By Adam Hensley
LeBron James didn’t have a shot at beating the Golden State Warriors.
Everyone gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a fighting chance at topping the latest super team — even I did, at the start of the series — but after the first three games, the series was over.
James doesn’t deserve all the blame for the championship loss, but he doesn’t escape this Finals series with a clean record.
The loss not only exposed Cleveland’s supporting cast, but it set James back behind Michael Jordan in the greatest-of-all-time debate.
It’s impossible for any player, even one with James’ capabilities, to single-handedly take down arguably the greatest team of all time. Golden State possesses four All-Stars, two of whom are locks for the Hall of Fame.
Without help, James was just another slight bump in the road to the Warriors’ fifth championship in franchise history.
James’ performance in the 2015 Finals stands as the greatest championship basketball I’ve ever seen. He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in the six games. It was truly King James versus Golden State, as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love fell victim to injuries.
The next season, with healthy teammates, James completed one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
Fighting back from a 3-1 deficit to win the title against a 73-9 Golden State squad — record-wise, the best team in NBA history.
James had one quality game from his supporting cast in this series. Irving and Love dropped 40 and 23 points, respectively, and combined for 13 3-pointers in Cleveland’s 137-116 victory. But he didn’t get a performance like that from his co-stars in the losses.
For Golden State, Durant was a man on a mission. He played like a machine, especially in Game Five. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson didn’t have spectacular performances, but they came up big down the stretch when it mattered most.
LeBron didn’t get that production from his teammates consistently and quite frankly didn’t have the talent to match Golden State’s four-headed monster.
As much as the NBA remains a players’ league, in which individuals often overshadow team basketball, the 2017 Finals reminded fans that even the best players in the world can’t take down the greatest team assembled in the past decade.
When it comes to the Michael Jordan comparisons and the never-ending greatest-of-all-time debate, I see the difference between the two players.
Jordan played like a man possessed when it mattered most; he demanded the ball and single-handedly won big games.
In my opinion, James makes others around him better. His basketball IQ is astounding; he’s continually looking to make a pass to a cutting teammate often before eyeing a shot of his own.
But that’s James’ downside.
Playing against the 2017 Warriors, he appeared too selfless at various points. His teammates weren’t giving him much support, yet he continued to pass out of isolation plays against smaller matchups. I wanted to see James take over like he did in 2015, when he was forced to do so.
I’m not here to bash James, though. I was too young to watch Jordan play live on television, but I’ve had the privilege of being able to do so with James — he’s the greatest player since the Bull’s star to set foot on the court, and, in my opinion, a top-two player all-time.
James and Company found a way to take down the Golden State juggernaut, things would be different, even with the prospect of four Finals losses.
Losing to the Warriors hammered home the final nail in the coffin.
Jordan never lost a Finals series; he finished 6-0 in his career. While he’s not slowing down any time soon, James sits at 3-5 after his second Finals loss to Golden State.
In James defense, Jordan never played a team as good as the 2016-17 Warriors. The two played in different eras of basketball, but when it comes to net efficiency, all eight of James’ Finals opponents command a higher postseason net efficiency rating than Jordan’s.
The 2017 Warriors (+13.6), James’ best opponent, rise above Jordan’s top team (1992 Portland Trailblazers, +2.9).
But In the end, the Warriors almost swept the Cavaliers, which could have marked James’ second 4-0 Finals defeat out of his eight trips.
James could go on and appear in four or more titles — I think that’s reasonable to assume, considering how he takes care of his body, studies the game, and the gap between Cleveland and the rest of the Eastern Conference — and depending on how many more titles he wins, he’ll go down as one of the greatest athletes of all time.
He isn’t perfect in the Finals. There is no way for James to erase those five losses, even with the impressive wins.
But his Airness achieved perfection at the highest level, setting the standard for years to come.