The curse of LeBron

He has every reason to feel envy for the Warriors’ across-the-board talent

How can LeBron James not be jealous? His is the only matchup the Cavaliers are confident of winning in the NBA Finals. At the other positions, for the majority of every game, the defending champion Warriors are superior.

There are all kinds of technical ways for Cleveland to extend the series. James will seek out Stephen Curry in pick-and-roll switches. He will catalog the Warriors’ defensive reactions in hope of exploiting them later. He will continue to create open 3-pointers for Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver and then pray – having watched them miss 32 of 41 from the arc – that they’ll start making them.

But it all starts with LeBron believing in teammates who would have no business playing this time of year if not for him. Because resentment would be the easiest reaction for him.

How am I supposed to win with these guys?

Look at Andre Iguodala sitting over there in his expensive street clothes – on my team he’d be our second-best player.

They replace Iguodala with Shaun Livingston and he goes 5 for 5. Why can’t I have one teammate like that? Just give me one!

He is like a Ninja surrounded by the Warriors – arguably the most talented NBA team since the glorious 1980s – who find their joy in making the game look easy for another, and the wonder of this series is that James isn’t overcome with envy. Wouldn’t you be?

Triple-doubles aren’t enough. In Game 2 James made half his shots for 29 points, led everyone with 13 assists, ran down 9 rebounds (one short of a triple-double) while stealing the ball twice – and still finished with an impact of negative-18 points in 44 altogether hopeless minutes.

Here’s a reasonable guess. As he studied the box score after his Cavaliers lost Game 2 by 122-103 to trail 0-2 in the Finals, LeBron probably found himself dwelling on the efficient stat line of Kevin Durant:

10 of 14 from the field, 26 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists in 38 minutes

In their fourth straight Finals meeting, the rising fortunes of the Warriors and the sinking hopes of the Cavaliers can be boiled down to this simple exchange: Kevin Durant joined in, while Kyrie Irving bailed out.

One team gained talent, and the other lost it. The opposing trends have much to do with leadership, obviously: The Warriors have had the same management team for the last four years, while the Cavaliers routinely replace coaches and executives as if they’re never sure who they are or what they stand for. Last summer James begged his team to not surrender to Irving’s trade demand – but by then GM David Griffin was gone, and a series of ensuing trades replaced Irving with injured Isaiah Thomas (who was subsequently moved to the Lakers), a draft pick (number 8 later this month, which does nothing to help James now) and several role players who are mostly in over their heads against the Warriors.

If Griffin had stayed with Cleveland, then maybe LeBron would have had Paul George or DeAndre Jordan alongside him this week.

It also stands to reason that Irving felt liberated to move out of Cleveland because of the championship he had already won there. During Irving’s first three years, while LeBron was away in Miami learning how to win, the Cavaliers had been dreadful. Then James came home and changed everything. At the end of Game 7 in the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron could have insisted on taking the final shot. Instead he enabled Irving to win the championship with the biggest 3-pointer in the history of the league.

If LeBron had never returned to the Cavaliers, then Irving would not have won the championship – and he very well might still be in Cleveland.

Durant, in the meantime, went in the opposite direction. He was willing to share responsibility with fellow stars – to accept a potentially lesser role – because he was desperate to prove he could win the championship. While he was being abandoned by Irving, LeBron was watching the Warriors create the paradise of teamwork that he has always sought. The irony has to be painful.

Irving, injured now, is looking forward to next season in Boston alongside four potential All-Stars. Durant is two games away from winning his second straight championship alongside three All-Stars. LeBron is left with Kevin Love, an All-Star in Cleveland who probably would be coming off the bench with Golden State or Boston. Cleveland’s third-best player is George Hill, a career 80% foul shooter who front-rimmed the free throw that could have won Game 1.

The curse of LeBron. The NBA’s most talented player dreams of sharing the ball with teammates who know what to do with it. Passing, not scoring, is LeBron’s priority. But he has no peers on this team with whom to share.

The best teammates of his 15-year career have been Dwyane Wade, whose knees were already deteriorating even as he and James were winning two championships in their four years at Miami; and Irving, who if not for his 2015 knee injury could have helped James win a second championship in Cleveland. LeBron’s number three stars, Chris Bosh and Love, were never so consistent defensively or explosive with the ball as Golden State’s number three option, Klay Thompson, has been.

Now LeBron finds himself being defended by Draymond Green, the ferocious All-Star who does all the dirty work for the Warriors – hard labor that LeBron must also take on for Cleveland, in spite of its league-leading $138 million roster. The Cavaliers haven’t defended at a championship level since the 2016 title. The most common excuse is fatigue, which is not unfair for a team in its fourth straight Finals. LeBron’s Heat were also drained by a similar run, as were Kobe Bryant’s Lakers a few years ago. But what about James? Doesn’t he get to cite eight straight Finals as an excuse for fatigue? And yet he has played every game while leading the league in minutes during his 15th NBA season.

He has averaged a phenomenal 34.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1 block in 41.7 minutes this postseason – and even then his Cavaliers barely scratched through seventh games against the Pacers and Celtics. In Game 1 against the Warriors he generated 51 efficient points (on 32 shots), plus 8 assists and 8 rebounds in 48 minutes, and became the first player to ever score 50 or more in a Finals loss.

All he needed was for J.R. Smith to know the score of Game 1. Three nights later, when Smith was cheered and mocked by the fans in Oakland for helping them win the opener, it would have been natural to expect him to fight back with a strong Game 2. Instead Smith wilted, with 5 points in 31 forgettable minutes.

The Warriors response for Game 2 was to plug their neglected center Javale McGee into the starting lineup in order to collapse Cleveland’s weak defense. “It’s the most fun I’ve had in basketball,” said McGee of his 6-for-6 performance around the basket, which enabled Curry (33 points) to convert a Finals record 9 3-pointers.

The hard opportunity. Years from now, after he has retired, people will be saying they knew LeBron had become the new Michael Jordan when he led this underperforming roster to the 2018 Finals. But that doesn’t make it any easier, as James revealed while sitting apart from his teammates at the end of regulation in Game 1. When coach Ty Lue returned to the huddle, James asked if they’d had any timeouts left. LeBron was more than unhappy to hear that the Cavaliers bench had failed to call time when they realized Smith was trying to dribble out the clock:

His bitterness was absolutely understandable. James had played the best NBA Finals game in a quarter-century, and came away believing that no one was helping him.

The frustration may be going both ways. When Cavaliers players say they need to stop complaining about calls in order to sprint back defensively, they may very well be referring to James.

“The odds have been against me since I was 5, 6 years old,” James said while offering perspective after Game 2. “It seems like I tell you guys this all the time. The odds have been stacked up against me since I was an adolescent. So I put our team in position to compete for a championship. It's my job to make sure that we're as laser focused as possible, do my job and continue to instill confidence into my teammates until the last horn sounds. That's my job, that's my responsibility, that's my obligation, and I need to continue to do that, which I will.”

He has overcome much harder challenges. He was brought up in a harsh environment in Akron that could have threatened to end his story before it began. There were the life-long comparisons to Jordan that would have intimidated others, the hatred that came with The Decision and his necessary move to Miami in 2010, and the demoralizing departure of Irving while other stars were seeking to aggregate their talent.

“I mean, it sucks to lose,’’ James said. “It sucks when you go out there and you give it everything that you have, and you prep, and your mind is in it and your body is in it, and you come out on the losing end. But nothing would ever take the love of the game away from me. The love of the competition is something I live for and something I wake up every day and train my body for and train my mind for.”

The greatest player has been cast as the ultimate underdog. It is wonderful theater, and someday James will be applauded for it. That doesn’t make it easier, because the lifting is heavier than anyone else can know, and he’s doing most of it.


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