LeBron James created the modern NBA superteam. Now it will destroy him
The Cleveland star’s greatness created an arms race in basketball, and it has reached its apotheosis in the Warriors
By DJ Gallo
LeBron James’ basketball career has played out like the story of a comic book superhero, so it’s only fitting that his downfall should have a fittingly dramatic twist: that which he created became that which destroyed him.
James ushered in the modern NBA “superteam” in 2010 (distinct from the past eras of the Lakers in the 80s and Bulls in the 90s) when he signed with the Miami Heat to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. There he won two titles in four years and then returned to Cleveland for a new superteam with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. After losing to Golden State in the 2015 finals, Cleveland bested a mostly homegrown Warriors team a year ago and reclaimed James’ dominance over the league. The Warriors then decided they had to become an even greater superteam to get back on top, so they added Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and the rest – and the rest of the league – is history. LeBron’s excellence forced Golden State’s hand. He was too good for his own good. And now his team and the entire NBA is being laid to waste.
Sunday night’s Game 2 had to leave Cleveland fans, and all basketball fans who hoped for a competitive series, feeling even more hopeless than they did after Game 1. The Warriors had a different coach, the Cavs went with different uniforms, but the outcome was the same: a double-digit walk. Cleveland will now have to defend their homecourt to stay in the series.
But they will also have to take a game in Oakland in order to win the series. Knowing that full well, the Cavaliers were still unable to make Golden State sweat; the Warriors took the lead for good at the 7:38 mark of the first quarter and never relinquished it. And that was with Cleveland playing some pretty good basketball. Head coach Tyronn Lue felt the Cavs did well on defense despite giving up 40 points in the first quarter and 132 in the game. The Cavs shot 45% from the floor, cut their turnovers from 20 in Game 1 to nine in Game 2 and had LeBron at his full powers, as he put up 29 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists while only missing six shots. Yet they still lost by 19 points, only a three-point improvement over their 22-point Game 1 defeat. The Cavaliers are giving their best and so far it’s not good enough. It’s not even close.
Now for the obligatory mention that the Cavaliers were also down 2-0 in last year’s finals and were hearing many of the same things about how they had no shot of coming back. Cleveland even lost Game 2 of the 2016 finals by 33 points, a bigger margin than Sunday night’s defeat. But just looking at recent history and comparing scores from year-to-year is ignoring what’s actually happening out on the court. The Cavaliers and James didn’t play well in Game 2 last year; they did this year – Kyrie Irving excluded – and it still didn’t matter. And while it’s true the Cavaliers overcame 3-1 last year, the deficit feels more like 30-1 now. In fact, the Warriors have lost just one of their last 30 games – their only defeat since mid-March coming way back on 10 April to the Jazz. These Cavaliers are probably a more complete team than the one that brought a championship to Cleveland last year thanks to the additions of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams, while the Warriors – breaking news – added Kevin Durant. The best pure scorer on the planet and probably the second-best basketball player in the world doesn’t make the Warriors complete; he makes it near-impossible for other teams to compete. Ten Kyle Korvers or even 10 Deron Williams from five years ago don’t equal one Durant.
Cleveland’s 3-1 comeback was aided by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson struggling with their shooting touch. The chances of Curry and Thompson and now Durant, three of the top marksmen in the game, all being off on the same night are absurdly slim. It’s betting on the worst parlay of all-time. The trend isn’t in Cleveland’s favor either. Durant is shooting 60% from the floor and 52% from three in his last four games; Curry is hitting on 46% from the floor and 45% from three in the series so far after shooting at just a 40% clip last year; and even Thompson snapped out of his prolonged slump in Game 2 to hit on 4-of-7 threes. The Cavs’ best shot at getting all three in a slump might just be calling on the powers of Cleveland sports legend Jobu.
Conventional wisdom entering the series was that having LeBron would be enough to steal one or two games for the Cavaliers. Maybe LeBron, Irving playing his A-game and the Cleveland crowd would be enough for them to manage three wins. And then anything can happen in a Game 7, right? That was the path. That path seems pretty hard to see now, blocked by the long, spindly arms of Kevin Durant and a thousand Steph Curry mouthpieces.
The Cavs can get one, maybe two. But thinking they have a shot to win it all feels too far-fetched for even a comic book. The other superheroes have teamed up to take out LeBron and all Cleveland can do now is watch it happen.