SI.com will periodically panel its basketball experts during the 2015 NBA playoffs and ask them a pressing question about the league. Today's topic...what is the "secret motivation" fueling LeBron James during the NBA Finals?
Lee Jenkins: LeBron's Delly
I have no idea, but I’m not sure he needs any more motivation than the promise of Cleveland’s first pro sports championship in more than a half-century. There may have been many reasons behind his return, but none trumped the image in his mind of a parade down East 4th Street. He talked about it, even back when he was in Miami, and he daydreamed about it. So it’s either that or he just wants to win the title so he can open a sandwich shop downtown and call it LeBron’s Delly, which would do incredible business for decades to come.
Phil Taylor: Pat Riley
We could treat this as a joke and say that James’ secret motivation is to earn a Rogaine endorsement (hence the no-headband look on the national stage), or that having been beaten out by Steph Curry for the MVP, he’s determined not to lose the SI Sportsman of the Year award to American Pharoah in a photo finish. But that would be cheap humor, and we’re better than that.
So the hunch here is that the mysterious spur under James’ saddle comes from Miami Heat president Pat Riley, who took a thinly veiled shot at him after the regular season. Riley said that this offseason for the Heat would include “no more smiling faces with hidden agendas,” which could be taken as a hint that Riley feels James led the Heat to believe he was returning to Miami, only to spurn them and re-join the Cavaliers. Riley also appears to fancy himself the Kingmaker, the man who assembled the Big Three and finally made James a champion, and it wouldn’t be surprising if James’ extra drive comes from wanting to prove that he can win a ring without Riley pulling the strings. That’s if, of course, there really is a secret motivation and it’s not just LeBron being his sometimes overly dramatic self.
Ben Golliver: Cleveland's curse
My dream is that Michael Jordan called LeBron James after reading his essay with Lee Jenkins to deliver a simple message: "Bringing a title to Cleveland will be impossible because I placed a curse on the Cavaliers franchise after never losing to them in the playoffs." If James reveals that's what happened, after breaking the curse, the Internet is heading for an earthquake, tornado, tsunami, asteroid crash, black hole. Please let this be the explanation.
My real guess is something a bit more mundane. This was the first season that James was left off the All-Defensive teams since 2007-08, snapping a string of six straight selections. James is on record believing his defensive abilities are underrated: Two years ago, he made a public stink about finishing second to Marc Gasol in the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year voting, pointing to his ability to defend every position on the court. While James was left off the 2015 All-Defensive teams, two Warriors were selected: Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut.
Superstars crave snubs as motivation, and this would qualify, even if James's omission was defensible because he missed a chunk of the season due to rest and because Cleveland's regular-season defensive numbers were pretty pedestrian. In the playoffs, stripped of two All-Stars, James has helped guide the Cavaliers to the league's best postseason defensive mark, and Cleveland has taken a 2-1 series lead in large part because of its success in bottling up Golden State's amazing offensive attack. What better way to set the record straight about his defensive ability than by taking down a 67-win team with a potent offense, while also outperforming two All-Defensive selections?
Rob Mahoney: Everything
LeBron James’ secret motivation is a sitcom-style fib that he made up in a moment of panic, and which he must now go great lengths to validate and fulfill. LeBron James’ secret motivation is the success of his ongoing science project to inject Matthew Dellavedova with tiger’s blood; without a championship, higher-ups have threatened to cut his funding. LeBron James’ secret motivation is a cheat day. LeBron James’ secret motivation is an elaborate cross-promotion for his co-starring turn in Trainwreck. LeBron James’ secret motivation is to win the series to the satisfaction of the Illuminati. LeBron James’ secret motivation is to avenge the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, gunned down in an alleyway as pearls scattered everywhere. LeBron James’ secret motivation is to use the championship stage as an opportunity to endorse James Jones’ bid for the U.S. presidency. LeBron James’ secret motivation is that he really loves the taste of champagne but hates buying it for himself.
DeAntae Prince: Gilbert's letter
It was not considered a lateral move when LeBron James left the city of Cleveland for the shores of South Beach. Already the league’s best player back in 2010, James’ decision to desert his home state to play on Dwyane Wade’s team was not framed in a positive light. In fact, the most negative reaction of all came from within the Cavaliers organization, when owner Dan Gilbert pulled out the Comic Sans font and wrote a letter degrading James and promising to win a title before his Miami Heat. Gilbert did not make good on that promise, as James used four NBA Finals appearances to collect two titles in Miami.
Now that James and Gilbert have mended fences and joined forces in Cleveland, James must want to help Gilbert save face on some level. James made predictions of his one, and he met them all. But the one thing he has failed to do thus far is help Gilbert deliver on his promise to win an NBA title for Cleveland. The crux of Gilbert's letter went up in flames with James' Cavaliers jerseys back in 2010, but he will earn the city's adoration if he can bring the Cavaliers their first title, even if the stench of that foul letter continues to linger with basketball fans—and LeBron James fans—all over the globe.
Matt Dollinger: The media
It’s pretty tough to maintain the same fire when you’re playing in the Finals for a fifth straight season, but LeBron James is playing like this is his first