Editor’s Note: At the time that this article was written, the 2015 NBA Finals series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors had not begun. Hence, Kyrie Irving had not sustained his season-ending knee injury. While on the surface this would make the content of this piece less sensical, I nevertheless stand by the spirit of the message because of a previously-established precedent and my belief that its premise would have applied even if Kyrie had remained healthy.
An article on the reputable FiveThirtyEight.com, titled “Where This Year’s Cavs Rank Rank Among LeBron’s NBA Finals Supporting Casts” and written by Neil Paine, attempts to posit that this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers squad sans LeBron actually represents the third-worst team “carried” by its best player since 1985. To my unfortunate lack of surprise, with less than a week to go until the 2015 NBA Finals gets underway, smart and credible journalists armed with the almighty power of analytics have begun to suggest that the Cavs are woefully outmatched and don’t stand a chance if LeBron is anything other than otherworldly throughout the duration of the series against the Golden State Warriors.
“If we look at a multi-year Statistical Plus/Minus talent projection for every NBA Finals team, this Cavs team ranks as the ninth-least talented NBA finalists since 1985… Remove James, and things get even more dire; his supporting cast ranks as the third-worst team carried by its best player to the NBA Finals since 1985.” -Neil Paine, FiveThirtyEight.com
Seriously? Statistical Plus/Minus talent projection? I don’t even know what that means, but I have always been on the side of people like Charles Barkley who believe that analytics is garbage. Not to make this about my views on analytics, but it is relevant to my premise. In my opinion, analytics serve the purposes of confusing fans and providing numbers-speak owners with the justification they need to feel comfortable with franchise decisions. Their influence has never been conducive to winning championships. The NBA is and will always be about talent and personality management. Analytics will make you the most accurate corner three-point shooting team in the league, which will get you to the conference finals at best before losing to a team that is better coached, has better players, or both. But here they are, rearing their ugly head by being used to suggest that once again, LeBron is dragging a bunch of bums to the finals.
This is the problem that most sports fans have with LeBron. He gets the benefit of the ultimate double standard in sports. Team success is attributed entirely to him, and blame for team failure never seems to come his way. The only exception to this is the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, in which LeBron’s inexplicable disappearing acts during the fourth quarter of those games is often cited for why the Miami Heat were unable to pull it out. But even then, aspersions from LeBron apologists were equally placed on the lack of team chemistry and LeBron and Dwayne Wade’s at-the-time awkward is this your team or my team shaky dynamic. For the majority of his career, LeBron has been able to escape criticism from legacy framers, namely the media, who reconcile his playoff failures with the rationale that he doesn’t have enough help. It’s sickening.
To be fair, I should probably edit the title of this piece to reflect that these are the reasons why I despise LeBron. I won’t do that because I believe that most fans are sensible, rational human beings with the ability to adequately substantiate why they root for or against him or any other player. Contrary to what Colin Cowherd may say during his radio show, most NBA fans who root against LeBron aren’t emotionally distraught and irrational sycophants. There is logic and reason that serves to fortify their position, and in my estimation, this is that reason. People like him just disagree with that position, which is okay.
So what is this double standard that I speak of? As an example, I call into question the climate of the NBA during the 2008-2009 season as it pertains to the Cleveland Cavaliers during their first stint with LeBron as its centerpiece. Let’s analyze some of the numbers from that team, which made it to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the eventual Finals runner-up Orlando Magic (If the LeBron zealots and apologists can use analytics to bolster their claims, then dammit so can I.).
During the season in question, the Cavs got off to a hot start and stayed hot thanks in large part to a team that was tailor-made for maximizing LeBron’s skill-set. A ball-dominant player like LeBron benefits most from being surrounded by players who aren’t necessarily dynamic offensive players individually, but are hardworking defenders who are very adept at certain specializations – chiefly among them rebounding, pick-and-roll efficiency and three-point shooting. Guys like Daniel Gibson, an aged Zydrunas Ilgauskus, Mo Williams, Ben Wallace and Delonte West are representative of such a roster. By seasons-end, this Cavaliers team had succeeded in becoming 13th in the NBA in points-per-game (100.3), 1st in the NBA in opponents points-per-game (91.4), 4th in the NBA in offensive rating (112.4), and 3rd in the NBA in defensive rating (102.4), all culminating in an NBA-best 66-16 record, an MVP for LeBron, and the number one overall playoff seeding.
They were prohibited favorites by all outlets and accounts to win the NBA title. As the regular season drew to a close, commentators like Stephen A. Smith, who was hosting a radio show on Fox Sports Radio at the time, proclaimed them the best team in the league and the eventual NBA champions once they took down the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. It was a forgone conclusion: LeBron was God’s gift to basketball and nothing short of the apocalypse was going to stop him from obtaining his first ring. But somehow, that did not happen. As it turned out, LeBron and the Cavs lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Orlando Magic, and low and behold, the world was still spinning after they were eliminated!
While ESPN and the rest of the LeBron idolaters were trying to figure out how in God’s name LeBron and the Cavs lost that series, it was pretty easy for me to deduce. LeBron is a ball-dominant player whose abilities hinge on him being the only dynamic offensive wing player. Because he isn’t a proficient shooter, but so proficient at everything else, the only way that you can maximize his abilities with respect to the players around him is if he uses his physicality to do damage in the paint, thereby drawing double-teams and leaving guys open on the perimeter to hit open jumpers. This is enough to get you the best record in the league during the regular season and get LeBron another MVP award because of the stat-stuffing variety of his game. But in the postseason, when teams have enough time to gameplan for you in a seven game series, you can run into a buzzsaw and risk being sent home.
Additionally, the Orlando Magic were tailor-made to beat a team like the Cavaliers because of their ability to reasonably guard LeBron 1on1 and recover on open shooters due to their superior length. Outside of the Lakers, the Magic probably had the longest team in the league that year with starters Rashard Lewis (6’10), Hedo Turkoglu (6’10), Courtney Lee (6’5) and Dwight Howard (6’11). If that wasn’t enough, reserve troops off the bench in Mickael Pietrus (6’6) and Marcin Gortat (6’11) were more than enough to keep the pressure on when the starters were resting on the bench. It was the perfect storm that Cleveland wished they didn’t have to set sail against.
Given this, it was quite clear to me why the Cavaliers lost that series. At the time, I wasn’t quite in the anti-LeBron camp. The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way as it pertained to LeBron was the fact that as a Kobe Bryant fan, I felt as though Kobe was still the best player in the game despite the fact that ESPN was seemingly pushing an agenda to anoint that distinction to LeBron. That aside, I was still accepting of LeBron’s high praise. I didn’t have too much against him, but he simply didn’t get it done against the Magic. As the transcendent superstar, he had to be assigned a considerable amount of the culpability for failing. He fell short, and he, along with the rest of the roster, was exposed for his relative shortcomings given his opponent.
That isn’t what ESPN and Fox Sports and NBC Sports was telling us. What these outlets wanted us to buy was the notion that LeBron didn’t have enough help. They wanted us to believe that after running roughshod over the league throughout the season, earning a 66-16 record and being identified as the preeminent favorite to win the NBA championship, in the end, LeBron didn’t have enough help. This drove me to the brink of insanity. It was utterly nonsensical for me to even attempt to comprehend how you can be a prohibited favorite one day, and then a week later be given the concession of not having enough help. I was dumbfounded and annoyed, but nevertheless accepting of the fact that LeBron had amassed a great deal of media cache that afforded him this one free pass.
I let it go and moved on with life. Kobe won another ring and I was good. It did, however, begin to shape how I truly felt about him. Whereas prior to that series I was more indifferent towards him, I now found myself being nudged in the direction of the anti-LeBron camp because I was beginning to read the tealeaves of overt LeBron media subjectivism. Still, I pushed forward with my indifference, hoping that this was an aberration not to rear its ugly head again.
But alas, I was wrong. The following season, the LeBron-led 2009-2010 Cleveland Cavaliers fell short to the Boston Celtics. To be fair, the Cavs weren’t prohibited favorites to win it all that year, but they were given considerable chances to advance past the Celtics and win the first championship in franchise history. Nevertheless, upon losing, we were once again told that LeBron didn’t have enough help. The team was good enough to be capable of winning a title thanks to LeBron carrying the entire franchise on his shoulders, but once they lost, it wasn’t that he couldn’t actually deliver on such ridiculous expectations, but that everyone else just wasn’t good enough to give him what he needed to turn water to wine.
The following season, we were given our repentance when LeBron joined the Miami Heat and fell short to the Dallas Mavericks. After being declared the prohibited favorite once again, LeBron lost to Dallas amid LeBron inexplicably falling back at pivotal moments during the series. His failure was so glaring, the legacy framers had no choice but to acknowledge that he didn’t get it done. I would have rathered his performance not be so abysmal so as to not make it easy for LeBron apologists to relent and admit that blame for team failure was rightfully his burden to bare, but I took what I could get and became hopeful that balance had been restored to the Force. I was wrong.
Two seasons later, the Heat are favorites going in to a rematch against the San Antonio Spurs before losing in 5 games largely because the Spurs’ decisive approach to running a holistic offense was too much for the LeBron-centric Heat to overcome. Furthermore, the impetus to make LeBron the sole arbiter of offensive structure for the Heat facilitated the limited impact that fellow stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh could have on offense individually. I truly believed that there was no way the “not enough help” excuse could be used. The TEAM was simply too heavily favored at the start of the series! If it was, the LeBron agenda would in effect be exposing itself, and I knew such a thing could not happen.
So in the aftermath of the conclusion of the series, I waited to hear what the pundits would say about how LeBron’s legacy was damaged and how he failed to live up to the King James moniker. I expected the national narrative to consist of a referendum on LeBron’s below-500 Finals record and how there needs to be an objective, sensible analysis of where he stands as an all-time great. This isn’t what I got. What I got was “LeBron showed up, the rest of the team didn’t”, and, “LeBron didn’t get the help he needed against the Spurs”, and, “Dwayne Wade was hurt and old”. Hell, some people even used the AC failure in game 1 as a conspiratorial argument as to why the league wanted Lebron to lose. I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading and hearing.
It was at that time that my pension for preferring that LeBron lose turned into an all-out painstaking, lustful desire to see him fail. It was never going to be his fault, and I saw that come to fruition before my very eyes. No matter the circumstances, playoff failures and shortcomings were always going to be accompanied with a shirked assessment of responsibility when it came to LeBron. Before, I was of the opinion that there was an overt agenda being pushed to have LeBron be considered the G.O.A.T. After the 2014 Finals, I now believed it to be a matter of fact. I had no choice but to become this way because if he was going to be able to come out of the other side of failure completely unscathed, no matter the expectations, I might as well reconcile that reality with the failure itself; and much to my anticipated horror, it’s happening again!
Articles like Neil Payne’s FiveThirtyEight piece are planting the seeds for LeBron exemption if the Cavaliers don’t pull it out against the Warriors. They’re priming the narrative. They’re getting ready to say that LeBron’s supporting cast is the third-worst in NBA history in the last 30 years so that upon losing, it would be because he didn’t have enough help. AGAIN! If the Cavs win, however, you’d best believe there will be a strong desire to officially proclaim him the greatest player who ever lived. It certainly won’t be because the players around him are actually good players. Far be it for them to actually be worth something more than sludge that LeBron has to scrape off the side of the road as he drives toward a third championship. He is now and by all accounts will forever be in the ultimate win-win situation, and it’s utterly ridiculous.
In all honesty, I don’t think that LeBron should get blamed for his playoff shortcomings all the time. I do think that sometimes he doesn’t have enough help. In the 2007 Finals against the Spurs, such a claim was applicable. I don’t think that the superstar has to get the blame for team failures at every turn, but to be able to sidestep criticism at each and every juncture is representative of a double standard that not every superstar is given the luxury of benefiting from. This is not 2007, and this year’s Cavs team, even without Kevin Love, is considerably improved compared to the 2007 squad. To suggest that LeBron is carrying around a bunch of bums in the postseason this year does his very viable teammates a grave disservice and exposes the desire by the legacy framers to covet LeBron as a quasi-Moses basketball figurehead who is always carrying the weight of any given roster on his shoulders. Kyrie Irving, JR Smith – moody temperament and all – Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mosgov are a far cry from Larry Hughes, Daniel Gibson, Damon Jones, and Ira Newbel. It’s simply unfair and inaccurate.
Aside from LeBron, the only other person that I can think of who gets such treatment is Tom Brady. When the New England Patriots win, it’s because Brady is the greatest ever, and when they lose, it’s because his receivers aren’t elite or the Patriots have failed to give him adequate playmakers through the draft and free agency. It’s never because Brady wasn’t good enough. I can recall a game against the Buffalo Bills in which Tom Brady proceeded to throw four interceptions en route to a loss. After the game, I had to talk myself down from shooting my ears off so that I would no longer have to listen to Trent Dilfer explain to me why each of the four interceptions was not Tom Brady’s fault during the 11pm Sportscenter broadcast.
Again, perhaps such a take was accurate and not every interception was Brady’s fault. However, because it was Brady, such a claim was being made whereas had it been another superstar quarterback, my belief is that there would have been blamed assessed on his behalf. No other superstars get such treatment. Kobe was blamed for everything, even in victory, and not even more likeable transcendent stars like Peyton Manning or Tim Duncan get such favorable treatment. This is why there is such anti-LeBron and anti-Tom Brady sentiment amongst fans. I could care less how great their lives or beautiful they’re wives are. I, as well as many other fans, are not jealous of their personal lives, looks, money and success. The notion of such is a media-generated fallacy.
As I stated, I agree with the double standard in principle. The star can get all the credit for success and not get the blame for failures because most of the time, it’s true. My issue is with its application. The legacy framers seem to pick and choose who they want to give it to, and for the longest time now, it’s been LeBron and Tom Brady, and no one else. Unless we’re going to decide that only multi-championship-winning, international-media-magnate argual top-five idols have the right to benefit from the superstar double standard, the media needs to self-assess itself and be more cognizant and fair towards the narrative that it cultivates for superstar professional athletes.
The fact of the matter is no, it isn’t always LeBron’s fault. But it’s also not always Kobe’s fault, or Peyton’s fault, or Carmelo’s fault either. There needs to be more of a balance exercised on the part of the legacy framers when deciding who to blame for what in sports. Until they do, fans are going to continue to root against LeBron no matter what he accomplishes. The fact is that this year, LeBron DOES have help. He’s not carrying a bunch of talentless also-rans. Don’t worry Dellavedova, Dan Le Batard may refer to you as “Dellave-D-Leaguer”, but you and I know you’re actually a talented, serviceable NBA player.
What do you think? Am I exposing myself as a plain LeBron hater and simply rationalizing my emotions, or do I have a point and he gets away with a double standard no one else benefits from? Let me know in the comments section below!
Javis Ogden is a Miami native turned current Tallahassee transplant and the founder and chief contributor to Conscious Approach. He has worked as a creative content specialist since completing his graduate degree in Integrated Marketing at Florida State University, and he aspires to be a cultural critic, screenplay writer, ½ of the ESPN First Take debate panel, author, or whatever his short attention span will allow him to be inspired by at any given moment. When he isn’t pursuing freedom, you may be able to find him on an indoor basketball court. He is always in search of his muse. You can help him find it by following him on Twitter @JavisOgden, Instagram @JVWins, Facebook /JavisOgden, and snapchat JavisOgden.