It is no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the best basketball player on the planet. It’s also not exactly private knowledge that the supporting cast they’ve given him is far from championship-caliber.
But despite trading point guard Kyrie Irving before the season for a pile of misfit toys, completely overhauling their team at the February 8 trade deadline, and having their newest players provide very little of anything constituting good basketball, the Cleveland Cavaliers are two wins away from the fourth straight NBA Finals appearance. You’ve probably heard this one before, but the Cavs’ success has absolutely everything to do with LeBron James and nothing to do with anything else.
But it’s not just that James is single-handedly trying to will his team to another NBA Finals. It’s that he is doing this at a level of play we may very well have never seen before in the history of the sport.
For starters, James is averaging 33.7 points, nine rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game in these playoffs. The only player in NBA history to match those figures in the postseason was Russell Westbrook last year; the kicker here is that Westbrook’s Thunder were bounced by the Rockets in five games in the first round of the playoffs. We have never seen a player produce this consistently over a full playoff run, but the raw production numbers are not the only sign of James’ historic greatness.
Because while some players have been insanely prolific scorers, passers, and rebounders throughout NBA playoff history, no player has ever done all three of these and combined them with ruthless efficiency.
There have been two postseasons in NBA history in which a player has owned a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 33 or greater and player in at least ten playoff games. LeBron James is the owner of both of them (NOTE: PER was not tracked until the 1988-89 season). Not Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, John Stockton, et al. Just LeBron James. Just the greatest player of our generation. Just the greatest player of all-time.
The Cavaliers, though, are in a similar position to where they have been in the previous two playoff series. They’re playing a Boston Celtics unit that, as a whole, is probably better than they are. The same statement could be made about the Indiana Pacers, who pushed Cleveland to the wall in the first round and outscored the Cavs by 40 points over seven games. The Toronto Raptors could, theoretically, have given the Cavaliers a series, but they blew a 14-point lead in the first half of Game 1 and, on account of them being the Toronto Raptors, lost the next three games and even had ESPN announcers saying that they hailed from “LeBronto”. Now that is rock bottom.
The Celtics, though, are the best team Cleveland has faced to this point in the playoffs. In spite of losing their two best players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, to season-ending injuries, Boston has the best defense in the league and an ensemble cast that has carried them past the Bucks and 76ers to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, they depend on getting much of their offense from rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and 2015 first-round pick Terry Rozier. The only experienced veterans currently playing for the Celtics are Al Horford and Marcus Morris, and while Horford made the All-Star team this year, he isn’t nearly the type of player James is and the Celtics depend just as much on their young players for production. It’s fair to wonder whether or not these three men can regain their mojo as the series returns to Boston for a critical Game 5. The reason this is brought up now is because the Celtics have just one road win in these playoffs, and it came in overtime against the 76ers in a game that nearly ended with a Philadelphia victory in regulation.
The Celtics obviously have a better supporting cast, but against a player like James, will it matter?
My belief is that if Cleveland gets good enough contributions from the likes of Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love, the answer to the question above will be no. You go into this game assuming that James will take what is his, and even if he has a bad night from the field, he’ll still set his teammates up with good looks. Cleveland shot 25-57 (.439) from three in two games at Quicken Loans Arena as opposed to 14-57 (.246) in two games at TD Garden. There may be some regression from Game 4 to Game 5, but if the Cavs continue to get open looks, at least some of them are bound to go in.
The other factor here is the Celtics’ ineptitude on the road. Even though they don’t need to win a road game to win this series, they are only forcing LeBron and company to take one game in Boston assuming their home/road trends continue. Remember, this is the same building in which LeBron dunked Jason Terry into next week and scored 45 in an Eastern Conference Finals elimination game. If tempting fate is your thing, the Boston Celtics are the team for you.
But no matter what happens, we should sincerely appreciate what we are watching on the court on a nightly basis. The greatest player in the history of basketball has been given one of the worst secondary units in the league, and despite that, he may lead this group make to their fourth straight NBA Finals and his eighth in a row. And if you think your profession is miserable, just remember that mine pays a guy $5.5 million per year to go on television, troll LeBron, and tweet out dumb things about him every time he does something good, which is very often.
The greatest basketball player of our generation and the greatest player of all-time has brought the Eastern Conference Finals to a tie at two games apiece against a collective unit that is evidently far better than his. He doesn’t have a very good supporting cast and the odds are that he can’t singlehandedly drag his team to another NBA Finals.
But who needs favorable odds when LeBron James is on your team? The Cavaliers haven’t before, and they certainly don’t now.