But now we have a series heading back to Golden State tied 2-2, where if anything the Cavs actually let one slip away against a superior team, and it’s all LeBron – he is averaging an insane 35.75 points, 12 rebounds and 8.25 assists a game, playing like the alpha dog we know he is. And it made me wonder, did the Cavs ever really need another superstar?
There is no denying that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are the second and third most talented basketball players on the Cavs roster. But there is also no denying that without them, the Cavs are significantly – vastly – improved in two key facets of the game: defense and rebounding. This wasn’t just addition by subtraction, of course – Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson have been better than advertised.
And watching these changes happen to the Cavs over the course of a week or so made me think about, really, how good LeBron has been to keep showing up in the finals all these years, because he has never once had the right kind of team built around him. Sure, they were good in Miami – they had some really good players – but it was still slapped together, and at the end of the day, it was still LeBron carrying them through the playoffs when they needed it most. Before that, the first time through Cleveland, I mean – let’s not even talk about that team, and still they were deep in the playoffs on the regular. And now, back with his hometown team, they made the effort. They put together the superteam. But they still didn’t put together a team.
LeBron has played well enough that people have begun to have the ‘best ever” conversation. And sure, admittedly, I am old enough to think that anyone who entertains that idea obviously didn’t watch MJ play. And yet, when you think about those Bulls teams, there was only one alpha dog. There was only one guy who carried that team when they needed it, who did whatever the team needed to win at all times, who took the last shot every. single. time. Yes, they had a lot of talent, but they had the right kind of talent. Pippen could score some, but you know what Pippen was? He was the best defensive player in the NBA. Horace Grant had 131 blocks in their first championship season. 131 BLOCKS!! Talk about a rim protector. Dennis Rodman could guard four positions and average 16 boards a game. B.J. Armstrong, John Paxson and Steve Kerr could shoot. These were role players on steroids. And that team won 72 games in one regular season, and maybe, just maybe, could have matched Russell’s Celtics with eight straight titles if everything broke right.
MJ struggled for years as the best player on bad teams, winning scoring titles and dunk contests. Then he finally got a good cast around him, finally outlasted Bird’s Celtics and managed to out-muscle the Bad Boy Pistons, and took his own seat at the top of the heap, and stayed there. LeBron had his version of those Pistons teams in the Pierce/KG Celtics, and the narrative so far was basically that he got together a few of his closest buddies to finally take them out down in Miami.
But as good as Wade and Bosh were and are, this edition of the Cavs might now, after all the injuries, be the closest thing LeBron has had to that perfect collection of role players. This team actually makes sense, they just aren’t Pippen and Horace Grant. They’re just role players, plus LeBron. What if you replaced Dellavedova not with Kyrie but with… Jeff Teague? What if instead of J.R. Smith there was Jimmy Butler? Khris Middleton? What if instead of Kevin Love at PF, they had Tristan Thompson AND Andrew Wiggins? Imagine that.
LeBron shouldn’t have to be the best player in the league and also his team’s GM. Maybe he’s not the guy who needed to throw together a superteam to win, but a guy who didn’t know any better, and has been stuck in a lose-lose situation for his entire career, always at one extreme or the other: either an alpha dog with no help or the best cog in a dysfunctional machine, struggling to drag a poorly conceived team to greatness either way.