“Hill misses, rebound goes to the Cavs, JR Smith brings it back out, throws it to Hill, Hill’s shot blocked!
“You get the feeling J.R. Smith didn’t know they had the lead.”
Those lines from the broadcast have been played on endless loop since the buzzer sounded in overtime of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ devastating loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals last Thursday night. It was a gaffe that overshadowed a Herculean effort from LeBron James, who spent 48 frenetic minutes on the court brutalizing the Warriors for 51 points, eight assists, and eight rebounds to the tune of 59 percent shooting and 43 percent from beyond the arc.
But monstrous, yet inevitably futile, efforts have been nothing new to James through the arc of his illustrious career. Detractors enjoy pointing to his 3-5 record in the NBA Finals, yet as ESPN posted on Twitter on May 30, LeBron’s teams have been an underdog in all but two of those matchups.
Never tell LeBron James the odds. This 2017-18 Cavaliers season has been drama and tension-filled, even by their own weirdly high bar. From Head Coach Tyronn Lue needing to take a leave of absence so that he could tend to his own health, to the midseason trades, to J.R. Smith throwing a bowl of soup at an assistant coach, this return to the Finals was fraught with pitfalls at every turn. Yet, LeBron was there consistently hitting daggers and ignoring the Isaiah Thomases in his life through it all.
According to the NBA Stats clutch dashboard, in the regular season, James faced 45 game situations where the game was within five points with five minutes left to play. The Cavaliers went 30-15 in in those games. He scored 4.4 points per game in those spots and shot 56 percent, which was higher than anyone in the top-10 of clutch games played except for Ben Simmons, who, well, doesn’t shoot 3s. And James has taken it to another level in the playoffs. In nine clutch games, the Cavaliers have gone 7-2, with LeBron pouring in 4.7 points per game in the clutch on 52 percent shooting overall and 37.5 percent from 3-point range.
It’s led many to proclaim this postseason run already as LeBron’s Mona Lisa (which takes on a different meaning than Ben Simmons’ Mona Lisa – ding!). Of course, that is a bit hyperbolic considering his feats against the same Warriors just two years ago in 2016. But the thought at the root of this proclamation has been the consistent: LeBron James has no help. Kyrie Irving left for Boston, and with Kevin Love banged up, 37-year-old Kyle Korver may arguably be the Cavaliers’ second-best player right now.
It’s a topic that has stoked the fires of the all-time Jordan/LeBron debate for their respective place in the functionally fictional, but perceptively very real, basketball pantheon. Of course, I didn’t grow up with Michael Jordan. I can’t compare the experience of watching James to the experience of watching Jordan, because, well, I didn’t. However, what I can do is compare a very selective slice of each player’s postseason resume: the quality of their best teammates in each of their Finals runs. Florence Nightingale, please step on up.
Some of you may recognize the above graphic as a recreation of Florence Nightingale’s famous diagram detailing the causes of death for the British army from her time on the battlefield during the Crimean War. At the start of the playoffs, I retrofitted the Burtin Antibiotic Resistance chart to discuss the talent disparity between the two conferences. Now that the playoffs have reached their final phase, consider this graphic then as it’s spiritual successor. What is basketball, if not a war of attrition? And considering what happened on Friday (seriously, no offense to J.R. Smith, who my friends have likened me to in pickup basketball, one of the highest possible compliments), the original title of “causes of mortality” feels almost a little too on the nose.
As explained in the notes in the graphic, the two wind rose diagrams each map to Michael Jordan’s and LeBron James’ postseason runs, respectively. The blue wedges represent their playoff VORP during those campaigns, with the pink wedge representing their best teammate’s playoff VORP, and the dark wedge representing their second-best teammate. Two things immediately stand out. For starters, LeBron’s wind rose diagram has a lot of blue, showing not just how superlative his postseason play has been, but also how much his teammates have largely struggled to measure up to that standard during that time. On the flip side, MJ actually had two Finals runs, in 1996 and 1998, where Scottie Pippen posted a better VORP than he did.
By VORP alone, this has been James’ most productive postseason, recording an astounding 3.4 VORP with games still left to play (for comparison, Jordan’s best playoff VORP was 2.8, though it should be noted that it was in 17 games, while James has already played 19). His best two teammates have been Larry Nance Jr. (0.5) and the aforementioned sharpshooter Kyle Korver (0.4). In terms of LeBron’s ability to do more with less, this run often gets compared to 2007. However, while his teammates may have been slightly worse, LeBron was nowhere near the peak of his powers yet; as such the disparity between him and the top talent around him wasn’t quite as wide. While James did get to enjoy playing with prime Dwyane Wade for a couple of years in Miami (the reduction in size of the pink wedges year by year from 2011 to 2014 show how sharply Wade aged), for the most part, he hasn’t had the benefit of teammates capable of consistently lifting him on the NBA’s biggest stages.
So, the next time LeBron James’ finals record comes up, the reaction should not be one of scorn or derision. Instead, we may be better served appreciating that James could at once play both King and Kingmaker and make such a record possible at all.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and Basketball Reference. Stats are current as of 6/2.