My NBA watching has taken a sad nose dive in 2015 but I'm excited that I'll be able to watch more consistently as the Eastern Conference Finals begin tonight. Part of it is sheer love for the game but I'm also very intrigued by some of the historical dynamics at play.
The next 3 or 4 weeks may prove to be the stretch in which LeBron James cements his place as the greatest forward to ever play basketball. I’d argue that he’s already there and that whenever he retires, there is likely to be a gulf separating James from Barkley, Bird, Baylor, Erving, Garnett, Havlicek, Malone and the rest of the all-time great forwards. The next few weeks might convince some of the last remaining skeptics.
Consider that with victories over the top seeded Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Rockets-Warriors* victor in the NBA Finals, James would lead his teams to 5 straight Finals appearances and titles in 3 of those seasons.# That specific level of sustained brilliance has been rarely achieved in the NBA. Russell’s Celtics are the only team to do it and James (along with teammate James Jones) would be the first individual to do it since.
As impressive as that feat would be historically, considering the context of this Cleveland Cavalier team, another championship might well be King James’ crowning achievement. At the beginning of the season there were high hopes for this team because of their formidable trio of All-Stars. Their Big 3 enters the conference finals as a Big 1 ½.
The Cavs mortgaged their future to acquire Kevin Love from the Timberwolves, hoping he could replicate Chris Bosh’s success with James in Miami. Love is out for the season after suffering a Minnesota Wrecking Crew style shoulder separation. Kyrie Irving, the Cavs incumbent star, was presumed to fill the Dwyane Wade role this year but Irving is suffering from multiple injuries and limped awkwardly through the end of the Bulls series.
The current third member of the Cavs Big 3 is Timofey Mozgov. It’s true. Folks, we are not talking about Robert Parish and Kevin McHale here. Apologies for referencing Moses Malone and Andrew Toney in this context. Yes, the mere comparison is embarrassing.
And it gets worse! The rest of the Cavs team is a “clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk”, to quote the Wizard of Oz. Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are their fourth, fifth and sixth best players. Please read that sentence again.
If James can lead this team to a title he’ll have demonstrated that his two year MVP drought has no bearing on his continuing status as the best player in the game. He will also be able to make the case that none of the other contenders for BEST FORWARD EVER ever won a title with such a motley crew.
The amazing thing is, LeBron James is good enough to pull it off. Would you bet against him?
*- Especially the Warriors. With a championship, they would cement themselves as one of the greatest seasons ever. They 67 wins, MVP, and runners-up for Coach of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Beating this team will be an historical feather in the cap.
#- It would actually be 3 rings in 4 years.