When the season narrowed to a playoff pitch, a few topics seemed to dominate the NBA airwaves. We had the whole rest issue, which became rather restless chatter. Do players really need to take so many games off, and for nationally televised games? Who wins the MVP tug-o-war between the electric James Harden and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook?
And the topic du jour as we finally enter the NBA playoffs is the pseudo-tanking, it not capsizing, of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Some have even breached the blasphemous, by asserting that the Cavs could actually fall short of the NBA Finals.
Adding to the mushrooming sense of doubt, the Cavs squeaked by the Indiana Pacers, 109-108, in the first game of their playoff series.
Theories abound. The players don’t really like each other, a fake band of brothers. Kyrie Irving isn’t playing with the same passion or production as he did during his scalding ascent to the NBA championship last year. Kevin Love never really fit, the ultimate outsider in the huddle. Tyronn Lue is more friend than formidable presence as coach, and last year’s magic was more the result of a big bro hug than hardwood stratagem.
And, of course, we have LeBron, who is playing to the point of passing out, exhausted and enervated and emaciated by the biblical minutes he’s played. Six straight years going to the NBA Finals. The millions of miles on airplanes, plowing through airports, the hotels. The preseason games. The Olympics. LeBron’s entire calendar has been booked for the last dozen years. His season starting at the Summer Olympics and ending the following summer in the Finals. Eventually, LeBron just won’t be able to carry the load on his epic shoulders. Eventually.
But do you really want to bet against LeBron James, who has his mail forwarded to the NBA Finals? He’s reached the last round in six straight seasons?
Not to be a Pollyanna, but there is some cause for concern. On January 1, Cleveland’s record was a robust 25-7, for a .781 winning percentage. Since New Year’s Day, the Cavs are 26-24, winning just 52 percent of their games. Or if you prefer to slice the season exactly in half, consider that on Jan 20 Cleveland was still a well-oiled 30-11, for a .732 winning percentage. Since then they went 21-20, for a .512 mark. Whatever was working in Cleveland since January of last year, stopped working by the end of January of this year.
It’s a series of clashing stats. Do you believe their .500 record since January, or LeBron’s incessant trips to the NBA Finals? Do you believe this year, when Cleveland has ranked a woeful 22nd in defense, or the fact that LeBron has won 18 straight first-round playoff games? From the All-Star Game until the end of March, the Cavaliers were 29th in defensive rating, allowing 112.6 points per 100 possessions. And in March alone they got even worse, allowing 113.7 points.
Then we have LeBron’s rather incongruous history. King James has entered the postseason as the No. 2 seed five times in his career and reached the NBA Finals every time. So clearly he need not be the chalk to walk into June. And should LBJ make one more trip to the championship round, he would be the first to get there seven times in a row since… Bill Russell.
And if we’re worried about the roster, consider that they’re atypically healthy right now. And that King James has willed far worse teams into the championship round. Consider his maiden trip to the last round, the Shannon Brown (who?) juggernaut of 2007. LeBron was flanked by Daniel Gibson, Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall. And he still won three playoff series, before getting spanked by the Spurs, back when Tim Duncan and was still in his prime, as were his merry band of ballers, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
It’s always perilous to take a pre-playoff snooze, in any sport. In the NFL, there are countless accounts of teams that dash out to great seasons then take the last few weeks off. Peyton Manning and his Colts did that a few times, once even starting 13-0 then not even reaching the Super Bowl.
But in the NBA, one player has a far stronger grip on the team and its overall performance. Russell Westbrook is a walking highlight reel, and his Oscar Robertson redux has made for splendid viewing and a fine, singular aesthetic. But he doesn’t have LeBron’s chops or the King’s uncanny unselfishness, which makes everyone on his team better.
If King James is to lose a few jewels or his entire crown, it won’t be until June, when he likely faces the team he vanquished last year. The Warriors are coming out to play. And the rest of the world can just watch.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.