- LeBron James has proved to be good enough to reach the Finals but not good enough to defeat Golden State. Having the league's best player on its biggest stage is important, but there's no denying Warriors-Cavs has hit a tipping point.
Frankly, this Cavaliers team should have never made the Finals. Cleveland had the second-worst defense in the NBA during the regular season, and that unit has just barely improved during the playoffs. The Cavs’ net rating entering the postseason was a paltry 1.0, and it now stands at minus-0.4 in 20 playoff games after two double-digit losses to the Warriors. It speaks to both LeBron James’s dominance and the continued stoogery of the Eastern Conference that Cleveland was able to make it to the championship round. What’s become obvious over the last couple years though is that LeBron is good enough to bring the Cavs to the Finals but not good enough to overcome this Golden State team. And the NBA can’t let this continue moving forward.
As most basketball fans know, James is a free agent this summer, but let’s start with the league. When I say the NBA can’t let this continue, I don’t mean the Adam Silver and the commissioner’s office. I mean the actual teams in the NBA! Watching the Cavs fumble away potentially their only chance to win a Finals game because their fifth-highest paid player forgot the score should be the last straw.
So here’s a question for the entire Eastern Conference: Can you really not beat this team? It’s getting a little embarrassing for the league that Cleveland can self-sabotage itself for an entire regular season, vomit all over itself for much of the first round, and then still sweep the conference’s No. 1 seed and win a Game 7 on the road to make the Finals. I’m not necessarily getting tired of Warriors vs. Cavs. I’m getting exhausted watching LeBron do everything short of cook the pregame meal and launder the team’s uniforms and have nothing to show for it.
Every Eastern Conference general manager should be embarrassed they couldn’t put together a team to beat Cleveland this year. The Rockets proved the Warriors—who start four likely Hall-of-Famers—are mortal. The Cavs had a flashing, neon “Knock Us Out” sign over their heads entering the playoffs, and no one in the East obliged.
Of course, then there’s LeBron. There’s no way he stays in Cleveland this summer, right? Someone somewhere will argue that James may actually like the comfort of this weird time loop he’s in. He enhances his legacy by making the Finals, but his legacy doesn’t take a hit because no one expects him to actually win. I don’t believe LeBron feels this way for a second. There is no way James is content not winning a championship. Sure, he may not take the losses as hard as he used to, but I highly doubt LeBron would happily retire with Steph Curry having won more rings than him while dominating his teams in Finals matchups.
So it may be time for James to re-think his approach in July. This one-year contract, hold-your-team’s-feet-to-the-fire strategy doesn’t really seem to be ideal. That’s how you end up like the Cavs, alienating other star players and swinging wild trades because LeBron is putting an insane amount of pressure on everyone around him. It could be time for James to commit this summer. My colleague Ben Golliver outlined way back in November what LeBron should look to do as a free agent, and it still stands: Sign with a franchise with organizational stability and a well-aligned coach and GM, consider a long-term deal, and maybe even consider signing at a small discount. (It may be unfair to ask James to take less money when his earning potential is already deflated by the salary cap. But I bet LeBron would have given up a couple million dollars for J.R. to remember the score.)
Look, it’s selfish of any fan or writer who demands the Finals meet their personal standard of drama. But the NBA is also an entertainment product, and it’s showcase series is almost definitely going to end in a boring, highly predictable fashion for the third time in four years. And the frustration that breeds is exacerbated by one of the game’s best players of all-time, arguably the best, playing some of the most inspired basketball of his career but still having to count on Jeff Green for timely buckets. (I’m sorry, Jeff Green. You get picked on a lot. You had a great Game 7 against Boston, but you’re no Klay, KD, Dray or Iggy.)
Simply put, the NBA needs another major shakeup this summer. Last year’s arms race should only serve as the beginning. The Warriors vs. Cavs stranglehold won’t last forever, but this matchup has reached its nadir. I can’t watch LeBron run his head full-steam into a brick wall every summer. At some point, James’s run reveals equally his brilliance as well as everyone else’s incompetence. And since LeBron can’t force everyone else to get better (nor does he want that to happen), he needs to nail whatever decision he makes this summer. It’s far too soon to fully judge his second stint in Cleveland, but a player of his caliber shouldn’t look this helpless in the Finals.
The NBA is stuck right now, with one team in each conference dominating the competition, and one of those teams dominating the other every time they meet up. It’s better to have LeBron in the Finals than not, but this series has reached its tipping point. If last year’s arms race allowed teams to see the light at the end of the tunnel, then this summer, with LeBron’s free agency looming, could be the league’s way out.