At some point, LeBron James will fade. Age will be his red sun — the thing that takes away his powers and makes him a mortal. Someday, probably sooner rather than later, LeBron will fully cede his title as the league’s best player to someone — Giannis Antetokounmpo? Karl-Anthony Towns? Someone else? — just now starting to emerge. It may not be as clean as Jordan retiring the year before LeBron was drafted No. 1 overall, but it will happen.
There have been moments since LeBron returned where it seemed like that moment may have already happened without anyone noticing. For two years, Stephen Curry was the league’s deserving MVP for two straight years. Kevin Durant exists, as does Kawhi Leonard. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are really, really good and put forth incredible individual seasons in 2016-17. And James’ play — the often unaware defense, the settling for contested jumpers and his general apathy for the regular season — at times had fed into the myth that he is no longer LeBron.
This season, though, was not that, at least not to the degree he had been. Maybe it was the 2016 Finals — where James and the Cavs did their best 1990s, Dan Jurgens Superman impression in coming back from 3-1 — that caused this, as James was incredible the series’ last three games. In 2016-17, a year where James wasn’t always engaged on defense and sometimes held back, he was still a legitimate MVP candidate. His minutes load — a league-high 37.8 per game — didn’t keep him from scoring more points per game, dishing out more assists per game and pulling down more rebounds per game than his previous two seasons in Cleveland. In his age 31-32 season, James improved as a three-point shooter while taking almost an attempt more per game. And while his averages were not as flashy as Westbrook’s or Harden’s, he joined them, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only players ever to average 26, eight and eight for a full season.
He was even better in the playoffs too. Lost in a five-game loss to Golden State was James averaging a triple-double. Aside from Game 3 against the Celtics, James was at his best. His assist numbers dropped slightly, but his scoring, rebounding and shooting numbers went up. On defense, up until the Warriors series when it simply wasn’t workable, Tyronn Lue deployed him as the Cavs’ Jabrill Peppers. It didn’t save Cleveland’s defense, but it made it passable. No other player on the Cavs’ roster could have done this. And lest anyone forget that the Cavs were 17 points worse per 100 possessions in the regular season when LeBron sat and 30.7 points worse in the playoffs, per basketball-reference.com. The former is only slightly better than the difference between the net ratings of the league’s best team (the Warriors) and the worst (the Sixers). The latter almost doubles it.
James’ on-off numbers certainly reflect poorly on his teammates. Any team will struggle when its best player sits. But a team with Kyrie Irving and and Kevin Love — two stars, two players capable of carrying on offense — shouldn’t struggle as much as the Cavs did this year. Maybe they do because their intensity level drops, which speaks to James’ importance as a tone setter. (I mean, who do you think is the main reason the Cavs viewed the regular season with such little value?) Maybe it gives teams a boost to see LeBron sit, even for a moment. But, whatever the reason, it speaks to James’ ability that the Cavs’ 103.7 offense rating — the same as the 23rd ranked Dallas Mavericks, who missed the playoffs — when he sits. In the playoffs, the offense with LeBron in 120 of a possible 864 minutes had an offensive rating of 104.1 — .5 points worse than the 21st ranked Chicago Bulls, per nba.com/stats.
It’s perhaps too simplistic to say, but the Warriors biggest advantage on the Cavs may have been always having one of Curry or Durant on the court. Golden State just never cratered in the way Cleveland did. And while it’s not as extreme, it’s telling that LeBron’s all-around numbers are more like Westbrook or Harden’s than Curry’s or Durant’s. It begs the question: what would the Cavs be, really, without LeBron?
And what is the Justice League without Superman, really? They are still the Greek Gods, but missing Zeus and his lightning bolts. It’s a still potent force, great at certain things, but missing its biggest weapon. With Superman, it’s a force only something with multiple marvels can really stop. With its most powerful hero, it is never out of a fight.
That is what LeBron is for Cleveland. He is the ultimate equalizer, the one being that keeps the Cavs in games and in the Finals year after year. Age, his 50,399 minutes across 14 seasons or maybe a departure to the West next summer, will change that. But the Cavs have at least another year of this. There is no one else that can do it. LeBron was, and is, the Cavs.