Looking back through LeBron James’ 2016 postseason — there are a lot of moments that can tell a story — he killed a 73-9 demigod in Oakland and blocked out the sunshine state. He had back-to-back-41 point performances when down 3-1 and made history. He ended a 52 year drought in a city that had seen a laundry list of articlized playoff scares.
But for me the most telling moment came before the story was written. As Cleveland sang the national anthem before Game 3, in its first NBA Finals home game since losing to the Warriors in 2015, the Cavaliers were then down 0-2 in the series. James could barely keep still on the sideline. Before the fans could even finish “and the home of the Brave” James beat his hand to his heart, pointed to the sky, blew twice into each clenched fist and stepped back behind his teammates, ripping open his warm-up jacket, shouting “Let’s Go!”
It’s a fairly emotional, if not melodramatic, moment for James. He was still a couple games away from elimination and a long way from Game 7, but his team had been blown out twice, and he knew what was being asked of him and how he needed to approach it.
Before the ledes even mentioned a historical deficit that had never been overcome in the NBA Finals, James was beating his chest and breathing through clenched fists like a strange genesis story of a basketball player animating himself for the task that was about to be asked. What does the story of the greatest basketball player of all time look like as it is being written? Or — to be fair to the current Heir of A1 — has that story already been told?
For me, that’s the question James and his Cavaliers are asking in 2017. Forget about Cleveland and title droughts. You could pull out a record book and ask if Cleveland can defend its first title since the 1955 Browns, but who cares? James said it best last June. 2016 NBA Championship? “Cleveland, this is for you.”
What’s next? Well, in 2017 this is about something more than rings. This is about story.
James is 32-years-old, entering the postseason for the 12th consecutive year, 14 seasons in the NBA. He’s made it to the NBA Finals seven times in the past decade, six in a row. Think of it this way: James’ six year old win streak of Eastern Conference Championships would be in first grade. He could probably read, write and perform basic arithmetic. James isn’t done yet, but for his next attempt, it’s going to be a little harder.
Look at the mentions for any of James’ tweets and you’ll be quick to find a reply that says “3-4,” a reminder of his NBA Finals record. Scroll a little further and you’ll find the 3-1 jokes and goat emojis too. And that’s kind of the question for James — where does this story end? He’s never going to have a 6-0 in his mentions. But is his story the six times it took him as a Cavalier in the playoffs before he finally got one for Cleveland, before the rest of the NBA caught up or is it a player at 32, who has had his share of losses, carrying a team against odds that keep getting a bit harder.
The statistics do not tell a great story for Cleveland in the second half of the season. Since the All-Star break they are 12-14, a losing record. The only other playoff teams with worse records over that time period are the Hawks (who beat the Cavaliers twice in the final week of the season) and the Grizzlies. During these 26 games, they have allowed 111.1 points per 100 possessions which is second to last in the league, ahead of only the Lakers.
Part of the problem was injuries — Kevin Love missed a large portion of the second half due to an arthroscopic knee surgery, J.R. Smith missed three months with a thumb surgery, even Tristan Thompson missed four of the last five games of the season with a thumb strain and ended his active streak for consecutive games played. Still, this was a team that had Richard Jefferson out of retirement and dunking on Kevin Durant on Christmas Day. It’s just hard to reconcile the team from last June or even December, with the team that enters the postseason in 2017.
The sad part is that over those 26 games, James has been looking just the same — if not better. While averaging the most minutes in the NBA after the All-Star Break, he’s putting up 27.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists with a 62.2 true shooting percentage. That’s the third best shooting efficiency of his career and the best as a Cavalier.
Still not impressed? Just look at the players LeBron has chased down in 2016-17:
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Elvin Hayes
- Moses Malone
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Deron Williams
- Guy Rodgers
- Bob Cousy
- Tim Hardaway
- Terry Porter
- Lenny Wilkens
- Maurice Cheeks
What lies ahead?
- Paul George and the Pacers, a ghost of Eastern Conference Game 7s past;
- A team in Toronto with some unfinished business from a 2-2 tied ECF;
- A Celtics team with two starters that may have grown tired of getting swept by the Cavaliers in the playoffs;
- The Greek Freak’s rise in Milwaukee;
- A Wizards team that may have the depth and star power to surprise everyone.
And then there are the Warriors. The best of three rubber match. Two former MVPs and a ringless Durant who has his eyes set on a story of his own.
The 2017 postseason can go one of two ways for James. Either this is a team, as the statistics suggest, that ran out of time. Three consecutive title runs were too many minutes on an older team lacking some depth, and they couldn’t keep up with a surprisingly competitive East and a refortified Warriors team. Or maybe there’s a switch. And all James needs to do is some strange animating dance, a few breaths into his hands and the regular season narrative gets left behind while he tries to block out the sun one more time.
It’d be smart to say something like Warriors in 5. But sometimes you just have to wonder, what else can LeBron James do?