As we reach the tail end of what has been a loooong week for basketball fans who are waiting for the NBA Finals, most of us are sick of the over-analysis of every detail of the series and ready for actual play to begin. But let me tell you what you’re really sick of: lying to yourselves. Trying to convince yourself that this is going to be a great series, full of iconic moments featuring one of the greatest to ever play the game, Lebron James. But on the eve of Game 1, it’s time to drop the act people.
Most people call me a Lebron-hater, but I prefer to see myself as a Lebron realist, not buying into the hype machine that has been full steam ahead on Lebron since he was 16 years old (then again, that’s exactly what a Lebron-hater would say, crap).
My real problem with Lebron is personal. I hate that he is always performing for the cameras. From “The Decision,” to the “Not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4…” pep rally, the not-so-accidental photo op of him holding the Larry O’Brien trophy in one hand and the Finals MVP trophy in the other, the “cramps” against the Spurs, the “I’m Coming Home” article, to the recent “I told the coach to give me the ball” and the “collapse” from exhaustion after game 3 against the Hawks (then somehow gets right back up to do post-game interview).
Lebron truly is the smartest player of all time, on the court sure but more so off the court. And I’m not even talking about how he has used his stardom to bounce around teams that give him his best chance to win championships. He crafts the media narrative about himself, using it to build in pocket excuses about exhaustion and injury as well as setting the expectations where he wants them, because he knows his every soundbite from a post-game interview will be analyzed by First Take, Pardon the Interruption and everything in-between.
This is the only life he knows, and he’s learned over time to be very good at using it to help himself. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior in high school, and makes the mistake of reading what all of the sportswriters say about him, but I hate how this has caused him to put on the most fake persona and “performances” so that the cameras see what they want them to see, and say exactly what he wants them to say about him.
But while everyone is convinced that Lebron is going to carry his team to this championship, any logical basketball mind (that isn’t from ESPN trying to promote the Finals on ABC–both Disney properties) can look at the matchup and laugh in disagreement.
If you choose to look at the basic stat-lines and watch the highlights on Sportscenter as most fans do, you will buy into the narrative that Lebron has had a monster playoffs. He’s averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists, which is really difficult to make sound bad, but follow me for a second.
Let’s look at what he’s done well first. The most important thing is the 41 minutes per game that he has played, carrying the load offensively and giving his team 100% every game. He’s added an effective post-up repertoire and has bullied his way to the hoop whenever he wants, scoring almost entirely on layups, dunks, and runners. And as always he’s made it near-impossible to double team him, because of his height and incredible passing instincts.
But he’s averaging nearly 25 shots per contest, a lot of which are coming off of straight isolation from the top of the key or in the post. He’s in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career (a career which has proven to us he’s not exactly a crack shot), shooting a horrific 33% on long twos and 17.6% on threes. And that 41 minutes per game, getting a pounding on both ends of the floor, has to wear on Lebron and slow him down despite the week of recovery leading up to this series. If the series extends to games 5, 6, and 7, you have to wonder how much he is going to have left in the tank.
Also, many people forget that the Warriors are arguably the best defensive team in the NBA (stats say they are THE best). They have three really elite defenders to guard Lebron with (Harrison “Black Falcon” Barnes, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala), and help defense that Lebron has yet to see in the playoffs since the Spurs last year (that went well).
Look at James Harden, arguably the best isolation wing player in the league. Anyone who watched the games can tell you how much Golden State rattled him with stifling on-ball pressure as well as swarming help defense.
If you take away his insane free throw numbers (averaged 9.2 makes on 10.6 attempts) (Lebron gets calls from the referees but no one gets to the free throw line like Harden) as well as his three point production (averaged 2.4 makes on 5.6 attempts) (this is assuming Lebron doesn’t find his jumpshot, which isn’t likely), then Harden is left averaging 12 points per game, and if I were a betting man I’d say at least 8 of those were off of his patented double step-back move (which Lebron doesn’t have). Basically the stats are telling us that even one of the best penetrators in the NBA can’t get to the rim against the Warriors. Oh and did I mention they forced Harden into nearly 5 turnovers per game?
I know Lebron is going to get his numbers, but the amount of effort and possessions it takes is going to be higher than normal, resulting in L’s. While I’m not saying this from a historic perspective or a “who’s higher on the greatest of all time list” perspective, I’d rather have Steph Curry in this series than Lebron.
For starters, Steph has a gravitational pull of….like….15! (nerd joke, just know that’s a lot, Earth’s is 9.8). No matter where he is on the floor, the entire defense has to suck towards him. In today’s NBA, ever since Tom Thibodeau (RIP Bulls) revolutionized NBA defenses and everyone else copied him, most teams’ general tendency is to clog the lane and focus on not giving up layups. The NBA responded by an increased focus on players who could bomb threes, and the “pace and space” era was born, where teams with more shooters are more effective because they can spread the defenses out, allowing driving lanes.
Between Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, the best three-point-shooting duo of all time, every team that plays the Warriors is extremely uncomfortable, because they have to sacrifice either lanes to the rim or give up open jumpers to knock-down shooters. Not to mention Steve Kerr’s simple yet incredibly effective offensive actions that free players up.
Plus, no one has quite figured out how to stop a Steph pick-and-roll. You definitely can’t go under, a nasty habit that Irving has, because Steph will pop a three in your face. Trailing the screen will set up a Curry drive to the rim, which ends in a layup or an alley-oop. Hedging is dangerous for someone who handles the ball like Steph surrounded by players who pass fantastically. Most teams have decided to switch, but then you have a mismatch that almost always ends in a big man getting his ankles broken and a three splashed in his face.
Once you get to this point, it’s already over (picture via Grantland, in this awesome Finals preview piece by Zach Lowe)
This is the gravitational pull I’m talking about, as three (3!) defenders are converging on Steph and all five are watching him. In this situation Steph can freeze Mosgov with a pump fake and dump to Draymond Green for a dunk (what happens), or pull back for an isolation, or drive and kick to Barnes or Thompson in the corners, or…wait are they playing 4-on-5? And still have the advantage?
The opening match up will more than likely put Kyrie Irving guarding the MVP. Kyrie, a below average when healthy, has tendonitis and isn’t close to 100% physically right now, so that’s a huge mismatch. JR Smith is the biggest lazy ball-watching two-guard in the league, so he won’t be able to chase Curry around screens. Their only option is putting Iman Shumpert on Steph to hopefully slow him down, but then that leaves Kyrie or JR on Klay Thompson?? Same problem. And where does Matthew Dellavedova fit into all of this? He can’t guard either of those guys. There’s just nowhere to hide those guys against a team with four elite shooters on the floor at any given time.
The other issue is depth. The Warriors boast wave after wave of 6-6 athletes, from Iguodala to Shaun Livingston (who had had a resurgence in his post-afro years) to Leandro Barbossa, not to mention big men like David Lee, Mo Speights and Festus Ezeli.
The Transformation of Shaun Livingston (and thank goodness)
Meanwhile, the Cavs have about 6 and a half decent basketball players before they start calling upon Kendrick “Shaqtin a Fool” Perkins and Joe “How are you in the NBA?” Harris.
Let’s take a moment to look at the big picture. In 5, 10, or 20 years, is anyone going to remember that Lebron and the Cavs were a far inferior team? The answer is no, unless this Warriors team can somehow keep all their parts together and rip off three or four more rings (ask the Thunder circa 2012 how likely that is). All that is going to be remembered is that Lebron lost another finals, and although there is merit to the “Lebron doesn’t have the killer instinct that MJ or Kobe has” discussion (just ask Shaq), in many cases Lebron just wasn’t good enough to carry pretty “meh” teams over teams that don’t get appreciated enough as great.
It’s a shame really. Lebron is never going to win six championships like Michael Jordan, and for that he will never be considered better than MJ. He’ll be scorned for his poor performances in the 2007 Finals in which he lost to a WAY better Spurs team, for his loss in 2011 on a first year team playing against the veteran Spurs (and a crazy German scientist named Nowitzki), for the slaughter at the hands of a superior Spurs team again in 2014, and a WAY better Warriors team in 2015.
Curry, on the other hand, has none of these pressures. His name will never be thrown into the GOAT discussion, except when it comes to the greatest shooter of all time (he is), but that title doesn’t come with the expectation of winning championships every year. Curry is a kid that never should’ve made it, and everyone loves the underdog that he has become. No matter how much he accomplishes in his career, he will always be exceeding the lowly expectations that every basketball junkie had for him, a position that I’m sure Lebron himself envies.
Is this me feeling sorry for Lebron? NOOO what have I become? This causes me to backpedal and give the obligatory “no really, Lebron isn’t better than MJ,” but the reality is that it’s impossible to rank players playing different positions in completely different NBA environments in different generations. Is it okay to just be different? People think it is a dig to compare Lebron to Magic more-so than Jordan, even though their games match up much more closely, but really I’d say players can’t be much better than a transcendent superstar that changes the game of basketball forever, and I think all three men have certainly done that.
All of this to say, the Warriors are going to win in five games. Honestly, I’m being generous. I’m giving the Cavs one game where any combination of JR Smith going heat-check mode, Kyrie going Uncle Drew mode, Lebron going Donkey Kong mode, or Kevin Love going Wolverine “sow my shoulder back together” mode happens in front of a crazy fan base that is going to be cheering like it hasn’t won a professional sports championship since 1964 (because it hasn’t).
But sorry Cleveland/Lebron fans (because really, most of you Cleveland had mysterious stints as Heat fans the last four years), but no team has beaten the Warriors four out of seven times during any stretch of this season, they are 46-3 at home, and they are a terrible matchup for you.
Everyone needs to appreciate watching Lebron, the best player of this generation and someone that will be talked about for the rest of basketball history, and if you’re me, enjoy the hell out of watching him fail over the next two weeks.
By Matt Craig
Please comments your thoughts and predictions below!