LeBron James passed Michael Jordan in career playoff scoring last night. In addition to adding some kindling to the fire that is the Jordan vs. James greatest of all-time debate, that milestone serves as a reminder to the NBA community that James has now lived a long NBA life full of moments that will live forever in NBA history. It is the upcoming match-up against this Warriors team, however, that is the greatest test of LeBron’s career.
In 2007, LeBron was given a task of taking that notoriously untalented Cavaliers team to the promised land. He beat a very talented Detroit Pistons team in the Eastern Conference, but he was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. This was no doubt a great test, but one in which LeBron, as the world recognizes, was designed to fail.
No player would have been able to beat three hall of famers (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan) in their prime playing for a hall of fame coach (Gregg Popovich) while being guarded himself by a five-time All-NBA 1st Team defender. James was 22 years old during this series with Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson, Larry Hughes, and Drew Gooden being most of the other players in the Cavaliers’ starting line-up.
In following years, LeBron proved he was still not ready for greatness. LeBron’s improved Cavalier teams were still defeated by the elite Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic teams of the late 2000s. Every legend earned their stripes by having to overcome the existing juggernaut of the day; Jordan had the Pistons, Bird and Magic had each other, Chamberlain had Russell – the list goes on and on.
Then came the decision. As those Celtics and Magic teams that haunted him left their primes, James came into his own. He started a streak of making it to the NBA Finals in the 2010-2011 season that remains active today. After the decision, LeBron truly became the King in a sense that winning in the NBA boiled down to being able to contain James above all else.
In the past, containing James as the Celtics and Magic did – while impressive nonetheless, was only a stepping stone to greatness. One still had to go through Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, or whatever team existed after the Cavaliers. In the post-decision NBA world, beating LeBron and the Heat in the post season was it. That was the synthesis of a team’s effort.
On the other hand, LeBron himself, while he did lose in 2011 and 2014, proved his ability to win on the game’s greatest stage. For one, he quite literally beat not only the Celtics team that beat him during the late 2000s en route to the NBA Finals, but he also beat the defensive mastermind of those teams, Tom Thibodeau, and Thibodeau’s team with a player who stole the 2011 MVP award from James (Derrick Rose) and multiple all-stars (Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah.)
In the 2012 Finals, LeBron proved he could beat a team that outmatched his team physically. The Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka led Oklahoma City Thunder, while under-matched in experience, were right there with Miami in terms of talent, but the team also featured objectively better athletes across the board.
Besides the unbelievably athletic LeBron James, the rest of the Heat were about at league average in their athleticism. The Thunder, on the other hand, featured a 7’0″ guard in Durant, the unrelenting Westbrook, the best shot blocker in the league (at the time) Ibaka, and Harden, Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha weren’t slouches either physically. Patrolling the paint was long-time Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. LeBron passed this test with flying colors as he dismantled the Thunder in five games.
In 2013, LeBron faced a new test. His team now held the upperhand in the physical attribute department. What he faced now was a system that rivals any in NBA history. It was Popovich’s team that had swept him in 2007, but now he had Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, and Chris Bosh as his teammates to match-up with the Spurs hall of famers. It was a long seven game series, and San Antonio was one defensive rebound away from winning it all in game six, but James defeated the Spurs and their superior system of floor spacing and two-way team basketball.
James would lose to this system in 2014, and he lost again in 2015 after re-joining Cleveland, but losing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for the finals match-up against the Golden State Warriors. In 2016, however, with a healthy Irving and Love, James came back from being down 3-1 to beat a Golden State team with the best regular season record of all-time (73-9.)
One might think this was the greatest test of LeBron’s career, but last year’s Warriors team is not even close to the juggernaut this year’s Warriors team is when considering playoff success. Last year’s Warriors team, despite the 73-9 regular season record, were too imperfect.
They lacked a reliable source of offense when Stephen Curry was guarded by a physical sizable defender, and were beaten in every series en route to the Finals; Houston got one win against them round one, as did Portland in round two. Oklahoma City even led the Warriors 3-1 in the series before Golden State made a monumental comeback, the same type of comeback that Cleveland made being down 3-1 against the Warriors to defeat the Warriors in the 2016 Finals.
This year has been a completely different story. Yes, LeBron has shown his own dominance this post season with a 12-1 record and not allowing the #1 seed Celtics to lead for a single second in their TD Garden stadium, but Golden State has been 12-0, firmly dominating over Portland, Utah, and even San Antonio, albeit a Spurs team without Tony Parker, David Lee, and Kawhi Leonard.
Even if Stephen Curry is more neutralized than in the past two seasons, these Warriors are completely different in that Stephen Curry’s efficiency is almost a luxury when Kevin Durant is healthy. Durant can create offense as well as anyone in the NBA, and Harrison Barnes‘ atrocious performance (9.3 points per game on 35.2% shooting) in the starting line-up last season is the polar opposite of the greatness that can be expected out of Durant, who, even when losing to James in the 2012 Finals in five games, still averaged 30.6 points on 54.8% shooting and 39.4% from three. Andrew Bogut was also injured last year, and the Warriors aren’t dealing with injuries this season.
The Warriors also have the mental edge. They come into the playoff series with more rest, as well as 11 months of being reminded that LeBron James beat them in their last match-up. Draymond Green missed the turning point of last year’s series when Cleveland begun their comeback due to suspension. Green only has two technical fouls this postseason, and there is no looming threat of his suspension.
Another edge Golden State has is in coaching. With no disrespect to Tyronn Lue, he is simply unestablished. Most outsiders to the Cavaliers organization believe that he is a puppet of LeBron James’. Golden State is missing Steve Kerr, but the acting head coach on Golden State is Mike Brown: a man who was James’ head coach for five years and regarded as a defensive specialist. If one were to entrust anyone to come up with a defensive scheme aimed at containing James, it would be either Popovich or Brown.
This is the greatest test of LeBron James’ career because this is the first time he has both a team capable of winning the NBA Championship and the experience, but he is also the most over-matched in nearly every facet of the game (talent, coaching, shooting, athleticism, mental edge.) The only advantage James has in this series is being the best player in this series.
Even last year, the Cavaliers showed that they had the edge in talent after neutralizing Stephen Curry. With a Cavaliers team that is facing definite future hall of famers Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, as well as present and former all-stars Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and David West, Cleveland has the talent advantage in one player and one player only: LeBron James. The question is whether that is enough to win the series.