If LeBron James is going to beat the Golden State Warriors in what appears to be the most likely NBA Finals matchup, he’s going to have to play like the greatest player of all time. It’s a level the masses have waited for him to reach his entire career. That’s the gift and the curse when you are blessed with near-supernatural talent, blessed with being bigger, faster, more skilled than everyone else. He was expected to engulf the NBA just like Jordan did in the ’90s. The question had been when it would happen; now, it’s more a matter of how.
The Warriors have given us the answer. LeBron isn’t the evolutionary Michael or Magic or Malone. He’s the archetypal Draymond Green. The Warriors became a great team when they started Green at the 4; they became an all-time great team when they featured him at the 5. Playing Green at center poses an existential problem to every other team: How do you beat an opponent that plays five-out on offense and can switch every pick-and-roll? Play them at their own game.
Steph Curry gets all the press, but Green is the pulse of the Warriors. He holds all the keys; he guards all the doors. To beat the Warriors, you have to beat the Lineup of Death — you have to beat Draymond at the 5. If the Cavs are going to do it, they’ll have to seriously consider a lineup with James at the 5, surrounded by perimeter players like Kyrie Irving, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert.
Placing LeBron in the Draymond role, rolling to the basket with four shooters around him, would make him unstoppable. It’s not a glamourous way of playing, considering the amount of banging in the paint an undersized center has to do to survive. But it’s the sacrifice LeBron will have to make if he wants his best shot at another title. And even then — even if the Warriors bring out the very best in him — for the first time in his life, that might not be enough to win.
So, you could argue that the Warriors are the worst thing to ever happen to LeBron James. They beat him in last year’s NBA Finals and, should Golden State and Cleveland meet again this year, the Warriors are overwhelmingly favored to repeat. They broke Michael Jordan’s most unbreakable record. They look like what the Miami Heat were supposed to be. Except it would be Curry, not James, racking up all the acclaim if they win not one, not two, not three championships. It was unthinkable just a year ago, but LeBron could be displaced as the greatest player of his era.
Yet, could anything be better for him at this point? For the first time in his career, LeBron is the underdog. If he can return to the Finals, he can play freely. No one (except for maybe Charles Barkley) would actually expect the Cavs to win. But say they do. Even if James never matches Jordan’s number of championships, he could record his greatest career achievement to date.
This piece originally appeared in the April 14, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.