What should we expect from the NBA Finals?

Though his Cavaliers appear certain to lose, the ultimate winner appears to be LeBron

For the first time in league history, the same teams are meeting in a fourth straight NBA Finals. And yet this rematch of Cavaliers-Warriors appears to be a mismatch. 

No one thinks Cleveland can win. Which means, for the first time in his basketball life, there is no pressure on LeBron James. This day has been a long time coming.

From age 17, when he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine as “The Chosen One,” James was expected to be the second-coming of Michael Jordan. This forecast of who James should be was based not so much on results – he hadn’t played in anything bigger than a high school or AAU tournament – as on the potential of his athleticism, size and vision. 

He grew up recognizing that either he would be as great as his idol Jordan – or else he would be a failure. It was all or nothing for James, and he embraced that challenge. He had CHOSEN-1 tattooed across his back, even though as a teenager he could have no idea what he was getting himself into.

“I asked him why he had that tattoo and why he wouldn’t want to take it off,” says Pat Riley, the president of the Miami Heat, in my new book The Soul of Basketball. “That’s just above and beyond expectations and having to prove yourself.”

As far back as a decade ago, the Celtics and their coach Doc Rivers were the antagonists who forced James to live up to the highest expectations in four playoff series from 2008 to 2012. More than any other opponent, they taught him that his natural talent wasn’t going to be enough. They helped bring out the champion in him.

“When Michael came in the league, he surprised everybody how great he was,” says Rivers, now coach of the Clippers, in a video at ianthomsen.com. “When LeBron came into the league they expected him to be great. So it was already on him. Michael, we allowed him to grow into greatness. We didn’t allow LeBron – and he still overachieved. 

“LeBron is better than anyone ever thought,’’ says Rivers. “Which is amazing.”

The one player who can relate to LeBron is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who entered the NBA with similar expectations competitively. Abdul-Jabbar was expected to dominate pro basketball – he had been so dominant in college that the NCAA tried to neutralize him by outlawing the slam dunk – and those demands turned out to be isolating. Abdul-Jabbar refused to be what others wanted him to be, whereas LeBron welcomed the opportunity.

By then, of course, the expectations were far greater for LeBron because he was supposed to replace Jordan not only competitively but also commercially. The league’s sponsors were desperate to find “the next Jordan” in their belief, which turned out to be mistaken, that the NBA needed a lone star at the top in order to thrive commercially. The pressure was on LeBron to not only perform to Jordan’s championship level on the court, but also to generate as much money and attention as Jordan off the court.

All of that for an 18-year-old from high school.

Who was he? The comparison to the greatest player created a major conflict for James in the early going of his career. The NBA’s sponsors wanted him to emulate Jordan, a finisher, even though LeBron appeared to have much more in common with Magic Johnson, a creator.

“I said to him, ‘If you’re not Magic Johnson, then I’ve never seen one, OK?’” recalls Riley of a conversation he had with James, as related in The Soul of Basketball. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t know if you like him as a player or who you want to model yourself after, but you’re him. You’re Magic Johnson who wants to score too.’ I can remember him not making much out of it, but he laughed a little bit.”

How many times was LeBron nitpicked for making the smart pass at the end of a tight game when so many critics wanted him to take the big shot?

He wanted to be Magic. 

His audience wanted him to be Michael.

Now he is both. 

At times during these playoffs James has elevated his teammates, creating shots for them as Magic would have done; at other times he has dragged his supporting cast along as Michael used to do. Along the way his decisions have not been second-guessed as in previous years. LeBron’s return to an eighth straight NBA Finals with these undermanned Cavaliers is a celebration of his union – of passing and shooting, of creating and scoring, of selflessness and selfishness. There is no longer a line separating the yin-and-yang of LeBron. He isn’t struggling to define himself as he did in the early years of his rivalry with the Celtics.

He isn’t asked to choose between Magic and Michael anymore. At last LeBron is judged on terms of his own making, unlike anyone else’s in the history of the league. He’s the one setting the standards now.

His passes bounce with spin, like the cue ball on a billiard table, or are backhanded to cutters that went unnoticed until the ball arrived, or are wristed across the court from corner to corner with more speed than any point guard can deliver. He can post up or pull up midrange (two forgotten arts) or bail his team out flat-footed with 3-pointers at the buzzer. He used to be accused of being the worst at the ends of games, and now, undeniably, he is the best.

At last, no expectations. For the first time in his basketball life, there is no pressure on LeBron. Of course he will be expected to score at least 30 points and approach a triple-double every night, which is his norm. But no one is thinking that his Cavaliers should win.

The Warriors are 12-point favorites in Game 1, which is equal to the largest point spread in an NBA Finals game since 1991. Oddsmakers are struggling to come up with a bigger mismatch historically at this stage of the season.

And yet the audience for round four of Cavaliers-Warriors is expected to be immense. Why? Because we all want to see if LeBron can pull off the impossible.

I’m thinking that these games may be closer than anticipated, for three reasons:

Golden State’s inconsistency. In their seven-game Western finals, the Warriors showed lapses of inattention that hadn’t been seen from them over the previous three seasons. Four straight runs to the NBA Finals have exhausted them, and they have no reason to fear the Cavaliers, who traded Kyrie Irving last summer for little in return. (Kevin Love may also miss Game 1 while recovering from a concussion.) At their best, the Warriors can decimate Cleveland’s unimpressive defense by making the extra passes for uncontested shots and open lanes to the basket. But what if they lack the commitment to teamwork and settle for one-on-one play? Then the Cavaliers may be able to keep the games close, which will give LeBron a chance.

In 1975 the top-seeded Washington Bullets led the league with 60 wins and were heavy favorites to win the championship. They were upset (in a Finals sweep no less) by the 48-win Warriors of Rick Barry, who was the LeBron of his day. I’m not predicting the Warriors will lose; but it’s an historical reference to keep in mind if the games are competitive.

The absence of Andre Iguodala. The MVP of the 2015 Finals has been crucial to Golden State’s defense against James. But Iguodala has already been ruled out of Game 1 with a left-leg contusion, and his availability for the rest of the series is questionable.

The independence of LeBron. What will it be like for him to be free of expectations? He would probably say that he learned to live with pressure many years ago. He would definitely argue that outside opinions are meaningless to him.

But still: This is a chance he’s never had before. By delivering his Cavaliers to the Finals, he’s already done everything that could be asked of him. And so now, after 15 years, he gets to find out what it’s like to be anyone else. He has a chance to surprise us. 

He’s been training his entire basketball life to do just that, and now, finally, will the pressure give way to unexpected joy?

NBAnswers is a newsletter from American insider Ian Thomsen for NBA fans everywhere.

Have an NBA question for Ian? Email him at ianthomsennba@gmail.com. He’ll answer your questions each Friday (available for subscribers only).

To buy The Soul of Basketball, the first American book for NBA fans around the world, please click here.