sport's biggest and most important stage.
Windhorst's ESPN colleague Dave McMenamin, whose reporting has improved in recent years, found the real story of the 2016 Finals, quoting a source close to the Cavaliers as saying after game two, "No heart, no toughness, no resilience. Those three things are LeBron included."
Yes, that is about right. At times, James has been the biggest and tallest player on the court. There is no one in the series who can guard him one on one in the post. As Shaquille O'Neal would say, it should be "barbecue Bay Area chicken" when James gets the ball. Instead, James has been content to drift outside to (1) watch Kyrie Irving put on a dribbling exhibition, (2) drive to the hoop tentatively only to pass the ball instead of trying to finish at the rim or (3) hold the ball in the post, enabling the Warriors to dig in and smack the ball away.
James needs to either (1) go quickly to the hoop after he catches the ball in the post or (2) when he catches the ball on the perimeter, immediately drive to the hoop with the goal of scoring, not passing.
Although James has made some highlight reel worthy defensive plays, overall his defense has been atrocious. Many of the layups given up by the Cavaliers are the result of James being out of position.
I don't care if James averages a triple double in this series, which he may very well do. The numbers he is posting are meaningless because he is not playing in a way that would give his team a realistic chance to win.
If the Warriors are going to play small, James has to punish them in the paint. The Oklahoma City Thunder proved that the Warriors have no answer at either end of the court when faced with players who have size and athleticism. If the Thunder could have figured out how to stop throwing the ball away at the end of games then they would have dethroned the Warriors.
The Cavaliers absolutely have enough talent to beat the Warriors but they lack the right mindset to even compete at this level--and that starts with James.
One more point must be made. I have tremendous respect for Jerry West as a player, executive and talent evaluator. West, who went 1-8 in the Finals as a player, sympathizes with James, who (as mentioned above) is about to fall to 2-5 in the Finals. West recently said that it is ridiculous to criticize James for his Finals record. It is understandable that West would stick up for James; as a consultant to the Warriors, West probably does not want to give James any added fuel/motivation and on a personal level West is no doubt offended by the idea that a great player should be judged by his Finals record. While West would be right to say that he personally should not be judged by his Finals record, James' Finals record is much different (and much worse) than West's.
Here are West's scoring averages and field goal percentages for each of his Finals appearances, along with the results of those series and some parenthetical notes:
1962: 31.1 ppg .456 3-4 Boston (lost by three points in game seven)
1963: 29.5 ppg .490 2-4 Boston
1965: 33.8 ppg .424 1-4 Boston (no Elgin Baylor)
1966: 33.9 ppg .515 3-4 Boston (lost by two points in game seven)
1968: 31.3 ppg .486 2-4 Boston
1969: 37.9 ppg .490 3-4 Boston (lost by two points in game seven); won NBA's first Finals MVP and is still the only player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP
1970: 31.3 ppg .450 3-4 NY
1972: 19.8 ppg .425 4-3 LAL (Chamberlain won the Finals MVP)
1973: 21.4 ppg .442 1-4 NY
Keep in mind that West was a 6-3 guard playing in a more physical era when shooting percentages were lower and the three point shot did not exist in the NBA. West elevated his game while facing the greatest dynasty in NBA--if not professional sports--history. Three times, West's L.A. Lakers lost to the Celtics by three points or less in game seven. West's only lopsided Finals losses came in 1965--when Elgin Baylor did not play due to injury--and 1973, West's last full season. A bitter irony for West is that his worst Finals performance took place during his only championship run, as injuries restricted West while the Lakers capped a then-record setting 69 win season with a seven game triumph over the Knicks.
West was a tremendous Finals performer who was at his best when it counted the most. It is not his fault that his teams failed to win more than one title.
Here is a recap of James' Finals career to date:
2007: 22.0 ppg .356 0-4 San Antonio
2011: 17.8 ppg .478 2-4 Dallas (fifth leading scorer in series after winning regular season MVP)
2012: 28.6 ppg .472 4-1 OKC (first championship, first Finals MVP)
2013: 25.3 ppg .447 4-3 San Antonio (second championship, second Finals MVP)
2014: 28.2 ppg .571 1-4 San Antonio
2015: 35.8 ppg .398 2-4 Golden State (squandered 2-1 lead)
2016: 21.0 ppg .421 0-2 Golden State
In the Finals, James' field goal percentage consistently drops (other than in 2014), his turnovers increase and he often refuses to attack the paint even when there is no one on the court who can guard him. He has won two titles and two Finals MVPs, but he has also lost to teams led by Finals MVPs Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala. Overall, James has failed to place his stamp on the NBA Finals. The narrative suggesting that James has carried inferior squads to the Finals and thus should not be blamed for losing in the Finals ignores the reality that when James' teams reach the Finals it is his game that regresses. The above numbers are suggestive and illustrative but they do not tell the complete story. Watch the games with an educated eye and ask yourself some questions:
The Cavaliers have an All-Star point guard and LeBron James is their best post-up threat, so why does James insist on bringing the ball up the court against the Warriors? Consider this: The Chicago Bulls became a championship team when Michael Jordan stopped trying to get triple doubles and ceded the ballhandling duties to Scottie Pippen. Pippen initiated the offense and Jordan went to work in the post.
Why is LeBron James often standing by the Oracle logo when the Cavaliers are on offense? Every possession during which James does this is a wasted possession. If the Cavaliers do score on such a possession it is "offense by accident," because when James is that far away from the paint the Cavaliers are playing four on five. I don't want to hear about how badly James's teammates are supposedly playing when James is a conscientious objector on so many possessions.
Why does LeBron James hold the ball when he catches it in the post? No Warrior can guard James in the post. If he would catch the ball and immediately power to the hoop, he would score or get fouled almost every time. That would take a mental and physical toll on the Warriors. It would slow the game down, put the Warriors in foul trouble and allow the Cavaliers to set up their defense. When James holds the ball, he invites the Warriors to trap and recover, which leads to turnovers and rushed shots.
Why does LeBron James often pass the ball after driving to within two feet of the hoop? During one sequence in game two, James drove to the hoop but instead of finishing strongly, he passed the ball outside. The possession ended with Irving driving to the hoop and getting stripped after reaching the same spot where James had been a few seconds earlier. Such passes by James are not unselfish and they do not make him a pass-first player. The smart play is for the person with the highest percentage shot to shoot the ball. The self-proclaimed best player on the planet should be unstoppable in the paint, particularly when he is the biggest player on the court.
LeBron James is one of the greatest players in pro basketball history. That will not change even if he does not win another NBA Finals game. However, his inability or unwillingness to consistently rise to the occasion on his sport's biggest stage will forever be a baffling blotch on an otherwise sterling Hall of Fame resume.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 AM