OAKLAND, JUN 02,
Nobody carries a team like LeBron James in the NBA. And he has been carrying his teams to the NBA Finals for eight years now.
Shouldering a high workload — LeBron tends to be the primary ball-handler, the go-to scorer and, in the clutch, the stopper of the opposition’s best perimeter player — he has pushed his team near the pinnacle of success yet again. He might have won only three of the eight previous Finals, but the failure to win it all is down to the fact that his teams — especially the recent Cleveland Cavaliers — have been far inferior, talent-wise, to the opponents.
Nowhere was this better illustrated than in Game 1 of this season’s Finals, on Friday (IST). A monstrous performance (51 points, eight rebounds, eight assists!) wasn’t enough against the almighty Golden State Warriors because his team couldn’t offer the requisite back-up.
Indeed, this season, his 15th, has been the most chaotic of LeBron’s storied career. Cavaliers changed the bulk of their squad after a poor start to the season, but LeBron did not miss a beat. The addition of youth to the team helped it reach the Playoffs, but it needed all of LeBron’s dominance and new line-ups featuring the hitherto injured Kevin Love for the Cavs to squeak through to the Finals. Now, as LeBron faces the Warriors for the fourth straight time, he is anchoring arguably the weakest Finals team that he has been part of. LeBron did manage to lift Cavaliers to its first and only NBA title in 2016, but a repeat of that result seems beyond anyone’s wildest fantasies.
Less far-fetched is a theory that has begun doing the rounds. He is clearly the league’s greatest player over the last decade and a half, but why limit this timeframe? Has LeBron done enough to challenge the hitherto undisputed mantle of the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) held by Michael Jordan? His phenomenal performance in this year’s Playoffs (34.3 points, 9.2 total rebounds and 8.8 assists per game), while playing the most minutes (733), certainly adds to his case. Statistically, both simple and advanced numbers show enough similarities between the GOAT and LeBron in money-time (See: LeBron vs. Jordan, Playoffs).
In terms of Win Shares — a box-score-based metric, devised by basketball-reference.com, which estimates the number of wins a player has contributed — LeBron has put up a 50.3 WS (the highest ever; 0.245 WS per 48 minutes) compared to Jordan’s 39.8 (0.255 WS per 48 minutes).
The one metric basketball fans cite in favour of Jordan is his six rings (from six Finals with the Chicago Bulls). LeBron has three (from eight previous Finals).
This disparity is used to suggest that Jordan was superior, but such a comparison is simplistic and flawed.
Only in three of the eight Finals were LeBron’s teams clear favourites — the three-All-NBA-superstar-studded Miami Heat outfits.
LeBron has perennially carried underdog teams while playing for the Cavaliers — an inexperienced but defensive-minded bunch in 2007, a team that lost Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to injuries in 2015, a side that defied the odds to stun the all-conquering Warriors in 2016, and the one that faced the Kevin Durant-reinforced Warriors machine in 2017.
OAKLAND, JUN 02,