– Evan Sally
As we transition from late May into June, the familiar signs that summer is coming are all around us. Flowers are blooming. The days get longer and hotter. Sweatpants and jeans get traded out for shorts and dresses. Convertibles are driving around with their tops down. And LeBron James is playing in the NBA Finals.
For the 5th straight season, the NBA title will be decided while a LeBron James-led team is on the court. Obviously, and without a doubt, a remarkable accomplishment. He and his fellow teammate James Jones are the first players since Bill Russell’s Celtics dynasty of the 1960s to make the Finals 5 straight times. He and Jones are also the first players ever to make the Finals 5 straight times and being on two different teams in the process. To me, that is what elevates an already special accomplishment to a special level. In his previous 4 trips to the Finals with the Miami Heat, LeBron was surrounded by a lot of talent. A lot of Hall of Fame talent. In particular: Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. While this Cleveland team attempted to put together a “Big 3” of their own, combining LeBron with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, those players were nowhere near as accomplished as Wade and Bosh were in 2011 when that Miami Heat team first came together. To make it more difficult, Love was lost to a shoulder injury vs. the Celtics in Round 1, and Kyrie has been battling multiple injuries since the middle of the Bulls series, leaving LeBron to go it alone through the Eastern playoffs as his team’s only star.
As a fan of LeBron and the Cavs, I was by no means confident vs. the Bulls without Love and with a limited Irving. And I feared the Hawks, a well balanced team that won 60 games and could derail Cleveland’s title hopes. LeBron made those fears look foolish. He, as always, was able to shoulder the burden of greatness, and most importantly, elevate the game of his teammates. In crucial parts of their playoff run, LeBron was often surrounded by Matthew Dellavedova, an undrafted player from Australia, Iman Shumpert, a defensive player with no jumpshot, JR Smith, a streaky, selfish shooter, and Tristan Thompson, a former high draft pick that had been a bust previously. LeBron just makes it work and draws inspired performances from those around him. The beauty in LeBron’s game is his ability to bend the will of the game to him. Whether it’s guarding the other team’s best player and disrupting their offense, getting in the post on offense and drawing a double team freeing a player for an open 3, or any other myriad of other ways, LeBron is an irresistible force that the other team always has to account for. Because of this, it opens up opportunities for his teammates to be better. This was on full display during this playoff run. He always trusted his teammates, no matter who it was, to hit the open shot, as opposed to forcing bad shots of his own. That gives them confidence, which in turn leads to better play from them later on.
I think leading this Cavs team to the Finals has to rank as one of his greatest accomplishments so far in his storied career.Was it a weaker Eastern Conference than usual? No doubt. But go back a paragraph and read the names I listed to you. If you asked any basketball fan with a decent knowledge of the league, “These 4 guys will be getting big minutes in the Eastern Conference Finals, how will they do?”, they would say two things: 1) How did they get to the Conference Finals in the first place, and 2) They will lose, and lose badly. But they didn’t. And now, Cleveland is back in the Finals for one reason: LeBron. It’s truly a pleasure to be able to watch the greatest basketball player of our generation play into June every year, and it’s something I hope even the many self-proclaimed LeBron haters can appreciate. Because we’re watching greatness, folks.
– Evan Sally, @Evan_Sally