Despite Kevin Love’s season-ending shoulder injury in the first round and Kyrie Irving hobbled with knee tendinitis, the Cleveland Cavaliers stand on the precipice of the Promised Land, lending LeBron’s playoff performance the aura of supremacy fans have envisioned since he was drafted to the hard-luck Cavs, images of a lone individual carrying a depleted city on his back. He averaged 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the Eastern Conference Finals and through the playoffs, he’s scored 27.6 points per game and posted career highs in rebounding (10.4) and assists (8.3). LeBron himself told reporters on Tuesday, “this is probably the best I’ve been.”
Peek under the rug, though, and you’ll find stray yarn: prolonged flukiness, ignored context and misplaced credit – these are the robust pillars on which sports’ flimsiest legends have been built. In that sense, LeBron’s postseason has been reminiscent of Derrick Rose’s MVP year, when near everyone put on blinders and proclaimed his greatness, flaws be damned. Ungodly shot selection was greeted with turned cheeks, because Rose was selling a vision the sporting public loves to get behind: rugged individualism, regardless of the ignorance that fantasy requires us to uphold.
It’s easy to wonder how these depleted Cavs have kept churning out wins. LeBron’s 36.4 percent usage rate is a career playoff high, and his 42.8 percent accuracy from the field his lowest since the 2007-08 playoffs. If he takes five threes tonight and nails just one, his average from beyond the arc would actually improve. The defensive work of Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, who’ve authored the Cavs’ stifling 98.5 defensive rating in the playoffs, has been discussed at length. But even to the keen observer, rotations and schemes can feel like abstract concepts. What crystallize in the back of our minds are made shots, and enough have transcended the muck that is LeBron’s shot selection for a subliminal and potent argument to be made: greatness at work. Thanks to Mozgov and Thompson, Cleveland has also been the best offensive rebounding team in the playoffs. This, paired with the defense, has worked to lessen the blow of LeBron’s empty possessions, in essence, powering a process that glorifies individual greed and diminishes its consequences.
LeBron’s performance, as always, would be a career high-water mark for anyone else, but it certainly hasn’t been his best. Look no further than his back-to-back championship runs in Miami for evidence. The difference between how people viewed controlled LeBron – the guy willing to cede authority of the ball and exert his unending ability away from it – and controlling LeBron, the calculated manipulator pounding the rock on the hardwood for 12 straight seconds, makes his tenure in Miami feel even more like the lesson in self-sacrifice we were force-fed from Day 1.
His Miami days lacked the optical flair of a man carrying a city on his back. Instead of being marveled, the mind couldn’t help but wonder, “Why not crank the usage up and reap everything you can out of this bad boy? Why not take the reins completely? If you really are this good, why not push your individual talents to their logical extreme?”
These are the values that make idolatry in sports such a muddled landscape. High-octane rogues like Russell Westbrook and Allen Iverson are revered, illustrating the chasm between what wins on the court and what wins off of it. The ruthless individual is fascinating for any number of reasons: ability, motor, inner mania. LeBron, shunting a career-long habit of making things look easy, is now appealing to age-old theology: How hard things look is more important than how hard they actually are.
Given the injuries to Love and Irving, and LeBron’s reputation as a genius standard-bearer for unselfish individual play, this shift can be forgiven, even justified. We assume any deviation from his standard unselfishness is the result of a calculated team play, misguided or not.
But Cleveland’s pick-and-roll heavy offense, LeBron’s season-long regression to ball-pounding isolations, the quotes waxing on leadership while passive-aggressively sending messages to Love and head coach David Blatt have hinted all season that LeBron’s return wasn’t just about revitalizing a city. He wanted to regain control.
In Miami, LeBron had to give up the rock – and organizational say-so. Now, LeBron gets to be the control freak again. Like Chris Paul, he can unleash some dimes and create an illusion of letting the reins loose, but don’t be fooled by the high assist count. If the ball is in LeBron’s hands for half a possession, he’s inarguably the maestro, even if Matthew Dellavedova ends up taking the shot.
LeBron may not have asked for any of this, but I suspect he doesn’t mind it either.