LeBron has done almost everything imaginable in his relatively short career. What can he do to make this playoff run the best out of all of them?
It's been a week since the Cleveland Cavaliers last played a game and the down-time has been exhausting. There has been talk about whether the layoff will help or hurt. There has been talk about whether or not the Cavs are going to lose even 1 game in the conference finals. There has been talk about MVP voting. There has been talk about OKC beating Golden State. There has just been a lot of talk.
I want to talk about LeBron James.
Last week, LeBron James finished 3rd in the MVP voting. Stephen Curry (deservedly) won his 2nd straight, garnering every 1st place vote in the process. That's never happened before. But again, I want to talk about LeBron James.
LeBron James was an afterthought in the MVP race this year. From a statistical standpoint, he had a totally standard year. He didn't score/rebound/assists/shoot/defend notably better or worse than any other year. He played for a team that didn't set the league on fire, didn't run away with the conference's best record, and didn't impress anyone with their efficiency. He played for a team that fired their coach while in first place and ran on cruise control for several months. In short, he didn't do anything that would even move the needle away from Stephen Curry. That's how good LeBron James is. He had an entirely unremarkable-by-his-standards season and finished 3rd in the MVP voting.
2nd place was Kawhi Leonard, who suffocates dudes on defense and morphed into a lethal 3 point shooter. Kawhi had also become the hottest name in the league, winning his 2nd straight Defensive Player of the Year award and anchoring an unbelievably efficient Spurs team. And yet, in the scoring system of MVP votes, LeBron would have needed just 2 more 2nd place votes (out of ~125) to win 2nd place instead of 3rd.
LeBron James - just by finishing 3rd - is doing things that nobody has ever done before.
This was the 13th season of LeBron's career. It was also the 13th time he's finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. He was 9th in his rookie year, 6th in his second year, and has never finished outside the top 5 since then. It's been 8 years since LeBron has finished outside of the top 3. The closest thing I could come up with as a comparison was that Karl Malone finished in the top ten 13 times in a row, but there were several 7th and 8th place finishes in that stretch. Jordan doesn't qualify because he kept retiring.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about all this - and I know that I'm running a major jinx-risk here - is that James has been healthy for his entire career. The only time he's really missed any games was when he took two weeks off because "his back hurt" in the winter of 2015.
He's done virtually everything asked of him in his career, and now he's having this unheralded-yet-unprecedented season. Have you seen the Cavaliers when LeBron sits out? Two superstars remain on the roster and they suddenly can't beat Brooklyn. It really is incredible what he means to every team he's on. So how can this carry over to the playoffs, and how can he continue the trend of being the most impressive player of the past several decades?
By continuing to not force himself on the opponent.
The Cavaliers are at least expected to provide a challenge in the NBA Finals to whomever it is that they play, assuming they can get through Toronto in the ECF. LeBron is obviously the best player for Cleveland, but so far in the playoffs he has been deferring shots and continually finding the open man. For the first time in seemingly forever, he's not leading the team in scoring every night. James has only taken 20 shots three times in 8 games. Last year there was one game in the entire playoffs that he took under 20 shots, and it was the first game of the postseason. His shot attempts are basically in line with what he did in Miami, and you might remember that he won titles in Miami, so that's a good sign for the Cavaliers.
Furthermore, wouldn't it be the perfect redemption story for LeBron to bring a title to Cleveland by continuing to be the most selfless superstar we've ever seen? No one argues that LeBron James could've been a 30-point scorer every year of his career. Instead he's averaged 7 assists a game for the past dozen years. The idea that he would cede the scoring to someone else to make his dream of bringing the city a title is almost too perfect. The only way it could be even more of a storybook scenario would be if he needed to make one big shot late in the deciding game as an exclamation point, but we know he can control the game from any angle with his other-worldly passing.
Speaking of LeBron's passing, I saw a stat recently that LeBron James has 20% of the total number of playoff assists in Cleveland Cavalier history. Think about that for a minute. Having 20% of them for one postseason would be impressive. He's got 20% of them all-time.
If LeBron James draws all the attention that he deserves, he'll find Love, Frye, Irving, Delly, Smith, Jefferson, or whoever he damn well wants to find for open threes. If he doesn't get the attention he deserves, he'll score 25+ per game and continue shooting 50% from the floor. LeBron is the key to every Cavaliers game, every possession, and nearly every scoring play throughout each game. Defenses have been leaving him open for three, but he's shooting 52% on his wide-open threes, per nba.com/stats.
There's more. He's been anchoring the defense, too. He's averaged 2.4 steals per game over the first 8 games of the playoffs. I can admit that Atlanta and Detroit each had some sloppy games, but James has at least 2 steals in 7 out of 8 games.
Now for my favorite stat: LeBron James has led his team in points, rebounds, and assists in a playoff game 37 times in his career. That is the most ever. Hall of famer Larry Bird has the 2nd most instances of doing this. Bird did it 13 times. That's how good LeBron has been in the playoffs. Through 8 games this year, LeBron has done it zero times. That's how good the rest of the team has been. That's the story. LeBron James has a chance to play the best team basketball of his entire career. We've known for over a decade that he makes the players around him better (go ahead and look at the 2007 Cavaliers roster that he dragged to the Finals), and now he has a bunch of young guys to feed off of his brilliance. This could be LeBron's finest work.
Eight more wins is all it will take.