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The Cavs Are the Biggest Burden on LeBron James’s Latest Championship Quest

As always, Cleveland’s championship hopes rest on its King’s ability to do everything for his team, and not a drop less. Never mind that plan’s sustainability — is it even enough to make it to the Finals anymore?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The 2016–17 NBA season has provided total entertainment forever. The new kids on the block like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns let us dream of the next era of basketball. Meanwhile, the rise of the 3-pointer is revolutionizing the game. Russell Westbrook’s and James Harden’s historic campaigns have spearheaded the most contentious MVP debate in years. The MVP conversation essentially boils down to two season-long performances that are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Considering how we’re naturally transfixed by newness, trends, and what’s on the horizon, that it’s basically become a contest between Westbrook and Harden comes as no surprise. LeBron James is in the mix, too, but what he does is the opposite of new. We’ve already seen LeBron do just about everything, and everything is exactly what we expect from him. The thrill of LeBron is gone.

After another elite season at age 32, with averages of 26.4 points, 8.7 assists, and 8.6 rebounds, LeBron will earn his 10th straight first-team All-NBA honor. The future Hall of Famer’s extraordinary dominance has started to feel ordinary for some, but it’s not something to take for granted.

James probably won’t win MVP with momentum and narrative swinging in the favor of Westbrook and Harden. But James is still the best player in the NBA — his heroic double-overtime performance against Paul George and the Pacers last week solidified that — and he’s the sole reason the Cavs remain tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs outscore teams by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the court, a rate which would rank third-best in the NBA, and they get outscored by 8.5 when he’s off, roughly the equivalent of the Lakers’ net rating on the season. Even when fellow All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are on the floor without James, the team’s net rating plummets to a minus-3.1, per NBA.com/Stats, which would be bottom-10 figure in the league. LeBron, after six straight NBA Finals appearances, is unfathomably racking up 37.8 minutes per game, which leads the NBA: He’s put the team on his back, because the Cavs wouldn’t survive if he didn’t.

This has been no more apparent than over the last month. Since March, the Cavaliers have a net rating of 6.9 with LeBron on the court, and a rating of minus-18.5 when he’s off — a swing of more than 25 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs are 10–12 in that span; even the Nets have a better record over the same time frame. Sunday’s 126–125 overtime loss to the Hawks might’ve been a new low. The Cavs led by 26 at one point, but their defense collapsed in the fourth as LeBron was forced to log 47 minutes before fouling out on a dubious call in OT.

The workload is a burden that shouldn’t be put on any player on the wrong side of 30, but it’s exactly the kind of extreme adaptation that proves just how great James has been. When the Heat moved LeBron to power forward a few years ago I thought it was a preview of how the rest of his career would shape up: He seemed destined to become Karl Malone, a post-up playmaking factory. But James has transformed differently. This season, not dissimilar from his MVP-contending counterparts, he’s taken on more roles for his team than ever before. “For the first time in his career, he’s basically playing the whole game and playing every position in the game,” James Jones told USA Today. “He handles the ball, so he’ll run the point. We’ll run catch-and-shoot plays for him as a 2. He’ll post up in the mid-post, set inside as a 3-man. He plays the 4 elbow spot with our backup unit. And then in certain situations, he’ll guard a 5 so we can switch in pick-and-rolls 1 through 5 or 2 through 5 when we go with our small lineups.”

His team needs it all from LeBron this year, more than it did in each of the past two years with the Cavs, and perhaps more than any of his four years with the Heat. Cleveland’s depth is a disaster. Irving says his knee is bothering him. Love recently returned from midseason arthroscopic knee surgery. There’s no reliable backup for Tristan Thompson. Deron Williams looks like toast. Kyle Korver and Channing Frye don’t defend well. LeBron is the glue that makes this roster look even remotely competitive. “The house comes crashing down if he’s not playing at full tilt like he is now,” Jones said. “We still have a long way to go, but we’re nowhere near where we are if LeBron isn’t playing at such a high level.”

Cleveland’s primary issue is defense. The Cavs have a 107.9 defensive rating, which ranks 22nd. That’s a scary sign historically. Of the 74 NBA Finals participants since 1979–80, only one (the 2000–01 Lakers), had a relative defensive rating worse than the league average, according to numberFire. That Lakers team flipped the switch in the playoffs, just as the Cavs must do. But James has been part of the problem. Too often he slacks off defending the perimeter, lazily fighting through screens or not sitting in the seat of his stance. Too often he doesn’t hustle back in transition, which sets the tone for the rest of the team — which ranks last in transition defense, per Synergy. He’s always had inconsistent spurts as a defender, but this year more than any other, it’s like he’s constantly conserving energy for his significant workload on offense and a long playoff run. That’ll need to change, though. He’s able to be a lockdown defender, while most of his teammates aren’t.

It remains to be seen where this team will go in the playoffs. They’re still the East favorites. But even James remaining the King on offense while turning into Kawhi Leonard on defense might not be enough. The Celtics and Raptors lurk in the East. The West is loaded with final bosses in the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets. James carried a team featuring Daniel Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic, and Drew Gooden to the Finals in 2007, and took the Warriors to six games in 2015 without Love or Irving. With a struggling defense and a dearth of depth, 2016 feels like another one of those years.

James’s career has begun to feel familiar. Everything that’s been thought about his legacy has probably already been said or written. Even the idea of The Trilogy feels a bit stale. But as media and fans, we can’t let LeBron’s sustained greatness cause fatigue. If there were a 10-year MVP award, LeBron would win it. If the NBA had an Oscars-style honorary award, it’d be bestowed on James in recognition of his mastery of the game of basketball as this generation’s alpha. As he reaches the pinnacle of his career, he’s never truly been more cherishable. He’s a living legend.

A reminder: James has been to six straight Finals — only a handful of old-timey ’50s and ’60s Celtics have ever done that. James has won four league MVP awards — only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Michael Jordan have more. James has won three titles and three Finals MVPs — only Michael Jordan has more of the latter. James stands alone in vanquishing the Cleveland sports curse with an iconic comeback and a defining moment.

LeBron has been called King James since he was in high school more than 15 years ago, but no king’s reign lasts forever. There will be a day we’re typing LeBron highlights into YouTube, like we do with past greats, yearning for the days his greatness felt brand new. Now 14 seasons in, with James playing more minutes than anyone else before age 33, we are closer to the end than the beginning even though it feels like his career might last forever.

“I have enough left for whatever,” James said at All-Star Weekend, per USA Today. “I was ready to play another Finals after Game 7 last year. Give me one or two days’ rest, and I would’ve been ready to go again.” James could be one of the lucky all-time greats, a superhuman who goes his entire career unscathed, like Karl Malone, Tony Gonzalez, or Greg Maddux. It’s possible seven years from now when James is turning 40, he’ll still be in the MVP conversation, just as his son is entering the league as a rookie.

But there were once moments in history when it felt like Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Ken Griffey Jr., and Bo Jackson were herculean, too. Then Bryant’s Achilles was torn. Bird had bone spurs in both Achilles, and then debilitating back problems ended his career. Griffey’s legs robbed him of continued dominance into his 30s. Jackson suffered a fluke hip injury. Life can change in an instant, and so can a sports career. James is just two seasons removed from a stretch in which he lacked his typical bounce, which we later found out was due to inflammation in his back. He looked like an aging Larry Bird lying on the sidelines trying to keep his back loose and took a two-week hiatus to heal in early 2015. Then to start the following season he received more back injections to treat the lumbar region of his spine. James told Cleveland.com in April 2016 that he went a full season without back pain for the first time in about half a decade, and hopefully it stays that way as he enters his mid-30s. LeBron’s sustainability has been something to behold.

Consider that when James enters his 12th straight postseason this weekend, he’ll have a chance at his eighth total and seventh straight NBA Finals appearance. If the Cavs make it that far, LeBron could surpass Michael Jordan for most career playoff points, Tim Duncan for most career playoff minutes, and Scottie Pippen for career steals. He’d also inch near the top of the leaderboards for most other stats, too, according to Basketball-Reference.

For my fellow advanced-stat geeks, James ranks first in career playoff box-score plus-minus, VORP, and win shares, and is third in player efficiency rating. But LeBron will need to reach an even higher level this postseason with his team vulnerable. As The Ringer’s Bill Simmons wrote before this season: James is still writing his masterpiece.

The Block and the 3–1 comeback very well might have been the climax of LeBron’s career: It cemented his legacy as a player who deserves to be on the Mount Rushmore of NBA legends. But with LeBron’s team wavering, the East stronger, and a rubber match against the Warriors potentially looming, it’s possible the climax has yet to come. James’s true turning point could be a fourth Finals win this summer, an event that would strengthen his standing in the greatest of all time conversation. What can you get from a player who has given almost everything he’s got? The answer will not only shape these playoffs, but the rest of LeBron’s career. So let’s enjoy every moment of his story. Someday it’ll be over.