America has split itself down the middle, and I see one camp of GS super/semi/bandwagon fans who loved watching them, uh, defecate all over the entire NBA this year and speedwalk to a 16-1 record in the playoffs. The other camp despises Durant/GS and thinks this is bad for the NBA. The myth is still being propagated that nobody wants to watch a dynasty demolish the rest of the league, but the ratings are as good as ever and the NBA is thriving. However, as a humongous big fan and former player of the sport, it sucks to watch this GS team. Let’s talk about the state of the association.
Game 1 – Genesis
In the beginning, God created a gap in talent that became apparent all too quickly. I believe the story of game 1 was not the talent discrepancy, it was the number of times that Cleveland jogged back to their own three-point line and looked around for their man while the track team wearing white jerseys sprinted down the court directly toward their hoop.
If you know anything about basketball, getting back on defense is an eminently simple, but often underappreciated aspect of the game. If you do not know exactly where your man is, you run to the lane and look for your/an open guy. What you absolutely do not do is jog to the midway point between the halfcourt and three-point line and spin in circles asking “whose mans is this?” to nobody in particular. Kawhi Leonard is a defensive anomaly, but a huge chunk of his prowess can be attributed to his impeccable fundamentals. Nobody in the NBA runs back on defense harder than him. Kevin Durant jogged into four layups and two dunks in the first half. That’s not an efficient way to slow down the guy who could easily be called the greatest scorer in the world.
Cleveland attempted to beat the Warriors in a track meet and I blame that on Lue. He should know better. Is Love going to run with Durant? Is JR going to keep up with Klay, the best off-ball runner since Ray Allen? Remember when he scored 60 while only holding the ball for 90 seconds? The Cavs were able to hold GS to an 8-point lead at half, but GS turned that 60-52 lead into a 73-52 demolition match with 7:52 left in the 3rd. The game ended there. Out of the ashes, a conversation re-emerges about Durant being better than James.
Game 2 – They Are Who We Thought They Were
This game was more of the same, and the Cavs let them off the hook. Why did Lue think they’d beat GS at their own game? Again? Who knows, perhaps he didn’t think at all. Not much is needed here. It was a close-ish game until the 4th. LeBron was other-worldly, tying Magic for all-time Finals triple-doubles, but so was Durant. The big difference manifested as LeBron’s help being Love at 27 & 7 with Durant’s help being Curry at 32-10-11 and Klay at 22 & 7 on 12 shots. Too hot to handle, too cold to hold.
Game 3 – But In The End, It Doesn’t Even Matter
[gif of the guy from Linkin Park screaming] This game is why we love the Finals. It was tight for 47 minutes and we were watching two of the best players in the NBA trade blows. I had two big takeaways after GS went on an 11-0 run to drop the curtains on game 3.
- LeBron was hammered until tip-off of game 4 for passing to Korver, the league’s most accurate three-point shooter, instead of putting his head down and willing a shot for himself. If you watch the tape, he did not have a good shot because Green defended him well and Durant was right there to help contest any attempt. Korver had a clear look at the corner dagger. How long are we going to rip LeBron for choosing the right play over forcing a shot for himself?
- The Kardashian curse is REAL. Through three games, Tristan Thompson tallied a TOTAL of 8 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and had a +/- of -37. Is she really worth it, T-squared?
NOW, we should absolutely criticize LeBron for letting Durant walk into a wide-open three right after Korver missed that shot. Game 5 had a lot of this defensive laziness from LeBron, but this specific play was a colossal screw up from the best player in the world. Whose mans? LeBron has to get in Durant’s face as soon as he passes half-court. Punch him in the dick or armbar him, whatever. LeBron has to do anything but what he did in that situation. He cannot expect/pray that Durant is going to miss just because he wants him to, and this lackadaisical attitude on defense is not going to win a championship, especially against the most talented squad since the God damn Dream Team. Eat your damn Wheaties and play hard, James.
Game 4 – The Sun Peaks Through The Clouds
Mr. Irving hit seven threes to help the Cavs reach a Finals record of 24 three-pointers. A few other records were set, including most points in a Finals quarter (48) and points in a Finals half (86). LeBron records his second triple-double of this year’s Finals, ninth of his career, placing him numero uno in all-time NBA Finals triple-doubles (third place is two triple-doubles), and he usurped Michael as third in Finals scoring. This is what it took to defeat the 2016-17 Warriors one time in a series. Tristan Thompson woke up from his coma.
Game 5 – Are We There Yet
My interpretation of LeBron’s body language in the second half was “let’s get this thing over with.” He still played really well and fell a couple assists short of another big triple-double (41-13-8), but Love had another bad night of shooting and Kyrie was missing what is usually automatic for him.
Durant was absurdly efficient, making 14 of his 20 shots to tally 39 puntos. Curry had 34 on 12-15 FT. LeBron somehow only took four free throws even though he was driving into contact the whole game… Hmm. [Insert that skeptical thinking face emoji]. Now we get a summer of Draymond Green talking way more trash than he should be allowed. There’s no player in the league with a bigger ratio of What I Think I Can Do:What I Can Do.
Damned Talking Heads – The Big Three
There’s going to be no shortage of hot takes this off-season. We just witnessed possibly the greatest team of all-time roll through the entire league as if they weren’t even there, LeBron averaged the first Finals triple-double, Durant won his first ring, Westbrook averaged the first regular season triple-double since 1961-62, and there are some potential league-shifting moves to be made.
The East has lost Jim Buck (hell yes) and Paul George and it’s created a power vacuum in the Conference. We’ve only seen one full season from Whiteside and Lowry/DeRozan had statistically anomalous seasons, other than them the East has LeBron, Kyrie, Wall, and Giannis. Don’t try to tell me a 5’9 point guard can lead a team to the Finals. On the other side of the Mississippi, the West has at least 13 great players, with lots of potential from Jokic/Wiggins/Gobert/et al.
I don’t think the Cavaliers experiment will last much longer. They told Jimmy Butler to stay away. Kevin Love rebounded well but choked away all the big shots he was supposed to make. The Cavs’ role players wear velcro shoes to Perkins after church at 7 AM. Dan Gilbert and LeBron still don’t seem to love each other. Some proof is that LeBron tweeted a message to David Griffin that earned him an ethically easy out (compared to 2010) if he were to depart from Cleveland.
I think after Paul George’s supposed gut punch to the Pacers, their GM, Kevin Pritchard, traded him to OKC out of spite. He certainly could have received more value than Oladipo and Sabonis for the second best player in the East. I think Pritchard wanted to force George to play another year where he didn’t want to until he could choose to leave for LA. With George out and LeBron in Zero Dark Thirty-Which Team Do I Want to Take to the Finals Next mode, the East is left with four or five great players with potential out of Embiid/Whiteside/Simmons. It would be an absolute disaster for the NBA’s ratings, but boy would it make the West fun to watch. Adam Silver would be forced to finally give us the playoff seeding we deserve, a top-16 system. At least Gordon Hayward is probably going to Boston. Here are the big summer talking points.
1 – The Durant/LeBron Duelity
Every year the NBA’s media and fans, consciously or not, seem to manufacture a duel between two players we can call “the best.” Whenever ESPN gets the chance (every day), there’s a compare and contrast segment with two subjects. LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been the two greatest players in the NBA for quite some time. I’m not going to look at the stats to confirm the year, but it was probably 2012 that Durant emerged as second best as Kobe’s legs were trying to retire before his mind was made up. Kobe was slipping fast by 2011-12. According to Basketball Reference, his WS were below Gasol’s that year (and out of his 20 seasons he led the Lakers in Win Shares only 7 times. It’s hilarious that some people call him the GOAT). 2012 was also the first year they met in the NBA Finals and LeBron bested Durant, which led to the gentlemen’s sweep for the Miami Heat.
“We’re Even Now”
Durant apparently told LeBron during their embrace following the game 5 closeout that they, he and LeBron, are even now. What he’s saying is that they each have a record of 1-1 against each other in the NBA Finals. What he’s ignoring and passing over as at least semi-trivial is that LeBron was in the Finals the year before they first met in 2012 and in the four following seasons leading up to this year’s matchup. That’s seven straight Finals appearances. Whose (read this again) mans?
I Doth Protesteth Too Much
Value is a loaded word in basketball. By loaded, I mean that we allow everybody to gauge value in their own way, which is stupid. Kevin Durant was given MVP of the Finals and Russell Westbrook was given MVP of the regular season. I’m fine with the regular season trophy, although the blatant stat mongering should have bumped him down a bit. LeBron certainly deserved to be in the conversation over Kawhi, and I’m a huge fan of him.
Through game 4 of the finals, per 100 possessions while LeBron was on the court, the Cavs were actually outscoring the Warriors by 1.1 points. That’s quite shocking after watching the games. Of course, that was during the 166 minutes he played, leaving 26 minutes of him on the bench. During the latter period, per 100 possessions, the Warriors outscored the Cavs by 47.9 points. INSANE. If that doesn’t constitute the ultimate signifier of value, we should get rid of the use of stats altogether. This is like when I heard that we could take away all of Gretzky’s goals and he’d still be leading Jagr in career points. And he played 224 fewer games.
Taking LeBron out of the game creates a vacuum for every team he’s ever been on. I’m not saying he hasn’t had great teammates, but when he leaves the team falls apart. Even players (Wade, Bosh) who carried their respective teams without him seem to learn to lean on him so heavily that when he leaves they forget how they previously carried other players. LeBron left his “superteam” in Miami in 2014 and they added Whiteside, but the team went from 54 wins to 37, four games under .500. I know, Bosh’s arteries sucked. Still, LeBron leaving the game does to his teams what US intervention did to help foster the creation of ISIS. The vacuum of power is detrimental to the organization and LeBron leaving the game is terrorism. MAKE. LEBRON. PLAY. 48.
Colin Cowherd and the like enjoy talking about the “eye test” one can give a player or team. Many people’s eye test seemed to lead them to the conclusion that Durant has become king of the hill. I can buy it at the first glance. If all you did was watch the games and move on, it would be pretty straight forward to call Durant better. The game looked easy for him. He was on the receiving end of a ton of efficient ball movement, the Cavs were forced to double and help on two and sometimes three other players on GS, they exposed the weaknesses of the Cavs from the jump (a result of immeasurably superior coaching), and his teammates were excelling at their jobs, making everything easier for him.
Durant, Curry, Klay, and Draymond all seemed to be playing hard while the guys in the Cleveland jerseys looked like they were leaving everything on the court just so the lead wouldn’t balloon to 30 in five minutes. Durant got to sit for three more minutes per game than LeBron because of this, and we know what happened whenever LeBron did come out of the game. The story here is not that Durant somehow became better than James this year, it’s the players helping Durant compared to the players helping LeBron. Wait, was anybody actually helping LeBron? It seems like all LeBron does is help his teammates look better than they are.
2 – “LeBron James Created the Superteam”
What? Drexler joined Hakeem in Houston in ’94 for a ring after Hakeem had just won his first and Barkley followed suit in ’96, but Jordan earned his fifth instead. A failed superteam.
In 2003, after Shaq and Kobe were defeated by the Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals, they added Karl Malone (don’t forget he’s number two in career scoring) and Gary Payton (HOF, baby). Another failed superteam.
In 2007, the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They also got rid of Al Jefferson, a classic “addition by subtraction” move. Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Garnett-Scalabrine. My Superteam Sense is tingling.
In 2010, after LeBron James took the worst supporting cast of all time to the finals in 2007 and saw no improvement in peripheral talent, he left for the beach where Dwayne Wade was leading a 47-win team back from the depths of the 2008 season in which they won FIFTEEN GAMES. People forget that Wade let his team lose 67 times in one season. He only played in 51, but still.
The point here is that an NBA team is only allowed to accrue players through the draft. If a player is signed away from the draft it’s bullshit and their title is moot. The Golden State Warriors did that, mostly. However, after a SEVENTY-THREE WIN SEASON, they signed a former MVP and the biggest free agent since LeBron’s return to Cleveland.
I do not remotely despise GS for this, it’s all on Durant. He was on a great team in 2015-16 and they were up 3-1 on GS in the Western Conference Finals. Why was LeBron hammered harder than Durant for his departure to Miami, a mediocre team that LeBron never even saw in the playoffs?
3 – The Usurpation to Usurp All Usurpation: Is LeBron a Better Basketball Player Than Jordan?
I… I think so. The straw that broke the camel’s back: 1993-94, the year Jordan left the Bulls. In 1992-93, the Bulls won the Finals and 57 regular season games. Then, he vanished. Not really, he was always in the spotlight. I’m sure it was strange, though. The best player in the world decides to walk away in his prime. I don’t know what the climate was like because I was born on July 3rd of that year, and that will be held against me in my opinion of Jordan. However, I have loved Jordan as long as I’ve loved basketball, which is to say the majority of my life. I studied him like a Biblical scholar in high school and college. I apologized for and mostly ignored all the bad stuff that was said about Mike and his character (which is impressive considering that I read The Jordan Rules). I incessantly spoke about how phenomenal he was and returned constantly to the documentaries and books that praised him as the league’s Lord and Savior (which he wasn’t, that was Bird & Magic’s rivalry).
HOWEVER, in the 1993-94 season, while Jordan was down the road striking out, the Bulls won… 55 games. That’s right, folks. The greatest to ever lace ’em up deserted his team and they earned the third seed, losing to the Knicks in the Conference Semis. The following season in which Jordan came back as #45 and played 17 games, they went 47-35 and lost in the Semifinals again. In 1995-96, with the addition of Dennis Rodman (HOF please don’t forget), they went 72-10.
LeBron left the Cavaliers in 2010 because he had begged and pleaded for seven years to be given a supporting cast worthy of his talents. In that 2009-10 season, they won 61 games, earned the first seed, and lost in the Conference Finals to a superior Celtics squad. Subtract LeBron, the Cavs win 19 games and go on a 26-game losing streak in 2010-11, an NBA record.
The Cavs then draft Kyrie Irving, the second best player to LeBron on the current squad. He gives them two wins in the shortened 2011-12 season for a 21-45 record. The next two seasons went 24-58 and 33-49, respectively. LeBron returned to the Cavaliers for the 2014-15 season and their record jumps to 53-29 and they lose to Golden State in the Finals.
Now is when the Jordan defender says “yeah, but he was 6-0 in the Finals.” To which I respond: so what. Fundamentally that is a team record and I don’t believe it’s that arbitrary to say LeBron has been more valuable to his teams than Michael. The stats above prove that outright. If you’re screaming “WHOSE MANS” right now, maybe I haven’t made a good enough case. See below.
Origin Story – MJ
Michael Jordan was drafted third overall in 1984 by the Chicago Bulls after three years at the University of North Carolina, where he won a national championship as a freshman (with the help of James Worthy and Sam Perkins). The Bulls were 27-55, finished last in their conference, but they drafted the national player of the year. Things are looking up! At 21-going-on-22 years old, Jordan takes them to 38-44, which is somehow good enough (46% of their games were wins) to get them the seventh seed in the playoffs where they were throttled by Milwaukee. In year 2, Jordan breaks his foot early in the season. He returns late to help them make the playoffs with a 30-52 record (that’s right, they made the playoffs while winning 36.6 percent of their games). The Eastern conference was good during the 90’s, but must have been an absolute pile of rubble in the mid-80s. This is the year Jordan dropped 63 in a 2OT loss to the Celtics (one of my favorite games to watch). Too much team for one man, they were swept.
Year 3 is one of the most impressive seasons in NBA history. Jordan emerges as an extraterrestrial with a stat line of 37.1 pts, 5.2 rebs, 4.6 asts, 2.9 stls, and 1.5 blks with a 48.4 eFG%. The only blemish was his 18.2% three-point percentage. Still, the team must have been excellent, right? They finished 40-42 and were swept again by Boston. Pippen is drafted in ’87, Jordan is 24 years old, and they jump to 50-32 for the 1987-88 season, even with Scottie coming off the bench. Jordan eased off the scoring a bit (still 35 ppg) and bumped up to 5.9 apg, which was better for everybody. This time they creep their way into the semis and get smacked by Detroit, which will become a recurring theme.
In the 1988-89 season, the Bulls took a dip. Pippen got better (14.4 ppg, 6.1 rbg, 3.5 apg) and Jordan dropped his scoring a tad in order to drastically raise his rebounding and assisting (32.5 ppg, 8 rpg, 8 apg). I’m not sure what was in the Chicago water that year, but those pass/board numbers are huge outliers on his career stat sheet. However, losing Charles Oakley brought them back down to 47-35. Losing Oakley resulted in more regular season losses than Jordan in 1993/94… Anyway, they eeked past Cleveland again, beat the Knicks and lost to the Pistons in the Conference Finals. Pippen and the Bulls improved in the 1989-90 season, finishing 55-27 and losing to Detroit in 7 games of the Conference Finals.
The rest is history, so they say.
Origin Story – LJ
LeBron won Ohio’s Mr. Basketball title for his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons. His team lost in the state championship when he was a junior, but won it the other three years. By his junior season, he appeared on SLAM Magazine and Sports Illustrated. He became national player of the year and petitioned to enter the 2002 NBA Draft at 17, but was told he had to graduate high school first. During his senior season, the team was flown to games against national powerhouses, many of which were televised, and he looked like he could’ve been the father of his teammates. LeBron decided to skip his commitment to Maryland (strange school to choose as perhaps the greatest high school player of all time) and was drafted first overall by the 17-65 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Year 1, LeBron joins Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to average at least 20-5-5 (20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg — as an aside, Larry Bird averaged 21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, and 4.5 apg his rookie year and is not given his due as an all-time great). The Cavs improved to a 35-47 record in his first season, no playoffs. He followed his rookie season with a line of 27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg, and 2.2 spg to achieve a record of 42-40. That was still not good enough to earn even the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Remember that Jordan made the playoffs after a 30-win season.
Year 3, LeBron has a coming out party. He tallies 31.4 ppg, 7 rpg, 6.6 apg, and 1.6 spg with a 51.5 eFG% and 33.5% from three. This is good enough to earn the fourth seed in the East with a 50-32 record. They lost 4-3 to Detroit in the Conference Semifinals.
2006-07 was LeBron’s fourth season, and if his third was a coming out party, this was the after party. He did similar numbers, scoring dropped to 27.3 ppg, but they earned the second seed with the same record, swept Washington, beat NJ, and took out Detroit (never forget), which brought them to the vastly superior San Antonio Spurs in the Finals. LeBron and his supporting cast of D-League talent (seriously, look at the 2006-07 Cavs roster) were swept in the NBA Finals.
During the next three seasons, LeBron improves individually and the seasons end with records of 45-37, 66-16, and 61-21. Cleveland loses to Boston in 7 in the Conference Semifinals, Orlando in 6 in the Conference Finals, and Boston in 6 in Conference Semifinals. The Celtics were to LeBron as the Pistons were to Jordan.
Juuust a Bit Outside – Conclusion
We know all the ring comparisons, LeBron’s record of 3-5 in the Finals, Jordan’s of 6-0, but we always leave out the pre-championship career of Jordan. If you’re keeping track at home, LeBron had three consecutive winning seasons and made the Finals, defeating a great Pistons team, by the age of 22 with his best teammate being either Larry Hughes or Drew Gooden (combined 0 All-Star appearances, pick your poison). Jordan earned his first winning record at 25 after the Bulls drafted a future HOF’r. [Insert argument along the lines of “yeah, but Jordan went to college for three years.”] Correct, but the NCAA D-1 brand of basketball (in the 80’s) was the highest level of ball that could be played outside of the NBA. Jordan didn’t skip college because he couldn’t. He developed his game for the NBA while in college and when he got there he found that his team wouldn’t just magically win because he was good. Jordan had a stretch of seasons that proved over and over that he could not win at the highest level unless he pulled back on unremitting scoring to get the talent around him involved (LeBron’s bread and butter, which led him to earlier and longer-term success).
It should also be noted that LeBron is going to shatter every single statistical mark that Jordan left behind in ’98 (I’ll leave out the Wizard years, you’re welcome). And that includes scoring, which was Michael’s bread and butter. This is through the 12 playoffs LeBron has played in so far and 13 cemented playoffs for Jordan.
Jordan was absolutely relentless. There is an overactive part of his brain that lies dormant in LeBron’s. Jordan had a glint in his eye that has not been seen before or after him.
Save the “Kobe has that IT factor, too” argument, it’s embarrassing. Jordan would have ripped Kobe’s jugular vein out and made him eat it on the court if they had met at the right time. Kobe was the SECOND best player on HIS OWN TEAM for 3/5 of his championships and I could make a case for Pau Gasol’s 2010 Finals MVP.
I will: Kobe shot 40% and totaled the same number of turnovers as assists. Pau was more valuable in games 1, 2, 6, and 7. The Lakers won games 1, 3, 6, and 7 (Kobe had 29 on 10-29 FG and was 1-7 from three in game 3 and Pau was a little off with 13-10-4, so I’m not sure how they beat the Celtics in that game). Game 4 was a wash with Pau at 21-6-3 and Kobe scoring 33 but turning the ball over seven times. Kobe was certified, Grade-A trash in the final game (6-24 FG, 0-6 from three, 4 turnovers and 2 assists). Anyway, Jordan.
Jordan has certainly had a better career than LeBron, I won’t argue that unless LeBron has some wild finish in his remaining years (he’ll be 33 next year, so the hourglass is upside down). However, I don’t think the conversation can’t be had. Moreover, I think anybody looking at this stuff with at least one rational hair on their head would agree that LeBron has always been more valuable to his teams. We’ve fetishized Jordan’s career so much that none of the blemishes are remembered and in 2017 every basketball fan/analyst/reporter would thank Michael Jordan if he punched them in the face. I think we need to come to a consensus (as in agree with my obviously correct definition) with what value means on the basketball court.
UNRELATED: welcome, Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague. I hope you like the cold.
Well, that about does her, wraps her all up… I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we– aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch ya later on down the trail. – The Stranger