When you see something you’ve never seen before, it can be hard to digest and understand at a basic level. Through the first five games, these NBA Finals have been confounding, and LeBron James, puppet master of the basketball world, has been manipulating them in a way that is borderline unprecedented.
We’ve all grasped the thought process behind what he’s been doing — holding the ball for damn near a quarter of every game, milking the clock, cutting turnovers and possessions, allowing teammates to rest, dragging the Warriors into a muddy slog that minimizes all of their advantages. It is both ugly and thrilling, and it has gotten this crew of Cleveland sad-sack leftovers halfway home against a 67-win powerhouse. He was using more possessions, and creating more of his team’s shots, than any player ever.
In the only way that matters, the strategy is working. “We don’t have to be better than these guys for 82 games,” Mike Miller says. “We just have to be better four times.”
But almost no one knows quite what to make of LeBron. He’s putting up monster numbers and clearly playing otherworldly hoops, but something feels a bit off — almost foreign. Has he crossed an unhealthy, unknown threshold of control? What standards can you even use to evaluate his play in this context? Is this just a totally unique basketball event? Does he really deserve Finals MVP, even if Golden State’s superior talent prevails?
Superstars hoarding the ball on the biggest stage isn’t new. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant chucked from midrange, Shaq and Tim Duncan bullied their way to titles, and Magic Johnson worked a hybrid post-passing game from the same slices of the court that James is wearing out now. But no extended bit of ball-dominance has ever been as out of step with prevailing league trends as LeBron’s Finals play in 2015.
“Could this be sustained?” Cavs coach David Blatt asked me from his office before Game 4. “No. Nor would we want it to be. I don’t know if it’s even sustainable for the rest of this series.”
You hear it over and over: “LeBron has no choice. This is the only way Cleveland can play without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.”
“Everyone wants to play beautiful basketball,” Timofey Mozgov says. “But in our situation now, that is not the best thing we can do. We have to be simple, with LeBron.”
Is that really true? That question nagged at me, and some members of both team brain trusts, earlier in the series. Basketball is a rhythm sport. It’s hard for role players to feel their way into a game when they never get to touch the ball, dribble it, set picks in scripted plays, and generally do basketball stuff.
The Cavs aren’t equipped to run an equal-opportunity offense, but perhaps they could splash in a few set plays for J.R. Smith, and maybe 10 more spread pick-and-rolls — plays on which LeBron could bend the defense, get bodies moving, kick the ball to Smith and Iman Shumpert, and let them stretch themselves against Golden State’s scrambling rotations. That would bring the risk of turnovers — chaos in which the Warriors breathe fire — but it could help the ragged supporting cast feel more involved and more prepared to contribute.
That nagging vanished in Game 5, and especially on this play, which hit me like a lightning bolt:
Cleveland tried to diversify its offense, but in the end, all it had was LeBron. This is a LeBron–Matthew Dellavedova pick-and-roll in which LeBron does everything. He screens and rolls hard to the basket, mostly because Dellavedova can’t dribble fast enough to turn the corner. LeBron catches the ball, draws help, and kicks the ball to Shumpert for a potential open 3-pointer. Nope. Shumpert kicks the ball to Mike Miller, who touches it back to LeBron, who finally returns it to Shumpert in the corner — a passing sequence so strange, and so LeBron-dependent, it leaves the Golden State defenders spinning aimlessly.
LeBron starts the play, carries it through its middle stage, and ends it. No one else even attempts so much as a dribble after Dellavedova throws that first pass to James. LeBron is alone. And what he is doing within this context is remarkable — one of the weirdest, greatest, toughest individual feats in NBA history.
“The special nature of his game is what has revealed itself more than anything,” Cavs GM David Griffin tells Grantland.
The Cavs are shooting horribly on any shot that LeBron does not take or create with a pass, and they are dying during those bite-your-nails moments when he rests. Through five games, he would be a worthy MVP, and it would be fitting if James joins Jerry West’s 1969 campaign as the only players from losing teams ever to claim the trophy. A loss would drop James to 2-4 in the Finals, and you can hear the carnival barkers screeching about his chops in the clutch. Those same screamers would laud West, Mr. Clutch, even though he went 1-8 in the Finals during a time when it was much easier to get there.
You can be clutch and finish second, and with the exception of a total meltdown in 2011, LeBron has lost championship series against superior teams.1 One player can’t win a title, especially now, as the NBA shifts even further toward constant five-man motion in which everyone has to be involved at both ends.
And that Dallas team was awesome, with a super-smart game plan for LeBron on both ends.
LeBron is alone in part because Golden State’s series-changing move to go all in on small ball has vaporized Cleveland’s other options on offense. The Cavs in Game 5 called a bunch of nifty plays for Smith, but Golden State’s like-size lineups snuffed them by switching on every pick — including this artful flare play:
The Cavs downsized to match Golden State, and the ideal Cleveland small-ball play is LeBron bolting around a high screen from his lone big man, three shooters surrounding them. The Cavs got some traction that way whenever Festus Ezeli and David Lee were in Game 5, since those guys are too slow to simply switch onto James; LeBron could get downhill, drive into Ezeli’s help defense, and find Mozgov rolling open to the rim. The Cavs are plus-8 when LeBron and Mozgov share the floor, and plus-7 in the 13 paltry minutes the LeBron–James Jones–Mozgov trio — a spread pick-and-roll group — has logged, per NBA.com. Mozgov is a better finisher than Tristan Thompson, and the Warriors are destroying small lineups with Thompson at center, per NBA.com. But those spread pick-and-rolls stalled out when Steve Kerr lifted Ezeli for Draymond Green:
If the small-ball groups can’t puncture the defense, it’s tempting to suggest that Blatt should go back to the behemoth Mozgov-Thompson combination. But that lineup has wilted against Golden State’s small ball in ways that represent the NBA’s ongoing evolution into a pace-and-space league. Mozgov simply isn’t fast enough to defend Green on the pick-and-roll, especially when Green sprints into a pick before Mozgov can set his feet:
Klay Thompson has too much space for that pocket pass, and though Green waltzes for a dunk here, these plays mostly create open drive-and-kick 3s for capable shooters. A size edge looks sexy on paper, until you realize the other team’s speed advantage produces an endless reel of shots worth 50 percent more points.
You see LeBron on the right wing, by the way? That’s his help assignment on Green, and he does nothing. That is a man who knows he has to conserve energy on defense in order to be Atlas for Cleveland’s offense. The super-small Warriors, with five capable playmakers, force you to defend every inch of the court. Mozgov is too slow for it, the rest of the Cavs too tired. Golden State is running them off the floor in the fourth quarter. Harrison Barnes’s spectacular offensive rebound tip pass to Andre Iguodala late in Game 5, setting up Iguodala’s circus and-1, neatly summed up the late-game energy gap. A back-end option outleaped LeBron, who stood with heavy legs, boxing out no one, hoping the ball would fall into his hands.
The speedy Warriors are equipped to patrol every inch on defense, and their small-ball wheels overwhelmed Cleveland’s size to open Game 5. The Cavs tried to work Mozgov in the post, but Golden State fronted, denied entry passes, and moved in a blur of wingspan:
When Cleveland did thread Mozgov the ball, the Warriors doubled him, and Mozgov coughed it away like a giraffe trying to throw a balloon.
Speed is winning, and the Cavs, even when they briefly put LeBron at center, may not have enough shooting and playmaking to beat the Dubs at their own game. Their best bet may be going back to the Mozgov-Thompson lineups, excising those Mozgov post-ups, and calling 50 isolations for LeBron on the wing — banking on their giants to destroy the offensive glass when LeBron misses. They could slot Thompson onto Green for pick-and-roll containment and hide Mozgov on Iguodala, as they did in Game 4.
Iguodala will find open 3s and driving lanes, but it might be the least painful choice for a limited team short on time.2
There probably isn’t a perfect answer, and the right answers can change from game to game. But as you can probably tell, I’d ride with a combination of the double-big group and small-ball lineups with Mozgov as the only big.
On offense, everything will fall on LeBron — again.
“He alone makes everything possible,” Griffin says.
On one level, the Cavs get that this style is unsustainable. “It would be hard to get through 82 games like this,” Miller says. “It would take a lot of tread off LeBron’s tires, for sure.”
It hasn’t even produced a good offense in the Finals. The Cavs have scored just 93.5 points per 100 possessions against Golden State, a mark that would have ranked ahead of only the Sixers in the regular season.
On another level, though, the smashmouth Cavs are two wins from the title. This style was enough to get them out of the East, in short order, with Love done for the season and Irving missing chunks of both the Chicago and Atlanta series.
“This works for us right now,” Cavs assistant Jim Boylan says. “It absolutely works. The league has changed a lot, but there is still a very basic style of basketball you can win with.”
Injuries have the Cavs veering to an untenable extreme of LeBron solos, but even if they bow out in Game 6, it’s worth thinking about what this strange run has taught us about LeBron — and how to build a team around him.
As we all bemoaned Irving’s knee injury, a minority among the Golden State traveling party braced for the Cavs to become more dangerous with Dellavedova in Irving’s place. Irving is much better, but he’s a worse defender, and he would siphon some of the ballhandling duties from LeBron. The Delly Cavs could defend Stephen Curry without rippling mismatches elsewhere, and on offense, they could slot an army of hungry role players around LeBron — subordinates ready to crash the glass and can open 3s as LeBron vacuumed the defense toward him.
“We have very clear role delineation with this team, and I’ve learned a lot about that,” Griffin says. “LeBron needs to have the ball so much for you to be as good as you can be, and you need to be very selective about the guys who get to have it when he doesn’t.”
Even amid their grief for Irving, the Cavs know they have enough to fight on.
“At no point did I think we were done,” Blatt says.
“These are freaking tough guys,” Boylan says. “I knew no one was going to come in here and just take us out.” The Cavs understood how far LeBron could take the right group of role players.
Stocking up on stars is obviously good, even if the second and third guys in the pecking order have to sacrifice some of the shots that made them stars. A first option acting as a third option — i.e., Kevin Love and Chris Bosh — will produce more than a third option acting as a third option. Some studies have found there really aren’t any diminishing returns to gathering a bunch of high-usage studs; their individual per-game stats might suffer, but they’ll score more efficiently, and five-man groups featuring all of them will produce like gangbusters — maybe even above expected levels.
But LeBron is an anomaly, and in a salary-capped league, the Cavs have to look hard at how he’s carried them. If they max out Love, retain Thompson at something close to the max, use Brendan Haywood’s nonguaranteed deal to land a key piece, and re-sign Shumpert and Dellavedova at reasonable numbers,3 they could set an all-time record for salary and tax payments next season with a bill north of $200 million. Blowing past the tax carries roster-building restrictions that make it harder to find supplementary players.4
Something like $13 million combined, perhaps more.
You can’t acquire players via sign-and-trade, you don’t get the biannual exception, and you’re limited to a smaller midlevel exception.
The Cavs will need another star around LeBron as he ages, and as the East inevitably snags a couple of big free agents from the West. But do they need two? Or could they get just as far redistributing the money from one star slot into role players who grind on defense and hit at least an average mark from 3-point range?
“I think that’s the right makeup for LeBron,” Miller says. “He just needs guys who make shots and can be physical on defense, because on offense, he’s gonna do what he does.”
Griffin has to tread around this issue carefully, and he’s still grappling with what he’s seen in the past two rounds. “It’s about role delineation,” he says again. “You can’t have too many guys who dominate the ball around LeBron.”
Still, Griffin maintains he wants Love back alongside Irving and LeBron. “We were 32-3 in our last 35 games with Kevin and Kyrie,” he says. “We weren’t just pretty good. We were the best team in the league. That team can be special. I want to be that juggernaut again.”
Given time, those three could develop a deadly chemistry on offense, just as LeBron, Bosh, and Dwyane Wade coalesced toward the end of their second season together in Miami. But neither supplementary Cleveland star has ever defended with the frenzy Wade and Bosh reached at their peaks, and as LeBron’s predatory pouncing on that end wanes, it’s possible that Cleveland’s star-heavy lineups may dip below championship-level defense.
For now, the trio of James, Thompson-Mozgov, and one solid wing defender (Shumpert) is enough to prop up the defense and free Cleveland’s spread offense to sing. That’s a championship combination. But there are other championship combinations, and LeBron has forced Cleveland to consider them — especially with one potential long-term wing partner, Andrew Wiggins, ready to burst out in Minnesota.
The Cavs might be just as good exchanging a piece of their star power for the right kind of depth — extra bodies that feed off LeBron’s once-a-generation skills and match the energy of the in vogue 10-deep teams that ping the ball around for 48 minutes.
That’s a question for the offseason, and one James has raised in giving everything to a team that might need even more. Rare is the performance so dominant, in such a weird and specific way, that it puzzles the people who live in and around this league. These Finals have been a remarkable ride — for James, for Curry and his delirious step-backs, for Iguodala’s see-everything brilliance, for Dellavedova’s hunched violence.
LeBron has a chance tonight to prolong them, to earn two days off to summon all he has for one last body-and-soul immersion in a winner-take-all Game 7.
If you’re rooting for drama, root for that.