Basketball historians will rightfully tell you that digging his team out of a 3-1 N.B.A. Finals ditch, winning a Game 7 on Golden State’s floor and lifting the so-called Cleveland Curse to deliver title glory to a long-suffering city adds up to peak LeBron James.
Two short years later, in the 2018 N.B.A. playoffs, James realistically has to be better now than he was then just to get back to the finals.
That is how deep the hole suddenly is for James and his Cleveland Cavaliers entering Saturday night’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the relentless Boston Celtics. Dragging this raggedy collection out of a 2-0 deficit to clinch the eighth consecutive finals appearance of James’ career, with no Kyrie Irving at his side to share the burden, would have to rank as the second-shiniest entry on his resume.
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Some league observers are bound to contest that view. Drew Gooden, who was a key member of Cleveland’s 2006-07 squad that James unexpectedly hauled to the finals in just his fourth pro season, did contest it loudly when he hopped on the phone with me this week, insisting that those Cavaliers were an even longer shot to get to the title round because of their collective lack of experience.
“You can’t compare this group to ours,” Gooden said. “This group has already won a championship. We were like a deer in headlights.”
Good points from Gooden, but I’m not budging. For all it supposedly lacked in terms of know-how, that Cleveland team ranked fifth in the league in defensive efficiency. It muscled past the second-ranked Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals when LeBron, not yet 23, scored the Cavaliers’ final 25 points in an unforgettable series-turning classic in Game 5.
The current Cavaliers finished 29th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency and were outscored by 40 points over the course of seven games in a first-round series against Indiana that the math says they should have never escaped. And they have been shredded twice in Boston by a club that lost Gordon Hayward just 5 minutes and 15 seconds into its season opener and has not had Irving in uniform since March 11.
James, as a result, finds himself in an 0-2 deficit in an Eastern Conference playoff series for the first time since (gulp) 2008 — even though he’s coming off a 42-point, 10-rebound, 12-assist performance.
The results of Tuesday night’s draft lottery, on top of the February trade spree that exiled Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, means Cleveland has replaced Irving with Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Ante Zizic and the No. 8 overall pick (via Brooklyn) in the N.B.A. draft next month. That fivesome combined to score five points in the Cavaliers’ 107-94 defeat in Game 2.
And then there is this distressing bit of history unearthed by my longtime ESPN colleague Brian Windhorst: The last No. 8 pick to achieve All-Star status was Vin Baker — who was selected eighth by Milwaukee way back in 1993. The jewel of the Irving trade return, in other words, turned out to be far less sparkly than expected, thanks to the plucky Nets posting only the league’s eighth-worst record.
The Other Cavaliers, as they were mockingly called in a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, figure to play better in the next two games at home. But when Boston is 8-0 at home in these playoffs and 37-0 as a franchise after seizing a 2-0 lead in any series, it is becoming a serious strain to imagine James leading Cleveland on a comeback.
Which means it is not too early to start picturing James in another uniform.
James has offered roughly zero hints about his future plans over the past nine months, but a move to a franchise better positioned for championship contention feels even more inevitable now than it did in 2010. That is when the Cavaliers were pounded by the Celtics in the conference semifinals, leading to James’s controversial defection to Miami.
James’s return to free agency is just 44 days away and — unless his wife and children tell him they cannot bear to leave Northern Ohio — what incentive would the native of nearby Akron have to stay with the Cavaliers beyond sentimentality?
Does James have some culpability here? Do the short-term contracts he has insisted on signing since returning to the Cavaliers in the summer of 2014 add to the immense win-now pressure and seemingly ceaseless drama that have smothered everyone involved with this franchise for four consecutive seasons? Sure.
Yet it’s most certainly not James’s fault that the team’s owner, Dan Gilbert, had a decaying relationship with the highly rated general manager David Griffin, which prompted an unforeseen parting in June 2017 — when Griffin was in the midst of trying to execute trades for the likes of Paul George and Jimmy Butler. Nor did James advise the Cavaliers to cave into Irving’s trade wishes last August and send him to Cleveland’s foremost rival in the conference when Irving still had two seasons left on his contract.
James was convinced that Cleveland should at least bring Irving to training camp to try to work out a truce and then trade him later if those efforts failed. Everyone is obviously smarter in hindsight, but regret in Cleveland over the refusal to go that route is inevitable after the failures of Thomas and Crowder to fit in, as well as the false hope spawned by the February trade spree.
It must be noted that James was initially fooled, too. He was as giddy as anyone after the Cavaliers’ first game following the acquisitions of Clarkson, Hill, Hood and Nance Jr. He reacted to Cleveland’s 22-point blitz of the Celtics in Boston by excitedly telling his teammate J.R. Smith: “We have a squad now.”
According to Smith’s version, which he relayed through the ESPN reporter Dave McMenamin at the time, James threw in an expletive for emphasis, so convinced he was that the infusion of athleticism and newness was just what Cleveland needed.
What Griffin’s successor Koby Altman was really trading for, of course, was a fully engaged LeBron. And, apart from his Game 1 clunker against the Celtics, James has never been better in the postseason — individually.
The rest, though, was a mirage.
LeBron’s rampages were barely sufficient against the Pacers and appear to be in vain against the Celtics when Al Horford is playing the most forceful two-way ball of his career. And when the irrationally confident Marcus Morris has helped limit James to 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting in their 56 head-to-head minutes. And when Boston’s savant of a coach, Brad Stevens, is getting so much out of the relative neophytes Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum while James is plagued with such intermittent help.
My personal rule when it comes to playoff prognostication is simple: You don’t pick against LeBron James when he is facing a fellow East resident. Even when he is halfway to elimination.
But I cannot muster the gumption to claim that James is about to lead the broken Cavaliers to four wins in next five games. Not even after three full off days to regroup and refuel.
Maybe he has faced more dire predicaments, but never before with a cast that is doing so little supporting.