“With the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select LeBron James.”
“In this fall, it’s very tough, in this fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
“CLEVELAND! This is for you!”
“With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.”
Either declaimed by LeBron James himself, or announced by fellow NBA luminaries, these few statements have traversed the league through the early 21st Century. As each of the last two Finals added another chapter to the clash of the Warriors and Cavaliers, Kevin Durant currently shimmers as the unsolved wrinkle determining league supremacy. The Finals MVP dashed through the championship series to his first ring with spectacular efficiency. He loomed as a two-way force, gracefully directing his prime alongside possibly the greatest basketball roster of all-time. Though he was slotted as the defunct Center for brief stretches in the Finals, Durant, of course, plays the Small Forward position.
LeBron James has long defied the conventional positions of basketball with his unrivaled combination of skill, speed, strength and size. Despite oftentimes being the primary ball handler, guarding someone like MVP Derrick Rose in Crunch Time, while also being the the second-biggest player on the floor, it’s fair to say LeBron has played the Small Forward position for the vast majority of his career. Even as league trends moved towards hybridized small-ball Power Forwards, David Griffin and the Cavaliers constructed their roster with the homeward bound James at the 3. They had their undersized, mobile and rim-crashing Center Tristan Thompson, and their traded-for shooting and rebounding Power Forward Kevin Love. Opponents were expected to come up with a front court that could throw a quick/lengthy/strong wing at LeBron, and a paint-protecting big combo that could both contain Love and Thompson on the boards, and step out to bother Love at the 3 point line, and guard him in the post.
The newly formed Cavs had injuries to blame in their loss to the upstart Warriors in 2015. If that series wasn’t about the injuries, it was about Golden State starting Andre Iguodala, positioning Draymond Green as their Center, and forming the “Death Lineup”. Cleveland managed to rebound in 2016 with tremendous performances from LeBron and Kyrie Irving, and a Draymond Green suspension, but also by playing a concussed Kevin Love less. The 2017 Finals didn’t bring the same luxury when the Warriors threw out the precise front court needed to beat James, Love and Thompson.
Ty Lue and the Cavaliers sparingly deviated from the foundational concept of having LeBron guard Durant as fellow starting Small Forwards. I proposed what I thought could be potential solutions, but, game after game, we saw Lue put the same starting lineup on the floor. LeBron put up astounding numbers, but the matchup of the two best players on the planet reliably played out in favor of Golden State. A more exuberant Durant had the advantage of playing within a highly evolved offensive and defensive system to pick his spots and the expense of his energy. James sprinted through first quarters, fueling his team in familiar fashion, but had the newfound responsibility of guarding one of the best scorers of all time. Durant locked in on the defensive end and bothered James with his cartoonish length, but also showcased his less-talked-about strength. After the final buzzer sounded, Durant embraced James and pointed out that they were now tied in head-to-head Finals matchups, and welcomed the challenge of another bout.
Watching those two square off was a little like trying to eat leftovers that sit in the fridge for too long. The original 2012 dish may have been even better the next day, but instead, they were getting nuked when they started smelling a little funny after a week. If the Warriors’ miraculous team-building can at all be looked past, this matchup was no longer all that special in and of itself. Upon the conclusion of this season, James has played nearly 15,000 more minutes than Durant. Those 14,994 minutes separating LeBron from KD are worth 57% of Durant’s total minutes. It’s not hard to agree with the notion that Durant played his best basketball in the 2017 Finals. While he’s remained the consensus best player in the world, it’s much harder to not look more longingly at LeBron’s Miami years as his prime. His overall game and expertise have continued to evolve, and it’s not that he can’t take over quarters, games, or even a series, it’s that he no longer has the requisite tools to beat Durant; or even more so, he doesn’t have the tools to beat Durant in context of the respective roles on their current rosters. Cleveland must alter the dynamics if they are to make a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, and expect a real chance at winning.
The critical adjustment I’m suggesting is moving LeBron James to the Power Forward position. That statement can lose significance when considering the “positionless” trend of the league and James’ expansive talent, but says something much more concrete when it means replacing Kevin Love. Love is still a very good player, but is simply too bad of a defender to play against the Warriors. The NBA offseason is already flooded by rumors with the Draft taking place later this week. Kevin Love for Paul George or Jimmy Butler deals have been reported as compelling potential options. On a former championship roster full of “keep the band together” contracts, Love is one of Cleveland’s more movable assets. George would be a remarkable acquisition because he could guard Durant, provide the same floor-spacing as Love, and remove some of the creation burden from LeBron and Kyrie. Butler isn’t as good of a 3 point shooter and needs the ball more, but is probably a better Durant-defender than George. Even if either of these moves are too much of a pipe dream, moving Love for adequate wing defense is still the type of move Cleveland needs to make to maximize what LeBron still has left to give.
Imagine LeBron assuming a similar defensive role to Paul Millsap: blitzing pick-and-rolls, lurking as a help defender, fighting for rebounds down low, then pushing the ball or throwing outlet passes. Looking back at James’ assignments in earlier rounds of Playoffs, it’s apparent that this is how he wanted to play, or Lue wanted him to play, anyway. Instead of guarding Paul George in the first round, something an undersized J.R. Smith did instead, James roamed off the non-shooting threat Monta Ellis. As long as it was possible to pull off this tactic against a player like Marcus Smart or P.J. Tucker, LeBron kept finding guards and wings to abandon. If there wasn’t an unreal collection of 3 point shooting guards and wings like Golden State’s, the roster construction and ensuing matchups could’ve been crowned. Yet, if we are to see the continued dominance of Cleveland and Golden State, this plan will only continue to warrant Eastern Conference Champions banners given healthy rosters. That’s a great enough achievement for rising talent, or an unlikely crew of veterans, but we’re talking about the last great years of LeBron James’ career.
I’m not one for cross-era comparisons. I can sleep at night with letting each great player or team being considered great relative to their era. LeBron is easily the greatest player that I’ve been able to watch for their entire career with a decent understanding of the game (I wasn’t even a teenager during the Shaq-Kobe years). Though his athleticism has been waning since the previously mentioned Miami years, the 2017 Finals were the first time his stamina fell noticeably short of his insanely vast task at hand. His numbers wouldn’t necessarily show it, but tracking his effort over the course of the games certainly did. For a guy that has always done more than possibly asked, he was subsequently asked to do too much. Adding a championship caliber Small Forward that can play defense would allow LeBron to better manage his energy so he could remain effective at the many things he’s still elite at. Rather than dooming LeBron to a run of Durant-led beatings to end his career, Cleveland management, no longer run by David Griffin, should give James a better chance to succeed while he’s still a great player.