After the Cavaliers beat the Celtics 87-79 in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, ABC’s broadcasting crew lobbed LeBron James a question that initially seemed like a softball. “Two men over there at the table have been around this league a long time,” said Doris Burke, referring to commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. “They just said at the end of this ballgame that this is your greatest achievement, getting this group to the Finals. Would you concur?”
A softball, perhaps, but fair: James had just averaged 33.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 8.4 assists over seven games to will Cleveland to a series victory over Boston. He’d led all players on both teams in points (as well as field goals, 3-pointers, and free throws), rebounds, assists, and blocked shots. After the Cavs fell into a 3-2 series hole, James responded by delivering two spectacular performances: a 46-point, 11-rebound, 9-assist masterpiece in Game 6, and a 48-minute, 35-point, 15-rebound, 9-assist outing in Game 7. It was two straight games of basketball heroism.
Reading between the lines, though, the question ABC’s crew asked James was actually one of the more insulting inquiries a player could be asked on live TV. “LeBron, we all agree that your team shouldn’t be expected to win the Finals, so let’s assume this is the greatest achievement you’ll pull off this season,” Burke was basically saying. “Is hauling this sack of garbage to the Finals more impressive than winning your three NBA championships?”
To truly appreciate James’s greatness, you need to be well-versed in the failures of his teammates. Game 1 of the Finals against the Warriors sums it up: James scored a stunning 51 points last Thursday, and his team lost in part because J.R. Smith literally ran away from the hoop with the basketball as regulation expired even though the score was tied. It’s hard to imagine James summoning a better performance, or his minions finding a more ridiculous way to ruin it.
In the Finals, James is shooting 55.8 percent from the floor, and he’s 5-for-11 from 3. His teammates are shooting 38 percent from the floor and 26.4 percent from beyond the arc. In the postseason, James is averaging 34.6 points per game and assisting on 45.5 percent of his teammates’ baskets while on the floor. He’s posting the third-highest postseason PER of any starter to make it out of the first round. (No. 1 on that list: his PER during the 2009 playoffs.)
And his teammates are wasting it. They’re 8-for-33 on 3-point attempts off his passes in the Finals, a dismal 24.2 percent. Here’s James making a pass only a few players in the history of the sport could dream of making; the Cavs would go on to miss a 3:
Holy moly, the aim on this LeBron pass is unreal. He couldn't have handed it to him in a better spot. pic.twitter.com/EFSvntJ0rb— Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) June 4, 2018
Their crap polishes his legacy, as each of his successes is enhanced by the fact he accomplished it alongside such awful teammates. Hercules slew the Nemean lion; LeBron made the Finals with Jeff Green briefly serving as his team’s second-best scoring option.
But the Labours of LeBron are not forced upon him by cruel gods. It’s fair to say that James has done more with this sordid supporting cast than any other player in the league—and perhaps any other player in history—could have. But James isn’t any other player. He’s LeBron James, the man who redefined how much agency a single player can have with regard to the direction of a franchise. James carries all of his team’s hopes for potential success—how much responsibility does he bear for the roster around him being so sorry?
The narrative that James is being held back by his teammates is not new. It dates all the way back to his first tenure in Cleveland, when he was a ringless phenom whose title hopes were perpetually dashed by his having to depend on Sasha Pavlovic and Boobie Gibson for critical contributions. There was the time he scored 25 straight points for Cleveland to single-handedly beat the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, the time he made the NBA Finals with Larry Hughes as the Cavs’ no. 2 scoring threat, and the time that Cleveland traded for a rapidly deteriorating Shaquille O’Neal in hopes of convincing LeBron that the franchise could put legitimate stars around him.
And upon returning to Cleveland in 2014, the same issues arose: James led the 2015 NBA Finals in scoring, rebounding, and assists, and it wasn’t enough. Golden State beat the Cavs in six games. (Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Matthew Dellavedova shot a combined 28.9 percent in that series. From the field, not from 3.) James led his team back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the title in 2016, but the Warriors responded to that miracle by adding Kevin Durant in free agency, once again leaving LeBron’s Cavaliers at a talent disparity he couldn’t possibly overcome.
But between those two outmatched Cleveland stints, LeBron showed that he could take matters into his own hands. After it became clear in 2010 that the Cavaliers couldn’t put an acceptable roster around him, LeBron seized power rather than allowing the franchise’s mismanagement to dictate his career. He palled up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to build the first true free-agency-driven superteam. He chose the place he wanted, and the stars with whom he wanted to play. The Heat bench was filled with guys who wanted to team up with LeBron and players LeBron considered personal friends. It worked. He made the Finals four straight times and won twice, turning Miami into the epicenter of the NBA.
Then LeBron made another choice, deciding after a 2014 Finals loss to the Spurs that an aging Wade and Bosh represented a less stable bet going forward than a Cavaliers team with a young superstar in Kyrie Irving. Shortly thereafter, the Cavs began using LeBron’s whims as directives. Not long after James announced his return to Cleveland, he reached out to Kevin Love; by late August of that year, Love had been traded to the Cavs. Like the Heat, Cleveland made sure to put some of LeBron’s friends (James Jones and Mike Miller) at the end of its bench.
Now, it’s tough to identify a part of the Cavs’ basketball operation that isn’t dictated by James’s preferences. In 2015, he needled the organization into handing Tristan Thompson an onerous five-year, $82 million contract. That same year, it became clear LeBron liked assistant coach Tyronn Lue more than head coach David Blatt, with James famously ignoring a Blatt play call before hitting a game-winner in a playoff game against the Bulls. Unsurprisingly, Blatt was fired and Lue promoted to the top job in January 2016. James publicly meddled with another free-agency decision the following offseason, urging the Cavs to give Smith a four-year, $57 million contract. While ensuring his team would handsomely pay some of its midtier talents, his connection with his costar weakened: Nobody has claimed that LeBron’s relationship with Irving is the primary reason Irving demanded a trade, but it seems odd that a player who once orchestrated an alliance of superstars lost the allegiance of his best teammate.
The products of the 2017 Irving trade, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, didn’t get along with LeBron either; soon, both were shipped out of town as part of a series of trade-deadline deals that were spurred by James’s dissatisfaction with Cleveland’s roster. And finally, instead of the Cavs using the 15th and final spot on their 2018 playoff roster on a player who could provide bench minutes, LeBron pushed the team to give the spot to Kendrick Perkins, who played AAU ball with James in high school and has taken to whispering compliments into his ear. (Literally.)
When Lue makes questionable decisions, remember that he’s the coach James wanted. When Smith ruins late-game possessions and Thompson appears to have no real use on the floor, remember those are players James wanted. When Jordan Clarkson falters and Rodney Hood fails to even crack Cleveland’s rotation, keep in mind that those are the guys the Cavaliers traded for due to James’s midseason malaise. The team’s general lack of depth stems from overpayments to players like Smith and Thompson, contracts that were offered to appease LeBron.
As we consider James’s legacy—and that’s seemingly all basketball fans want to do at any given moment—we need to consider the size of the hills he’s had to climb. In Cleveland, he has helped create those hills.
The Cavaliers, of course, are right to do basically whatever James wants. There are 14 other teams in the Eastern Conference, all with their own unique strategies for success. Year after year, none of their strategies has been as effective as Cleveland’s “employ LeBron James and ensure that he is happy” approach. James has earned the power he wields by proving that his presence alone can change a team’s fortune. But simply having LeBron is not enough to beat the Warriors. He’s playing close to his best during these Finals, and it’s resulted in a crushing overtime letdown and a 122-103 blowout loss. Heading into Game 3 on Wednesday night, the Cavs are down a seemingly insurmountable two games to none.
Soon, James will have another decision to make. He’s set to become a free agent this summer, and could choose to sign with the Rockets or 76ers, teams that would surround him with talent that could help him contend for championships. He could also choose to remain in Cleveland, a possibility that should not be discounted even though the Cavaliers seem largely incapable of adding another superstar.
In charting the course of his future, perhaps James’s mind will linger on the question that Burke asked him following Game 7 in Boston: What is his greatest accomplishment? And that would pose a natural follow-up: What path should he take to accomplish similar things?
The answer seems clear: His greatest accomplishment was the championship he brought to Cleveland, the one in which he stared down a 3-1 series deficit against the winningest regular-season team of all time and came back to win. He might have captured two titles in Miami, but his triumph when he was outgunned has gone down as the most meaningful.
And that uncovers the odd dichotomy we’ve created for James. When he took the boldest steps any NBA player had ever taken to team up with players who could help him win, he uncovered a new line of criticism. Fans were furious with him for seeking an apparent shortcut to greatness. In Cleveland, James has done nearly exactly the opposite: In pulling the strings that control his home franchise, he’s (unintentionally) made his path to glory much more difficult than it should be. And oddly, this has brought him praise, as James’s incredible feats are all the more obvious when his teammates are so shoddy. With this Cavs team, there is no Finals ending that could reflect poorly on LeBron’s playing ability: Either he pulls off a comeback victory for the ages, or we know that his teammates let him down.
James has an unprecedented level of power for an NBA player. While fans once criticized his Miami stint as the easy way out, I never saw it that way. He played just as well for the Heat as he is playing for these Cavs; the difference is that his team now isn’t good enough to help him genuinely compete. With his current supporting cast, he’s forced to carry the weight of 14 teammates upon his back; on more talented rosters, he had to bear the burden of being labeled as a villain and a title favorite. As James figures out what’s next in his career, we will find out which load he considers to be heavier.