Prior to this season, LeBron James had won three NBA titles, three Finals MVP awards, four season MVP awards and two Olympic gold medals. He’s a fourteen-time All-Star and has been named to the All-NBA first team 12 times. Considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, he has accomplished truly unbelievable things over the course of a 15-year career.
Yet what LeBron has done in this NBA Finals has been more impressive than any of that. More impressive than the titles, than the MVP awards or the other accolades. Just getting to the NBA Finals — even if the Cavaliers eventually fall to the Warriors — is the biggest accomplishment of LeBron’s career to date.
Winning four MVP awards and being named to the All-Star team 14 times are both impressive, but for a player with LeBron’s talent, such things are almost to be expected. The championships in Miami were certainly a big deal, but LeBron did it surrounded by Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, both of whom were elite players at the top of their game during their four-year stint together in South Beach. And we can’t forget how LeBron willed the Cavaliers to a title in 2016, fighting back from a 3-1 deficit to shock the Warriors, who had just put together one of the greatest regular seasons in NBA history. Still, LeBron shared this momentous victory with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — two of the league’s best point guards and power forwards, respectively — as well as Tristan Thompson, who put together a really good series to help propel the Cavaliers.
2018 is an entirely different story. LeBron still has Kevin Love, though the former Timberwolves star does not possess the same elite talent that he once did. Tristan Thompson is a shell of his former self. JR Smith has lost his touch. Kyrie Irving is gone. When you boil it down, the guys who surrounded LeBron during his first three seasons back in Cleveland have either left the team or have lost a step or two. Today, the Cavaliers roster can best be summed up as LeBron James, a less effective Kevin Love and a whole bunch of rather ineffective role players.
But LeBron has made up for it all. He put the team on his back in the first round, the sheer force of his will propelling them to a victory over the Pacers in seven games. He absolutely dominated the Raptors in the second round, outperforming Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined in the box score. And finally, we just witnessed perhaps his most impressive display of all: defeating the Celtics in yet another seven-game series, despite being a road underdog and missing Kevin Love for the final two games. Coming in as the four seed, very few people expected the Cavaliers to perform the way they have. For the first time in many, many years, LeBron’s team was not the favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Against all odds, LeBron did it anyways.
So yes, these playoffs represent LeBron’s best work. Better than the championships in Miami, better than when he brought Cleveland its first-ever title. Those achievements were impressive, that is for sure. But LeBron at least had some support. In 2018, he’s been fighting on his own. And he’s done a damn good job.
Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu.