I admit sometimes LeBron can be insufferable. Oftentimes he comes off as inauthentic; it’s as though he’s trying to create his own narrative rather than letting it happen organically. The only thing bigger than LeBron’s muscles is his ego. As a fan, I too cringe when I hear him repeatedly talk about himself as the leader of ‘his’ team and “my guys”. If I had a penny for every time this season he said “As the leader of this team. . .”, I would have a lot of pennies. It is fairly obvious that he often suffers from an acute lack of self-awareness. His egomania does seem to come from a place of good intent, and I would argue that he is simply trying to live up to the narrative bar that he has set so impossibly high for himself. The same bar his haters hold him to. Though it makes it no less difficult to watch one of the greatest and most unselfish athletes we have ever seen in any sport, constantly provide egotistical fodder for the haters.
I see a team less talented than his Heat teams, but more willing to fight with LeBron than any previous team he has played on. I see a team that picks LeBron up, mentally and emotionally, just as much as he picks them up.
There is, however, a redeeming quality to his perceived narcissism; it all stems from his drive to succeed. Everything he does can be traced back to his unrelenting thirst to achieve everything he’s been told he was supposed to achieve since he was 14 years old. Yes, he believes his own hype. That fact is understandably irritating at times. Although, it cannot be ignored that he has had to work unbelievably hard to remain in the same stratosphere of that hype, and to a very real extent, his belief in his own hype is actually a belief in his reality. It is the work, the knowledge of the game, and ultimately his GAME that his teammates believe in and follow, not his words. The way he elevates his teammates, and the benefit of the extra spotlight that comes with making a run to the NBA Finals does not hurt either.
If the team were losing I imagine there would be a lot of eye rolling going on in the locker room. If you want to see an example of the awkwardness the Lebron “leadership” narrative places on some of his teammates, watch Kyrie Irving attempt to answer a question from a reporter regarding Lebron being a father figure. Yet here we are, Lebron back in the finals for the fifth straight season, and he has never been better as a leader than he is right now. Even Kyrie, the most independent of the Cavs who is worthy of his own spotlight – if he was not injured, and least likely to simply bend to Lebron’s will, cannot help but speak glowingly of Lebron in ways he has never done before. Six days before the start of the finals, Kyrie was quoted as saying about James, “I think a true testament of him is that he embodies a leader. The true testament and the word team is embodied with the guys we have here. We have so many different personalities and so many guys, when you have a leader like him that brings you up and lifts you up in every situation, there’s never going to be a time where you look at him and he’s going to look frazzled or doesn’t know what he’s doing“.
I have never seen a LeBron team more invested in LeBron’s success than this Cavaliers team. Despite the cringe-worthy quotes from LeBron, his teammates respond to his leadership in a way that none of his previous teams ever did. In his previous stint with the Cavaliers , he did not know how to lead his team the way he does now. And while he learned how to lead in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley, he did not have anything close to the responsibility of leading that Heat team as he has taken on with this Cavaliers team. Credit to his teammates for buying in, and credit to Coach Blatt for figuring out a way to navigate around LeBron’s ego, and allowing LeBron to take ownership of the team, without losing control of the team entirely. They’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season when Blatt literally had to navigate around Lebron to get control of team huddles during timeouts.
Maybe they will be overwhelmed by the talent and depth of Golden State as many of the pundits are predicting. It is just hard to imagine this particular Cavaliers team going down without a nasty fight.
The odds are stacked against the Cavaliers in the finals against the Warriors . For good reason, the Warriors are a juggernaut. Even so, I have never been more excited for a LeBron lead team than this year’s Cavaliers. Most people look at LeBron’s stats and workload from this postseason and see LeBron carrying this team as much, or more, than he has had to carry other teams in the past. I see a different picture. I see a team less talented than his Heat teams, yet more willing to fight with LeBron than any previous team he has played on. Partly because they have to and partly because they want to. I see a team that picks LeBron up, mentally and emotionally, just as much as he picks them up. Previous Lebron lead teams, Heat and Cavs, champions and losers, have relied entirely on Lebron to carry them, and when he couldn’t, they quit (and so did Lebron). I don’t see quit in this group. I see a team that will not wilt under pressure nor shy away from a fight. Tristan Thompson is relentless, Matthew Dellavedova is a pest, J.R. Smith is fearless, Iman Shumpert is a gifted playmaker, Tomofey Mozgov doesn’t know any better, and Kyrie Irving gutting it out on an injured foot and knee is just another testament to how special this group is. This team has guts and I’m proud to root for them, win or lose.
Maybe they will be overwhelmed by the talent and depth of Golden State as many of the pundits are predicting. What is hard to imagine is this particular Cavaliers team going down without a nasty fight. There are stylistic differences that lend an air of unpredictability to these NBA Finals. Can the Cavs force the Warriors to play a slower pace? Without question, the Cavaliers will have to find a way to muck up these NBA Finals if it wants to have a chance of winning. It will take Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova flinging their bodies around the court and creating as much havoc as possible. The Cavs will have to be to the Warriors what the Celtics and Bulls were to the Cavs in the first two rounds of the playoffs – the more physically aggressive team.
In a major way, it feels like these Cavaliers are the last line of defense for the East Coast way of playing basketball, against the new wave pace and space that is taking over the NBA. Pun intended. Nostalgia is not a stock I often invest it, but I still hold a great deal of nostalgia for East Coast basketball. Think 80’s Pistons, 90’s Knicks and Pacers, and even the 90’s Bulls. It’s not pretty basketball, but it’s gritty and it’s how I grew up watching the game. I never jumped on the Sun’s bandwagon under Nash and D’Antoni, and I haven’t warmed up to this Golden State team the way the rest of America apparently has. Cliché, I’m a hater. In truth, it’s hard to distinguish whether the east/west dichotomy between the Cavs and Warriors is more symbolic than real.* The Cavs have shot and made nearly the same amount of three pointers as the Warriors this post-season, and the Warriors had the top ranked defense in the regular season.
Regardless, there is no question that the Cavs will need some magic if they are going to defeat the Warriors. Between Lebron’s comeback story, the losses of Kevin Love and a healthy Kyrie Irving coupled with the emergence of Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova, and the fearless play of J.R. Smith, and most importantly Iman Shumpert’s lightning fast damage control to avoid the Lil B Curse, it feels like this team might just have the magic it takes to pull off such an upset. Though, sometimes magic runs into a buzzsaw.
*Actually it’s literal.