LeBron James went to work. The Cavaliers’ top playmaker in the NBA Finals was also their most unstoppable creator, their most prolific rebounder, and the best-case cover for Kevin Durant. To take him off the floor—even for a minute—was to lose it all. Cleveland’s best solution for the hemorrhaging of points in LeBron’s absence was to pare down those absences in the first place. At one point in Game 5, his resting period lasted all of 27 seconds. James eventually came as close as is reasonably possible to foregoing rest entirely—the toll, it seems, of being completely indispensable.
What resulted was an unimpeachable effort: 34-point, 12-rebound, and 10-assist averages in the championship series. When the Cavs wanted to match the Warriors’ pace, it was LeBron that rocketed downcourt. If the situation called for more deliberate action, it was often LeBron who triggered it after first manipulating the matchups on the floor to work most to his team’s favor. Whatever was needed in between was supplied through James. With all due respect to Kyrie Irving’s tremendous shot-making in this series, it was LeBron that kept Cleveland’s offense cohesive.
From his spark came the ignition of the highest-scoring quarter ever in the NBA Finals and an honest challenge to what looks to be the greatest team in NBA history. Operating through LeBron allowed the Cavs to escalate, game by game, against that kind of opponent. Teams were not intended to build a contending roster only to heap another former MVP on top; the legalese thicket of the collective bargaining agreement works to make just such a thing impossible. Extraordinary circumstances cut right through them. The NBA’s salary cap spike, in retrospect, was a cataclysmic event. A meteor struck the planet when Kevin Durant became a Warrior, wiping out competitive hope as we know it and plunging the league’s already suspect parity into an ice age.
“They assembled a great team,” James said after Game 5. “We were able to get them last year, and they went out and got one of the best players that this league has ever seen.” The only way to get anywhere near a team with that kind of talent is through LeBron. When he’s not guarding Durant, a challenger would need him to hound Stephen Curry or power through Draymond Green. His presence is both a comprehensive game plan and the means to actualize it. Yet even then, James had a roster capable of rolling over any other team in the league and still the Cavs fell. This was a championship-worthy performance from the Cavs and they couldn’t even manage to get a sixth game.
There is something kind of tortured about where LeBron sits now. Getting through the East and back into the Finals is almost a foregone conclusion. Every time he does, however, James can expect these same Warriors to greet him. No other team is closer to the title than Cleveland and yet the enduring of Golden State’s core makes the Cavs feel agonizingly distant. “They're going to be around for a while,” James said. “Pretty much all their guys are in their 20s. Pretty much all their big-name guys are in their 20s, and they don't show any signs of slowing down.”
If anything, they could get better. Another year means added comfort for Golden State’s stars and further experience for up-and-coming contributors like Patrick McCaw. Another crop of veteran ring chasers will make their case for the Warriors’ roster at discount prices. While the Cavs toil over how a team built in a more standard salary cap climate could possibly keep up, Steve Kerr and his staff will find new ways to play Curry, Durant, Green, and Klay Thompson off of one another.
“There's going to be a lot of teams that's trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that if they're able to actually face them in a Playoff series…” James said. Even constructing a hypothetical team of stars to challenge the Warriors has become a widespread NBA parlor game. “Because they're built for -- from my eyes, they're built to last a few years.”
What the Warriors have isn’t just impossible to replicate—it’s almost impossible to beat. On what other team would an MVP give up so much of his superstar currency (shots, attention, recognition, branding) to make room for another? Where else could one of the greatest shooters of all time be talked into a moderate role contingent on dirty work defensive assignments? The personalities in Golden State were as uniquely accommodating as the cap spike itself. Their synergy overwhelms. James was a revelation in these Finals and too often his team-elevating triple-doubles still left the Cavs wanting. Playing brilliantly and to exhaustion couldn’t close the gap between a great team and a nightmarish one. “I think it's just part of my calling to just go against teams in the midst of a dynasty,” James said earlier in the Finals.
Such is the level of competition involved. One of the greatest players of all time seems to have little choice over the next few years but to repeatedly confront one of the greatest teams of all time. All the while, LeBron will inch slowly away from his playing prime while the Warriors solidify in theirs. Fate can be cruel in that way. Third-act LeBron is a force too imposing to guard with any single defender. He sees what other playmakers cannot and has the spontaneity in his game to throw himself an alley-oop off the backboard in the middle of the Finals. There is no player so eager to work his way through the game’s puzzles, and yet when LeBron was asked what the Warriors meant for his immediate future, he responded frankly: “I don't know,” James said. “I need to sit down and figure this thing out.”
James will sit with a problem that might be beyond solving, an opponent that would require so much high-level talent to counter as to make it unreasonable. LeBron brings Cleveland close enough but only close enough—to make a matchup with Golden State a real series. That proximity might reassure if it wasn’t so excruciating.