The Golden State Warriors are world champions. They put together one of the best regular seasons ever and stormed through the Western Conference playoffs before finally icing the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games for the 2014-15 title. Stephen Curry was a deserving regular season MVP, Andre Iguodala was incredible on his way to the Finals MVP, Steve Kerr went 83-20 as a rookie head coach and Golden State will be bringing back just about everyone next season for their title defense.
Good enough? Alright, because this is where I make the not-so-popular change of direction and delve into the runner-up, LeBron James. Why, you ask? Why have I spent one measly paragraph on the best team in the league before filling the rest of this column with a LeBron dissection?
Because he’s just more interesting. I think he’s one of the more authentic players we have in the league, yet there’s something about him that turns off so many.
I’m certainly not a LeBron fan boy. I was rooting for Golden State to take the crown. But I also love watching him play and tend to be very pro-LeBron whenever such an argument arises.
It was initially viewed as a heartwarming tale, but this has been an unconventional homecoming for James.
The Cavs struggled initially before becoming a really good team over the second half of the season and just when it appeared they may be the team to beat in the playoffs, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving suffered injuries that left LeBron in the exact same position that prompted his decision to leave Cleveland in the first place.
He was trying to carry not only underwhelming teammates, but an overly starved city on his back to the promised land.
His numbers from this postseason have been repeated ad nauseam, but they’re remarkable enough to repeat once more — 30.1 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists per game. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for his playoff career now sits at 27.43, which is third all-time behind only Michael Jordan (28.60) and George Mikan (28.51). PER is an imperfect stat that can tend to reward big guys a little too generously (for example, Dwight Howard ranks 13th and Magic Johnson 17th in playoff history), but it usually gets things right in the long run.
So while critics will continue to point out his now four losses in six trips to the NBA Finals, the fact is that virtually nobody other than the greatest of all-time has been better in the playoffs than James. His effort this year just to keep Cleveland competitive with an opponent that had clearly separated itself from the rest of the league was not only evident on the stat sheet, but by the eye test. If James wasn’t making it happen, nothing could happen for the Cavs. He didn’t walk away with the trophy, which is how he will ultimately be judged, but it certainly wasn’t because he was too passive or shied away from the moment.
Yet he hasn’t gained many supporters during this historic run. The fanfare that surrounds LeBron is usually that of concession, not adoration.
As a young player, he was once thought of as too unselfish. Now he gets chastised for voicing that he’s the best player in the world — a statement that while jarring to hear from the subject, themselves, happens to be true. People have claimed he isn’t clutch. Well statistics website FiveThirtyEight.com ran a piece last month that illustrated how James is by far the league’s best playoff performer on go-ahead shots in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime since 2001. And while he is still considered the more lethal late-game assassin, Kobe Bryant actually ranks dead last on the same list — also by a wide margin.
So why have we still not taken in LeBron as we did Michael?
He is, by almost all accounts, a far better teammate. Jordan’s explicit rants during practice against fellow Bulls have become legendary.
We like our stars to only be satisfied with titles and James clearly wants to win as much, if not more, than his fellow superstars.
Yet we demeaned his decision to join the Miami Heat despite championships being his top priority for the move.
He wants to do right by his city, but people complained about his influencing the Kevin Love deal to aid in his return to Cleveland.
He does whine to the refs, but everyone seems to love Draymond Green and he both argues and flops far more frequently than James.
He says he’s the best, but so did Muhammad Ali.
So what is it? He’s not a cheater getting the A-Rod treatment.
He’s not a criminal getting the Ray Rice treatment. He’s not a malcontent getting the John McEnroe treatment. He’s not an annoying dynasty getting the Duke treatment.
He is almost universally admired, respected and cheered against. He’s a villain without the evil agenda, a heel only because of his perceived invincibility.
The Warriors deserve their accolades, but LeBron’s place in the pantheon is still the most fascinating story that came out of these 2015 NBA Playoffs.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.