The dramatic tension for James’s playoff performance was set up perfectly by a regular season that was “disappointing” by his standards. The 2014–15 campaign was the first time that James didn’t finish first or second in NBA MVP voting since 2011, it was the first time he didn’t finish first or second in PER since 2007, and it was the first time he didn’t make the All-Defensive team since 2008. It was also the first time James looked physically mortal: midseason back and knee injuries sidelined James for two weeks, the longest stretch of his 12-year career, and he eventually appeared in just 69 games, the first time he had ever missed more than seven in a season. Simultaneously, James averaged a career-low 36.1 minutes per game, meaning that his 2,493 minutes played were nearly 500 fewer than in any of his previous seasons (aside from the 66-game lockout season). Those gaps, coupled with the feel-out nature of the new-look Cavaliers’ first half of the season, produced openings for younger stars like Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Anthony Davis to squeeze onto center stage alongside him.
If James’s longstanding status as the game’s best player suddenly seemed like it might inch towards debatable, for a breath, the feeling didn’t last. Cleveland’s midseason restructuring and his strong comeback after his layoff generated serious momentum that never stopped, no matter how many of his key teammates fell by the wayside. Without Kevin Love and then Kyrie Irving to share the load, James shouldered all of it, drawing comparisons to Atlas as he went, shape-shifting in response to the injuries and various matchups along the way. He slowed the game down, consolidated control of Cleveland’s offense, and found ways to get the most out of his limited teammates. When in doubt, he shot and shot like never before in his career, and even though his efficiency numbers took a hit, Cleveland kept advancing.
The first potential breaking point came midway through a second-round series with the Bulls, as the Cavaliers fell behind 2–1 and coach David Blatt tried so hard to join Chris Webber in the halls of timeout infamy. With Cleveland hanging over the cliff, James lifted his team away from the edge, draining a buzzer-beating game-winner, after overruling his coach’s play call, and leading Cleveland to a 4–2 series win. Things never got quite as tight in the conference finals against Atlanta, but James was there again when the tension briefly mounted in Game 3, posting a 37/18/13 triple double and coming up big late in the overtime victory.
That eye-popping stat line was a taste of what was to come in the Finals, when James scored 40 points in four of six games against the Warriors, the league’s No. 1 defense, and posted two more outrageous triple doubles (39/16/11 in Game 2 and 40/14/11 in Game 5). With barely any rest and a situation so dire that little-known point guard Matthew Dellavedova briefly achieved national fame, James carried Cleveland to within two games of its first championship, despite facing what was arguably the best all-around team of the post-Michael Jordan era.
James’s final postseason numbers were staggering, as well. His 30/11/8 averages are unprecedented in the three-point era. All three of the triple double combinations listed above were unprecedented in postseason history. His usage rate was among the highest ever posted in the playoffs. In addition to his own scoring, James’ generated 21.4 points, per SportVU, meaning he was responsible for 52% of Cleveland’s postseason offense. That figure dwarfed the postseason numbers posted by both Curry (42%) and Harden (41%).
Even though James’s career Finals record dropped to 2–4 and even though he failed to deliver on Nike’s “There’s Always This Year” banner, he was such a force that he absolutely should have been named Finals MVP in defeat. No other player in the modern game could have done all of this—not even close—and it’s even possible that James, now 30, will never again match the volume and scope of his 2015 postseason work. While the crop of superstars chasing James is growing, improving and, yes, gaining ground, James’s playoff run curtailed the possibility of a debate for the No. 1 spot on this year’s list. It’s James, again. – B.G.
2014-15: 25.3 PPG, 7.4 APG, 6.0 RPG, 48.8 FG%, 35.4 3P%
Advanced: 25.9 PER, Win Shares: 10.4, +8.78 RPM