I have LeBron James ranked the 4th best basketball player of all time on my GOATS page. Some might say it’s too low, some might say it’s too high. I think it’s pretty fair. LeBron has strung together 13 seasons (I’m not counting his rookie year) of averaging at least 25 points a game and having a PER of 25 or higher without sustaining a major injury. Michael Jordan had six years like this, and they were broken up by a two year stint in baseball.
Granted, the GOAT conversation has been one I have not touched. At 16 years old, most would expect me to think of LeBron as the best ever. But I respect the other eras; I’m not recently biased. Putting LeBron in Jordan’s conversation has previously made me uncomfortable. But as he rolls into his 7th straight Finals, and 8th in 11 years, the conversation is starting to catch up to me. Is LeBron really the best ever??
These Finals are massive for that conversation. Have LeBron win this year, against this Warriors team, and I’ll be ready to have it. I’ve realized it’s time. But can LeBron do it?
NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
You can analyze this matchup in so many ways, but as the past six Finals have taught us, having LeBron James makes the difference. On the other end, shutting him down can to.
The Spurs in 2007 and 2014 are the outliers in LeBron’s dominant decade. But those were two different teams. San Antonio dominated Cleveland in 2007 simply because the 2nd best player on the Cavs was Drew Gooden. In 2014, Kawhi Leonard happened, and the Spurs forced LeBron to head back to Cleveland.
Kawhi is 1-1 against LeBron in the Finals. The Heat, as LeBron admitted, had a little bit of luck come their way in the 2013 Finals. Weight Kawhi’s record to account for luck and he’s more like 1.5-0.5 head to head.
Kevin Durant isn’t Kawhi Leonard defensively. Kawhi’s the best defensive player ever (Oh yeah, I said it). But Durant’s defense is criminally underrated. You can switch him onto practically anyone with those arms. He was 6th in the league in Defensive Win Shares during the regular season, but DWS is also a stat that ranks Stephen Curry 3rd and doesn’t have Kawhi Leonard in the top five.
If we use a rating system like 2K for this exercise, and Kawhi Leonard is a 100 defensively, then Kevin Durant’s a 93. Take into account Kawhi’s weighted record against LeBron and compare it to KD’s (0-0.75… That wasn’t a full loss. Replay the 2012 Finals now and OKC’s winning. They were young.) and Durant could end up being a factor on the defensive side.
The counter to all of this is that LeBron is actually an alien from another world, who just tore through the Eastern Conference and will not be stopped.
LeBron’s numbers through these playoffs are ridiculous. Averaging 32.5 points a game and shooting 56% at age 32 is like nothing we’ve seen before. However, he didn’t face any team with a threat to stop him. Paul George is meh defensively; Toronto had DeMarre Carroll (lol). Boston attempted to see what Jae Crowder could do (Turns out it wasn’t much) and Brad Stevens was too reluncant to play Jaylen Brown (who actually had a couple of really nice possessions on LeBron late in the series).
LeBron hasn’t been tested this postseason, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. I think Durant, combined with the constant switching of the Warriors, and Mike Brown knowing exactly how to slow down a James-led offense can get in LeBron’s head.
The scenario of the Warriors stopping LeBron is much more complex than the scenario of LeBron mauling the Warriors, making the first one harder to believe. A lot things have to go the Warriors’ way, but they’re talented enough to do it.
If the Warriors contain LeBron, then Kyrie Irving becomes the immediate threat. He’s been pretty ridiculous this postseason too, averaging 24.5 points a game and having multiple heat-check moments. Those moments along with the clutch shot at the end of Game 7 last year are finally giving us what we wanted from a playoff Kyrie. For the Warriors, it’s yet another weapon of Cleveland’s to contain.
Shutting down Kyrie is an even tougher task. Asking Stephen Curry to defend him would be suicide. If you assign Klay, that limits your ability to switch consistently, leaving one of the Cavs other shooters open.
The counter is that the Warriors and Cavaliers will balance each other out offensively. They both have enough firepower. They’re each just as likely to hit an insane amount of threes no matter how tight the defense is. And with the way Cleveland plays defense overall, maybe the Warriors are okay with leaving shooters open. They’ll make up those points eventually.
This column leans Warriors on-paper. I’ve said I was picking Golden State over Cleveland all throughout the playoffs. But the complete and utter dominance of LeBron and Kyrie’s ascension has given me second thoughts.
I picked the Warriors in 2015 and 2016. Going with the same team three years in a row isn’t smart odds wise, but going against my gut for the past three months doesn’t sound great either.
It comes down to the question at the beginning. Do I dare go against LeBron?… Who’s on a quest to become basketball’s best ever, who’s been on a totally ridiculous run, who would love to have “I beat the team with the most wins ever and the most stacked on-paper team ever in back-to-back years.” on his resume?
If LeBron wins these Finals, it begins a complete overhaul of the GOATS ranking. I’ll have the Jordan conversation. The case to name LeBron the 2nd best player ever becomes pretty strong. If he beats this team, LeBron will have achieved a level of greatness we may have never seen before.
Barring a complete collapse, a loss in this Finals can’t be LeBron’s fault on the basketball court (in the front office, maybe). The Warriors just might be too good. It’s gonna take a superhuman effort from LeBron for the Cavaliers to win this series. He’s capable of it; he’s done it before. But Durant’s the 2nd best defender LeBron has faced in the Finals. Kawhi didn’t have Durant’s surrounding cast; thats why it’s been split between the two. It was a tossup.
This series is where Cleveland’s sub-par defense will catch up to them. Who’s guarding Klay Thompson? Draymond Green?? Golden State has too many weapons. Cleveland’s roster construction was built to outscore this team, not defend them. In an era where offense seems to matter the most, defense is still equally as important.
Don’t think this series will be over quickly though. I came extremely close to backing out of my Warriors pick. Doubting LeBron was not enticing. He’s not accepting a loss in less than seven games. His spiritual, alien-like presence will still reign over the series. I mean, he’s LeBron in 2017… Do you really think he’s not winning at least three games single-handliy? His case for being the GOAT is getting stronger. Do you really expect him to let up?
Still, I can’t pick against the Warriors. If the Warriors win, it’ll be due to Durant’s amazing defense against LeBron and the ability to switch guys on and off of Love and Kyrie. If Cleveland wins, it solely be on the heels of LeBron, who immediately becomes the 2nd, if not the best, player of all-time.
Pick: Warriors in 7