Saturday, June 06, 2015

Cleveland’s DOA Title Bid: LeBron Comes Up a Shot Short but What of His Legacy?

The pressure is off LeBron James. He will not win the NBA Finals now that Kyrie Irving pulled up limp with a cracked knee cap and is out for the remaining games of this Final. Add this comes on top of the loss of Kevin Love, on what I believe was rightfully called a bush league play by Celtic Kelly Olynyk in Game 4 of a sweap, and you have a team missing two of its three stars. The supporting cast just isn’t up to beating by far the best team in the league all year. But a lot of “what ifs” will be left on the table when the obituary is written on this Cleveland season:

What if Kevin Love was still available …
What if J.R. Smith made a few more shots in Game 1 (he went 3-13) …
What if LeBron made his jumper at the buzzer (or the shot before) …
What if Irving then avoided the OT injury (because there wouldn’t have been an OT) …
What if a faithful Cleveland denizen kidnapped Steph Curry before the game (or Klay Thompson for that matter)?

Barring a miracle that would catapult James to the pantheon of greatest individual performances in NBA Finals history, LeBron will soon be 2 and 4 in NBA Finals and, while two of those will comprise the bruised Cavs of this year and the undermanned 2007 team, it is hard to ignore those four losses. Jordan went 6 for 6, Magic 5 for 9, Kobe 5 for 7, Duncan 5 for 6, Shaq 4 for 6, the often underrated Kareem 6 for 10 and Russell an incredible 11 for 12 (in a different era with less teams and less talent overall). LeBron will soon be tied with Wilt at 2 for 6 in the Finals and plenty of the 32 players who have competed in 6 or more Finals have better records. Poor Jerry West comes out worse, of course, with only one title in nine attempts (he once won a Finals MVP in a losing effort), but serious questions should be asked of LeBron and any attempt to label him the greatest ever. He will still have a few more chances over the coming years, but it seems – at least on paper – that Jordan might now be out of reach to all but the most diehard of fans. It’s too bad, really, as it was a great all-around performance. But at the key moment, he failed.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that LeBron is the most clutch playoff player of his era, and one of the best in history. He has three game-winning shots at the buzzer in the postseason, which ties Jordan for his entire career (and four go-ahead shots in the final seconds of a playoff game; more than any player over the past 15 years). After missing the shot last night, he is now 6 of 11 on possible go-ahead shots in the last five seconds of the fourth quarter (Jordan was 5-11). Going back out to the final 24 seconds: LeBron is now 8-20 on potential game-tying or game winning shots in the last 24 seconds of the fourth quarter or OT in the playoffs. I don’t have the stats for Jordan, but Kobe was 7-28 under the same circumstances. If we expand out to the final minute of the 4Q/OT, LeBron is 13 of 28 vs. Kobe’s 10 of 37. Though I couldn’t find data since 2012, he was also the most “clutch” shooter overall in the NBA, tied with Duncan shooting .460 in those situations across the regular and post season since entering the league. Comparing overall playoff stats, we find the following comparison between LeBron, Jordan and Kobe:

Games Played: Jordan 179; LeBron 173; Kobe 220
PPG: J – 33.4, L – 28.0, K – 25.6
RPG: J – 6.4, L – 8.6, K - 4.1
APG: J – 4.7, L – 6.6, K – 4.7
Shooting Pct: J – 49%, L – 48%, K - 45%
Postseason Efficiency Rating: J – 28.6, L – 27.5, K – 22.4

So the question that might still be worth asking is whether LeBron has had the supporting cast to do better than he has done so far. I believe a healthy team with Irving and Love could have given the Warriors a real fight, particularly given the fact they really should have won Game 1 without Love. The 2007 team was LeBron and a bunch of other guys few have heard from before or since. The loss in the Finals to Dallas was a fluke that seemed to pivot around losing concentration in Game 2 (they blew a 15-point lead and Wade missed a potential game-winning three at the buzzer where he appeared to be more interested in drawing a foul than in making the shot), blowing a close Game 4 (Wade missed 1 of 2 free throws with a chance to tie it at 82 with 20 seconds left), blowing a four-point lead with 5 minutes left in Game 5 and then losing an early lead in Game 6 (when Dallas switched to zone defense and went on a 21-4 run). Last year, James and the Heat seemed in good shape until the Spurs played some of the best basketball I have ever seen and crushed an aging Heat team that had no answers. This is not to excuse LeBron of his presumed fourth finals loss, but to acknowledge that both Cavs teams wouldn’t even have been there but for James and the same might be said of last season and the Heat. Jordan had Scottie Pippin, one of the greatest defenders and rebounders in NBA history and a cast of great outside shooters over his six finals and Kobe was always surrounded by an incredible array of winners and playoff masters (Horry and Derek Fisher come immediately to mind, along with that fella Shaq now making a jackass of himself on TNT for the first few).

LeBron will have to win a couple more titles to get back into the “greatest ever” conversation, given the weight winning titles has in that assessment here in the U.S., but on numbers alone (including “clutch” performances) he is already arguably at the top of the list.

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