As the basketball universe continue to congratulate the Golden State Warriors for becoming the 2014-2015 NBA Champions, I can’t help but think of the man on the losing end.
As the media all around the world chronicle the greatness of Steph Curry and the brilliance of Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, I can’t shake off the feeling that one man deserves a little more credit.
As everyone is rightfully talking about Curry or Andre Iguodala or Draymond Green or whoever their favorite Warrior is, I believe we should also be talking about LeBron James.
Not because of the fact that he lost to the best team of the NBA. Not because he said he was quite frankly “the best player in the world.” Not because he is now a staggering 2-4 on his trips to the NBA Finals. Not because he bolted Miami to come home, play for Cleveland, and still lost. And most recently, not even because he still has issues with his coach.
We should be talking about LeBron not on the basis that we feeling sorry for him, but for the fact that he delivered one of the most historic NBA Finals performances that we have ever seen. It was the perfect combination between a once-in-a-generation talent in LeBron James matched with the most unprecedented circumstances in facing the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors.
Think about how awesome LeBron James was in the past two weeks. If you’ve watched all six games of the Finals, heck, if you watched him all throughout the Playoffs the past two months, how can you not admit that you were witnessing greatness?
In a way, you could say LeBron needed this for his career.
In some weird way, it’s as if the stars aligned for the Golden State Warriors. You’ve probably read a story or two about them by now. You had the reigning MVP Steph Curry, who just two years ago couldn’t stay on the court for an entire season because of nagging ankle problems. There’s Andre Igoudala who accepted a role off the bench, which he never did before in his entire career, come full circle by winning the Finals MVP. You have Steve Kerr accepting a suggestion from his coaching staff to start Igoudala in Game 4 via a 3AM text from their video editing guy. These stories are fit for an NBA Championship DVD.
Even Curry’s two-year old daughter, Riley, got some of the international spotlight purely because of her innocence and downright cuteness. Footnote: Riley’s two great moments for me this postseason was when Steph brought her to the podium for the first time and she told the MVP, “That’s too loud Daddy, be quiet!” and the other when Curry was posing in front of the cameras carrying the championship trophy and Riley shouted “My turn!” Riley Curry, you the real MVP.
During the Warriors’ postseason run, they were relatively healthy and their game plan for each series worked out. During the Playoffs, they lost only five times, including in the Finals. They faced off against a very young Pelicans squad minus its starting point guard in the first round. They went toe-to-toe with the Grizzlies and even lost two games, but eventually won against a hampered Mike Conley and without First Team All-Defense Tony Allen. In the Conference Finals, they were up against a Houston Rockets team missing its two starters. The Warriors simply had everything going for them.
But this isn’t making excuses for LeBron James and the Cavaliers or saying that the Warriors don’t deserve the title. In any single NBA championship, you always need lady luck on your side. But that’s the thing, Golden State had everything going for them entering the Finals and the Cavaliers still managed to beat them… twice. James was able to beat one of the best teams in NBA history. The Dubs’ 67-win season was tied for fourth all-time. They were amazingly great on both ends of the floor: second-best in offensive efficiency, and the best team in defensive efficiency.
And LeBron James was able to lead his injury-clad, B-talent, and hapless bunch of guys and beat the Warriors… twice.
James literally carried the Cavs on his back basically the entire Finals. He was their best scorer, facilitator, defender, and leader. For six games, he averaged 35.8 points per game, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists. You could argue that he shot a horrid shooting percentage as he attempted 32.7 shots per game in the Finals, but the man was playing nearly all the possible minutes of each game. And the crazy thing is that he put up these numbers against the best defensive team of the league.
A ton of sportswriters picked the Warriors to win when the Finals began because a 67-win team plus the MVP is a safe bet, right? After game one when Kyrie Irving went down with a knee injury, all the basketball pundits out there blatantly gave up on the Cavs. It was a done deal everyone said.
And then games two and three rolled around. The Cavs were up 2-1 against the best team of the NBA. That’s how messed up this thing is. Again, the Warriors had literally everything going for them and Cleveland still had a chance to make it to seven games. Plus, you have to be honest with yourself: if you’re a Warriors fan, if Cleveland won game six, doesn’t the possibility of LeBron James erupting for a historic game seven performance after a two-day rest put the fear of God in you?
LeBron James played all FIVE positions. He had to put up gaudy numbers to keep his team alive. He played against the league MVP who also happens to be one of the best shooters to ever touch a basketball. He had Matthew Dellavedova playing somewhat of a point guard role, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert trying to defend the best shooters on the planet in Curry and Klay Thompson, plus he had Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, Kendrick Perkins on his bench. LeBron James can quite factually take you and me in a pickup 3-on-3 game against a couple of NBA players, and we’d still have a chance to win.
LeBron played so great that people were considering him to be given the Finals MVP trophy right before Game 6 even if the Cavs should lose eventually. When the Warriors did win, LBJ got four of the possible 11 votes for Finals MVP. He was that freakin’ good.
It was a storybook ending in a different sense because it was a fairytale story for the Warriors while the Cavaliers had its ending written even before the Finals started. LeBron James just made the plot more interesting.
These circumstances led to James bringing out the best of himself in this series. He was backed against a wall with no other options besides himself, and he still made the series a must-watch. If it was any under circumstance, I think his haters would, well, hate him even more if that’s even possible. If he won an NBA title they’ll hate him, if he lost (which he did), they still hate him. He is burdened with extremely high expectations dating back to high school days. Try living like him for a change.
But losing this way while nearly having a chance to beat a historically great Warriors team? Everything just fell into place even if if the Cavs were on the losing end. Of course, LeBron prefers to have won it all but from all his Finals losses, this was probably the most disheartening and discouraging for his fans and most especially for himself. I say he needed this for his career despite the loss because it showed just how special he is as a player.
We should appreciate for who LeBron is, not for who he isn’t. He’s not Michael Jordan nor is he Kobe Bryant. He will never be those two because he’s different. We should appreciate LeBron for what he’s done in the Finals, not for what he didn’t do. We all knew he would try to single-handedly win the series for the Cavs, but nobody could have predicted he would play this way.
As the basketball universe continues to applaud the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James deserves credit too. You don’t have to point out that he’s never going to be like Jordan or might never win as much championships as Kobe, Magic, or Bird. Hell, you don’t even have to like him.
You simply have to respect greatness.
Photo by Ezra Shaw / Getty Images