What does LeBron James want? An industry has been built around this very question. Not only are people insatiably interested in what LeBron wants, but his will also exerts an enormous force on the NBA’s competitive balance. An entire television special was devoted to his “decision,” and, in due course, he made the choice that defined the next half-decade of the NBA, and that arguably changed the league forever.
However, there are limits to LeBron’s power, and we are all watching them play out in real time. This situation—carrying a middle-of-the-pack playoff team—is certainly not what he wanted.
Basketball watchers knew LeBron was up against it when his Cleveland cohort and supplementing superstar, Kyrie Irving, demanded a move away. Everyone figured that all-star point guard Isaiah Thomas would be a reputable consolation in scoring ability and perhaps an improvement in facilitating ability, but also a serious defensive liability with his diminutive stature.
Things were worse than they seemed. A severe hip injury had sapped Thomas’ offensive magic, and he was out by midseason, at which point the team was floundering and near the playoff margin.
Thomas was dealt in the flurry of trades made to revitalize LeBron’s Cavs with defense and shooting. The additions helped, but have proven to be a Band-Aid pasted over a more integral issue.
The team is far less talented than it was a year ago. As with the Cavaliers of the first LeBron era, it is LeBron who is tasked with elevating the team’s performance beyond the collective capability of the players. What really defies the odds is that LeBron is still able to do this—produce a display that transcends the limitations of his teammates.
This transcendence takes place through the manifestations of his teammates. LeBron is commonly referred to as the best passing forward of the modern era. Both his outstanding court vision and his outsized capability to individually overcome opposing defenders mean that his teammates have an extremely important ancillary role, which he readily facilitates.
The question of whether they are up to the task has been frequently asked of all LeBron’s teams. Even star talents Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh had to reconfigure their games to let LeBron’s transcendence flow through their output. This was particularly evident in Bosh’s uneven yet ultimately successful transformation from a dominant post player to a very good outside-working-in forward.
It is hard to say whether we are watching the twilight of the King’s greatness. Somehow, the Cavaliers’ star forward has thus far outpaced the inertial forces of father time. He still takes opponents one-on-one, to seize the advantage of his speed! LeBron missed no games this season—a first for his 15-year career. Perhaps most unbelievable, he delivers Herculean performances on cue.
The latest is a 43-minute, 45-point masterclass to close out the enterprising Indian Pacers in Game Seven of their first-round matchup. LeBron could not afford to go on autopilot. Testament to how much was demanded of him is how he filled out the rest of the stat sheet: nine rebounds, seven assists, four steals. “I’m tired and want to go home,” he grumbled, asked about his next opponent, the regular season-winning Toronto Raptors (CBC, “LeBron tired? Raptors not buying it,” 04.1.2018).
Over the next few weeks, the basketball-watching world will see how far LeBron’s transcendence can propel his team. Can he push over the finish line, all while the team’s weaknesses slow him down? The Raptors will look to answer with great emphasis. Their “bench mob,” five young Toronto players who come off the bench for the team, have been outstanding this season. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the unit has the best plus/minus (differential of points scored versus allowed) of any five-man lineup in the league (Twitter, [at] ZachLowe_NBA, 03.01.2018).
With their incredible depth, the Raptors are poised to take advantage of the Cavaliers’ role players. Thus, the onus will be all the more concentrated on LeBron to elevate his team.
Though heroism may have been the plan in returning to Cleveland four years ago, back-breaking efforts in the midst of the proverbial back-nine of his career were certainly not part of the vision.