Sports

LeBron James Has No Rival

After dispatching the Boston Celtics with one of the most remarkable seven-game performances in NBA history, the best player of his generation has still, somehow, yet to peak.

by Michael Pina
May 28 2018, 2:01pm

Photo by David Richard - USA TODAY Sports

I do not know if LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan. But I do think that after his sixth straight Game 7 victory—a 35-point, 15-rebound, nine-assist gemstone in which zero seconds of rest were necessary on the road without his lone All-Star teammate against a spry Boston Celtics team that had previously gone undefeated inside TD Garden—he is Post-Criticism.

It is impossible to witness all LeBron’s accomplishments, be rational, and believe anyone else could’ve done a better job in this postseason. That's not recency bias, it's fundamental truth. LeBron needs to be processed through an entirely objective lens, void of emotional/personal opinions that belittle how thoroughly he exceeds preposterous expectations on a daily basis. (Anyone can debate anything, but you can't help stupid.) The weight he carries would shatter any other player's mind and body, ten times over.

Throw James Harden, Anthony Davis, or Steph Curry on these Cavaliers instead of LeBron and their vacation began in late April. Swap him out for prime Kobe Bryant and they'd transform into the 2006 Los Angeles Lakers. After last year's Finals, I wrote that Kevin Durant would eclipse LeBron as the world's best at some point this season. That prediction was dead wrong. Even after he wilts and the gap between him and everybody else starts to close—which should be sometime around 2068—whoever takes his place as the guy will pale in comparison to all LeBron is currently doing.

The Celtics knew the Cleveland Cavaliers were, at best, a four-man team. Their strategy revolved around beating LeBron up and forcing him to exert more energy than even the most supremely prepared athlete possibly could. Each possession forced him to conquer a physically punishing puzzle. As disciplined, tough, and athletic as Boston was, resistance was ultimately futile.

Photo by David Butler II - USA TODAY Sports

“You’ve just gotta make him as uncomfortable as you can throughout the whole game,” Marcus Smart told VICE Sports during the series. "He’s one of the greatest players in this game for a reason, and if he can get comfortable and get into a rhythm, it’s gonna be a long day for you. You’ve just got to adjust and keep him on his toes.”

What we learned during these conference finals is that "LeBron on his toes" is a level of individual dominance the sport hasn't seen in 20 years, maybe ever. Nobody has done what James is doing, let alone as the best player on the planet. This is his 15th season. Sometime next year he’ll pass the 45,000-minute mark and jump from 18th to 13th in the record book. At 34 years old, he's projected to pass Dirk Nowitzki, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jordan on the all-time scoring list.

He never gets hurt. He barely ever looks tired—and when he does, LeBron still somehow spins it to send a chill down your spine. The man exists above exhaustion. Fatigue is a foreign concept. The easiest way to denigrate his resume is by labeling him as “not human.” But James is human. He just happens to be more indestructible than every other one (active and retired) whenever he steps on a basketball court.

"If he can get comfortable and get into a rhythm, it’s gonna be a long day for you."

Heading into this postseason only six players had ever tallied over 600 minutes in a single postseason with at least 15 seasons under their belt. They are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3 times), Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett (2), Tim Duncan (2), Ray Allen, and Jason Kidd. James smashed into the club after he logged 95 minutes in Games 6 and 7 of the conference finals. His 577 points (and counting) already tops the list—75 more than what Abdul-Jabbar scored in 1984. James is also doing it with a 62.0 True Shooting percentage, which is noticeably higher than everybody else and could not exist in a video game.

All of it comes in the wake of a regular season during which LeBron played 3,026 minutes—more than any other player and one fewer than James himself recorded exactly 10 years ago—and didn’t miss a single game. Only three other players (Jordan, Kobe, and Karl Malone) had ever crossed the 3,000-minute mark in Year 15 or beyond before James did, and in terms of actual performance and production, he blew all of them out of the water.

LeBron did it without much help, during a dysfunctional campaign that saw Cleveland restructure its roster on the fly, battle myriad injuries, cope with the loss of Kyrie Irving, and endure too many other obstacles to follow. And now he’s back in the Finals for the eighth straight time—it’s easy to take that sentence for granted but try not to—bracing for another championship series as the underdog. It’s grand theatre, the sort of duel anyone who cares the slightest bit about NBA basketball, both historically and related to where it’s headed over the next five years, has to watch.

To give Cleveland “no chance” against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets would be to ignore a player who single-handedly controls the game with an unprecedented combination of force, determination, and intelligence. There is no slowing him down, and there is no wearing him out. LeBron is stronger today than he was three years ago. (Seriously, what is happening?) Anything is possible when four wins are the focus.

Photo by David Butler II - USA TODAY Sports

The bone bruise in Andre Iguodala’s knee may cast a shadow over a possible matchup against the Golden State Warriors. Without the 2015 Finals MVP at full strength, the defending champions have zero players who can consistently make life difficult for LeBron one-on-one. (Given how important he is to their offense, it’s doubtful Steve Kerr will ask Durant to take care of that assignment through an entire series but, even if he did, the Cavaliers will respond by going out of their way to hunt Curry down and plop him on an island, much like they’ve done in years past.)

Furthermore, whether Golden State or the Houston Rockets advance, LeBron should have a tad more assistance because Kyle Korver and every other one-dimensional player on that team can once again find a place to hide. From Shaun Livingston and any of Golden State’s centers to P.J. Tucker and even Trevor Ariza, Korver & Co. won’t be as much of a liability at the onset of every possession. (Houston and Golden State will target those weak links but there are ways to survive them; Cleveland will need Korver’s offense in ways they didn’t against Boston.)

At times it feels like LeBron is above oppositional strategy, though. The wave of his miraculous, revolutionary season/career has yet to crest. Win or lose, the Finals will not serve as a referendum on LeBron’s status. We won’t learn anything new about him whether he fails or pulls off another miracle. He operates on a plane above the rest of basketball as the very best of his generation and those before it.

Someday his reign will end. Whether it be on the Lakers, Cavaliers, Rockets, Spurs, or Jupiter. After it does, every great NBA player to come will have his ghost to chase. Good luck catching him.