CLEVELAND — No matter where he goes from here, no matter how many All-Stars decide to join him in a future quest to upend the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James will never have a moment that tops his historic, legacy-cementing performance in the 2016 NBA Finals. James ruined the Warriors’ 73-win dreams, ruined Cleveland’s 50-plus-year “Loserville” reputation … and looking back, ruined his chances of ever winning another NBA championship.
Two decisions made in the aftermath of him delivering the Cavaliers’ first title are directly responsible for James being on the verge of getting swept in the NBA Finals for the second time in his career. Watching Game 7 of that 2016 series from his couch, Kevin Durant saw the Warriors’ collapse after building a 3-1 lead as the slightest opening he would need to add some duper to a superteam. And watching the adulation James received for fulfilling his promise to his hometown, Kyrie Irving — the man whose pull-up 3-pointer clinched the Game 7 victory — began to contemplate what his career would look like if he stepped out on his own.
James had Irving in his first matchup against the Durant-infused Warriors last year but that was only good enough to help the Cavaliers hang around for five games. Irving is in Boston now, recovering from season-ending knee surgery and preparing for the release of his first movie in a leading role, “Uncle Drew,” and James has never looked as helpless and resigned to a lopsided defeat. Somehow, a sweep in his ninth Finals appearance at age 33 is accepted with the same inevitability as a sweep in his first Finals appearance at age 22, considering the quality of an opponent that ranks as one of the league’s greatest all-time teams.
If he allows himself to take a step back for a moment, James might be proud to know the influence he had on his own demise. For so long in his career, James was the one who plotted his future in the most calculating manner, moving two, three steps ahead of everyone else. James has encouraged players to recognize and actualize their power to determine their fate without fear of backlash. But he’s always been the one to make others react to his maneuvers, not the other way around. Until now, when both Durant and Irving outmaneuvered him.
Basketball is a team game, but Durant had always been chasing James, coming up on the losing end 17 times in their first 21 matchups, including a five-game loss in the 2012 NBA Finals as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. When he entered unrestricted free agency for the first time, just a few weeks after a weeping James shouted, “Cleveland, this is for you!” Durant wanted to join a team that would put him in a better position to beat the greatest player of this generation.
Of the teams he met with in the Hamptons, only San Antonio and Golden State could claim victories over James. Golden State won Durant over because it featured the brotherhood he long sought, an ego-less culture in which no one is concerned with alpha male dominance, only winning. The Warriors — whose players were recruiting him in the midst of a record-setting regular season — shared the same desire to topple James. And through shrewd management and the lucky timing of a one-time salary cap hike, they lured Durant away from a possible Western Conference rival. Since the move, Durant has showed the prudence of his decision — regardless of the backlash he continues to receive — by going 10-2 against James.
James was initially criticized for stacking the deck in his favor when he joined the Miami Heat, but nothing compares to what Durant helped assemble in the Bay — a top-heavy unit with two former MVPs, two other All-Stars and a former Finals MVP who usually comes off the bench. For that reason, James has no obvious rival in the league because Durant’s success cannot be viewed outside his team. Durant only has to go supernova when it’s needed. With James, it’s always required.
“That’s the challenge right there. That’s the challenge,” James said after the Cavaliers lost Game 3, 110-102. “That’s why they retooled this team, went out and got K.D. to where there’s really not much pressure. If one of them has a bad game, they have three or four guys that can actually pick up the load. That’s the luxury of having guys like that that can always … any given moment, they can kind of go off for a game.”
The Irving trade robbed the Cavaliers of a #MambaMentality player capable of lessening James’ burden, breaking down the defense and exploding for 30-plus. James’ free agency will soon become the only storyline, but Irving avoided that distraction — and the possibility of being forced to clean up any mess left behind from James’ departure — when he got out before James. Three years of observing and studying James showed him the importance of utilizing leverage. Cleveland’s haul for Irving looks embarrassing now because it needed another round of trades to make up for the initial mistake. Not landing a healthy All-Star talent in exchange for Irving makes the move, which James opposed, more frustrating.
Kevin Love, who was bumped up to option No. 2 after Irving left, admitted that he has wondered how much different this series — which has had one game decided in overtime and another in the final minute — would be with one of the more dynamic scoring point guards in the game. “I think that’s human nature to think about that kind of thing,” Love said.
Go back to last June, when the Warriors were having their second championship parade in three years, and Draymond Green taunted James with a “Quickie” T-shirt. James was in the gym, shirtless and rubbing a newly shaved head while rapping the lyrics to Tee Grizzley’s “First Day Out.” Though Stephen Curry would have fun mimicking the workout routine at Harrison Barnes’ wedding later that summer — with Irving egging him on, no less — James was already preparing everyone for a season that would defy what should be expected for a player in Year 15. At his advancing age, James tested the limits of his endurance by playing every game — 103 and counting — and posting mind-numbing statistics so routine that anything short of a 40-point triple-double is considered a letdown.
The most incredible postseason run of his career — in which James avoided what would’ve been a juicy matchup with the injured Irving — has met its match with a team that was built to be a dynasty. James is one of just seven players to make at least nine Finals appearances but is the only one who did so without representing either the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics. He brought multi to Miami and the unthinkable to Cleveland. Should his Finals record drop to 3-6, he won’t be any less revered. Heck, Jerry West went 1-8 and is the NBA logo.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, but the basketball world can already thank Durant making the Warriors LeBron-proof and Irving becoming the first teammate to flee his immense shadow for James having one of the best seasons of a career that has him in the conversation as the greatest to ever lace them up. That won’t change, however many more rings he does or doesn’t win.
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