Is LeBron James the Modern Wilt Chamberlain?No team has ever surrendered a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, so for the Cleveland Cavaliers game four at home was as important--at least in a practical sense--as a game seven. Cleveland led the defending champion Golden State Warriors 55-50 at halftime and still led 83-81 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. During the next nine minutes of play, LeBron James shot 0-4 from the field (two attempts were three pointers from well behind the arc) with a turnover. James split a pair of free throws with 1:12 remaining to cut the margin to 96-89. James scored six points in the final minute--on three uncontested drives--to pad his final scoring total to 25 points but at no time during the final 1:12 did Golden State lead by fewer than seven points, a comfortable three possessions cushion.
Thus, Golden State won 108-97, closing out the game (and likely the series) with a 27-14 run down the stretch, while James was largely invisible, save for three late, inconsequential buckets.
James, a four-time NBA regular season MVP and the self-proclaimed "best player on the planet," disappeared from sight during a pivotal fourth quarter that likely decided the outcome of the NBA Finals. Some people have suggested that James was tired, but the reality is that previous greats of the game shouldered equally heavy burdens in terms of minutes played and overall responsibilities. That decisive nine minute fourth quarter stretch was an opportunity for James to grab this series by the throat and force his will upon the proceedings. In such a situation, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant would have gone down shooting--or they would have attracted so much defensive attention with their aggressiveness that their teammates had wide open shots.
James did not do that at all. He shrank from the moment, in the biggest moment of all. Maybe he will have a monster game five on the road, maybe not--but game four was an opportunity to extend the series to at least six games and to plant at least some doubt in the Warriors' minds.
James' final box score numbers look tremendous: 25 points on 11-21 field goal shooting, 13 rebounds, nine assists. Seemingly the only blemish would be his seven turnovers, but there are good reasons that I do not rely on statistics--whether basic or "advanced"--to evaluate players.
I remember an NBA Finals telecast from decades ago during which Bill Russell noted that what matters is not so much how many points a player scores but when the player scores them. Russell was speaking specifically about the impact that Julius Erving had not only because Erving was a high scoring player but also because Erving scored at crucial moments when the outcome was up for grabs.
Watching James play for more than a decade has given me at least some insight about why some of Wilt Chamberlain's contemporaries rank him below Bill Russell even though Chamberlain's individual numbers dwarf Russell's. James has repeatedly demonstrated that context and timing matter more than raw statistics. The Cavaliers built their game four halftime lead even though James was quiet during the first 24 minutes (seven points); this demonstrates that the Cavaliers are not solely dependent on James to be productive and competitive but it also represents a wasted opportunity: if James had been aggressive in the first half, the Cavaliers may have opened up a double digit lead that would have given them a bigger cushion and also possibly affected how the Warriors played in the second half--but, instead, the Warriors were understandably quite comfortable at halftime, as Golden State Coach Steve Kerr noted after the game.
Russell once said that after the outcome of a game was decided, he would sometimes let Chamberlain score. It was all psychological warfare to Russell, who wanted to placate Chamberlain and let Chamberlain feel satisfied about winning the personal duel as long as Russell's team won the overall war. In a recent ESPN the Magazine article, Jackie MacMullan wrote that Kobe Bryant--inspired by this Russell tactic--used to pull a similar "rope a dope" on Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. Bryant laughingly told her that he would "neither confirm nor deny" this, but MacMullan claims to have verified this with several of Bryant's former teammates and coaches.
James has an almost unhealthy awareness of his personal statistics. When his teams lose, he is quick to blame injuries or his teammates' lack of production or any factor other than his own effort. The most infamous example of this is the final playoff series of his first stint in Cleveland, when he churlishly responded to questions about his indifferent game five performance by stating that he had "spoiled" the fans with his excellence over the years. I cannot recall Russell or Erving or Jordan or Bryant blaming the fans for a playoff loss or calling the fans "spoiled" by their own greatness.
Chamberlain, like James, was the best player on two championship teams while also falling short in several other trips to the NBA Finals. Chamberlain was much more dominant than James and for the most part Chamberlain fell short against another greatest player of all-time candidate (Bill Russell) who was surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates led by a Hall of Fame coach, while James has lost to some teams/players that cannot be compared to Russell and his Celtics.
Ultimately, based on the available footage I have seen, the people from that era who I have interviewed and the research that I have done, I give more credence to those who state that Chamberlain was more dominant than Russell and a better all-around player than I do to those who claim that Chamberlain was overrated--but James has provided vivid proof that gaudy individual numbers in a losing cause do not necessarily prove that a superstar is blameless and has been saddled with an insurmountably inferior supporting cast.
Not surprisingly, the media coverage of game four spun in many directions--but without question the most bizarre take was offered by Mike Wilbon. Wilbon is a respected and accomplished sportswriter but I have never understood why ESPN touts him as some kind of basketball expert. Wilbon often gets his facts wrong and his analysis is typically way off-base.
When SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt asked Wilbon for his perspective on game four, Wilbon ignored James' disappearing act and then blasted Kyrie Irving (who scored a team-high 34 points on 14-28 field goal shooting while committing only one turnover in 43 minutes) in a way that Wilbon probably has not blasted anyone since he used to blame Kobe Bryant for supposedly shooting too much. Wilbon declared that he had never seen anyone play as selfishly as Irving did in the fourth quarter and that under no circumstances should Irving take more shots than James. Then, mercifully, Wilbon's microphone went out and Van Pelt turned to Brendan Haywood in studio. Haywood, who was a teammate of James and Irving last year after winning a ring versus James in the 2011 Finals, tried to be diplomatic but he completely disagreed with Wilbon, noting that Irving had a great game and that someone "has to have that Michael Jordan moment" when James "is not being aggressive."
Haywood concluded, "I like the way he (Irving) played," adding, "If LeBron was asking for the ball on the block or getting into the lane and being aggressive then I would say 'Hey Kyrie you have to defer.'"
Haywood then rightfully put Van Pelt on the spot and asked Van Pelt what he thought of Wilbon's commentary. Van Pelt wanted no part of directly attacking his more famous and influential colleague but at least Van Pelt had the guts to say, "I don't understand why LeBron doesn't take it to the hoop every time he has someone smaller on him."
That is the issue in a nutshell. This series' impact on James' legacy is not based on how many points James averages or how good his supporting cast is compared to Golden State's supporting cast; James, as his team's best player, has an obligation to relentlessly attack the paint to score and his failure to consistently do this tarnishes his legacy, particularly since James has fallen short in similar fashion on this stage several other times. If James relentlessly attacked the paint, he would (1) score, (2) put Golden State in foul trouble and (3) force Golden State to double team him, which would in turn enable Cleveland's role players to shine.
James built this roster and hired this coach. James cannot blame his teammates when he spends most of the game--including the decisive nine minutes of the fourth quarter--standing passively outside the three point line or else driving with the primary intention of passing even if his teammates are not open. Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson both said it repeatedly during the telecast: James must drive or post up with the intention of scoring and then only pass if the pass creates an advantage.
There is so much talk about how this series could impact James' legacy that it is easy to forget that the "other" team in the series is not only on the verge of capping off a record-setting 73 win season by winning back to back titles but that squad features a great player who is building his own legacy. Prior to scoring a game-high 38 points in game four, Stephen Curry had not covered himself in glory in the 2016 Finals and it is fair to ask why his play was not as scrutinized and criticized as James' play or as Kobe Bryant's play had been in years past. Typically, an MVP is expected to perform at a high level in the Finals--and Curry is not "merely" an MVP but he is a two-time reigning MVP who is just the fourth point guard (Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson and Steve Nash are the others) to win a regular season MVP. Curry's pedestrian performances in games one and two could perhaps be excused by the fact that his team won so easily that greatness was not required but in game three Curry played poorly when his team had an opportunity to deliver a knockout punch.
The interesting thing about Curry is that he has been the best, most consistent regular season performer in the league the past two years but his postseason play has not quite matched that level and he clearly does not have the size, strength and two-way maximum potential possessed by James. Put another way, James' best game would clearly be better than Curry's best game. We expect less from Curry despite the accolades he has received and thus we are more apt to give Curry a pass. That does not mean that it is wrong to criticize James for the shortcomings that I detailed above, but it does mean that two-time MVP Curry should be expected to perform at an elite level and he should be criticized when he fails to do so.
The main thing that can be said in Curry's defense--and this is far from insignificant--is that Curry does things to help his team win that do not show up in the boxscore; Curry moves without the ball, he sets screens and he is always active. Curry will make the pass to initiate an action even if it is likely that someone else down the line will get the assist. James orchestrates things such that his passes lead directly to shot attempts, increasing the chance that he will get an assist. That is not necessarily a bad thing but his team would be better served in many instances if he posted up, drew a double team and then passed to a teammate who then made a skip pass for an assist. Hakeem Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant opened things up for their teammates during championship runs by consistently making those kinds of plays and they were both deadly passers even though their assist totals were not always gaudy.
I have watched LeBron James intently for his entire NBA career. I have seen many of his games in person and during his first stint in Cleveland I had the opportunity to speak to him before and/or after some of those games. There is no question that he is smart, driven and supremely talented. He is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, without question or hesitation.
Yet, he is also the most puzzling and frustrating of the truly great players who I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand. The only historical analogy that I know of for the way that James' individual numbers give an inflated reckoning of the true quality of his performances would be Wilt Chamberlain. Perhaps that comparison is not at all fair to Chamberlain; many of Chamberlain's contemporaries swear that Chamberlain was much better than Russell and that if their situations had been reversed Chamberlain would have won just as much as Russell did. There will never be a definitive answer to that question and I mean no disrespect to Chamberlain, a childhood hero of mine who is perhaps my favorite basketball player whose prime took place before I was born.
All I can say is that my impression of James matches up with the critiques that some people provided of Chamberlain; the Chamberlain critiques may not be fair but from firsthand knowledge I know that it is fair to say that James has not maximized his individual talent or his championship potential, based on his inexplicable reluctance to attack mismatches in these Finals and in previous playoff series. The bottom line is this: if LeBron James is unwilling or unable to catch the ball on the block, drop step to the baseline (or quickly spin to the middle for a jump hook) and score/get fouled until the Warriors are forced to double team him then he is not as great as his supporters say he is, no matter what individual numbers he posts. Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes cannot stop an aggressive, engaged James in the post, nor can any of them can stop James from catching the ball at the elbow, taking two power dribbles to the hoop and scoring. Jordan and Bryant were not as physically imposing as James but they both controlled games and series by aggressively and relentlessly attacking from the post and/or the midrange area. James' inconsistent midrange game and his default tendency to passivity when facing elite teams in playoff series are two major reasons that he must be ranked below Jordan and Bryant in pro basketball's Pantheon.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 PM