Last night, just a few hours after the Cavaliers hoisted their 2016 championship banner to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena, the Indians won Game 1 of the World Series across the street at Progressive Field. For the first time in a long time, it’s good to be a Cleveland sports fan.
It’s also good to be King James.
For the first time in a long time, LeBron James embarks on the start of a basketball season without the weight of the world on his shoulders. By winning his third ring in jaw-dropping fashion and, most importantly, ending Cleveland’s title drought as he promised, James is at the point where he’ll simply be adding to his already-amazing legacy going forward.
No player of this generation, in any professional sports league, has been more heavily scrutinized over the course of his entire career than LeBron James. He was arguably the most hyped high school basketball player of all-time before being drafted with the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft by his hometown Cavaliers. The expectations were extraordinary. When he failed to deliver a championship during his first seven seasons in Cleveland, the pressure mounted substantially each year. Then came his move to Miami.
The decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was understandable, considering he seemed to be judged only by the number of rings he won regardless of how terrific his individual play was. “The Decision” on ESPN was foolish and indefensible. At that point, the majority of his hometown fans hated him. Remnants of burnt No. 23 wine and gold jerseys could be found throughout northeast Ohio for days. The unmistakably heavy feeling of unrequited love hung over Akron and Cleveland far longer. In addition, all of the fans in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles hated LeBron for spurning their cities when he hit free agency. The vitriol directed toward him on social media and message boards was unprecedented. The memes were relentless.
For a multitude of reasons, LeBron not only bore the weight of exceedingly high expectations, he also had to try to embrace the role of villain. He did his best to be brutish and boisterous, but LeBron is a lovable family man and never seemed comfortable impersonating the “bad guy.”
After flopping in the Finals in 2010, James finally got the monkey off his back in 2011, winning his first NBA championship. The HEAT went back-to-back the following season, but outside of South Beach, the rest of the NBA community never fully embraced LeBron and The Big Three. Fans found reasons to criticize him, downplaying his stats and arguing that his achievements weren’t that impressive since he had help from a talented supporting cast.
Winning “only” two championships wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the weary and irritated skeptics – especially after LeBron himself had promised “not one, not two, not three, not four…”
After losing again in the 2014 Finals, this time to the Spurs, James shocked the world when he packed up the weight of those unmet expectations and headed back home to Ohio. He voluntarily doubled-down on the all-consuming pressure. He had to shoulder both the heft of his own individual goals, and the hopes and dreams of a city desperate to shed the “loser” label.
In his first season back, he dragged a depleted Cavs team to the Finals before being squashed by the brash, upstart Warriors. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be?
Then a funny, unexpected thing happened. The Warriors reeled off an incredible 73 wins during the 2015-16 regular season, and became overwhelming favorites to capture their second straight title. Once beloved, the Warriors’ confidence (or cockiness, some argued) started to rub many the wrong way. Steph Curry would strut back down the floor after yet another remarkable three-pointer – sometimes turning his back to the basket and celebrating while the ball was still in mid-air. Draymond Green often brashly bullied lesser opponents. Owner Joe Lacob proclaimed that his team was “light years” ahead of the rest of the league and would dominate for years to come.
All of a sudden, James and his band of mere mortal teammates were viewed as the underdogs. This was particularly true after the Cavaliers fell behind 3-1 in the Finals against Golden State. The odds seemed insurmountable. Curry (the first unanimous MVP in NBA history) and his Warriors, the best regular season team of all-time, had a two-game lead with two of the final three contests in Golden State.
Many NBA fans without a dog in the fight surprisingly found themselves rooting for the once-hated LeBron. Setting aside past feelings for a few days, folks were able to watch James play the game without the same level of enmity that may have previously clouded their view of him.
After being forced to play “Goliath” year after year after year, Lebron got to try the “David” costume on for size. It was a great fit. And LeBron played as close to perfect as humanly possible, catapulting the Cavs past the mighty Warriors.
That three-game stretch to close out the 2016 NBA Finals may go down as arguably the greatest individual performance in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole.
Consider this: Over those three games (Games 5, 6 and 7), LeBron averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, three blocks and three steals.
To help put those numbers in perspective:
- In the final three games of the 2016 Finals, James dished out more assists (29) than Curry had in the entire seven-game series (26).
- In those final three games, James scored more points (109) than Draymond Green scored in the entire seven-game series (99).
- LeBron grabbed 35 rebounds in those final three games. Klay Thompson grabbed a total of 21 rebounds in the entire series.
- LeBron also had nine blocks and nine steals in those final three games. Curry finished the series with a total of six steals and three blocks, while Thompson totaled seven steals and four blocks.
Of course, it wasn’t just those three games in which LeBron unequivocally proved he’s the best player on the planet. Over the 13 NBA Finals games played between the Cavs and Warriors in 2015 and 2016, James led all players in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Below are the respective ranks, with first- and second-place finishers:
1. LeBron James: 423 points
2. Steph Curry: 314 points
1. LeBron James: 159 rebounds
2. Tristan Thompson: 149 rebounds
1. LeBron James: 115 assists
2. Draymond Green: 68 assists
1. LeBron James: 19 blocks
2. Andrew Bogut: 15 blocks
1. LeBron James: 26 steals
2. Draymond Green: 23 steals
Circling back to Tuesday night, James exhaled as he was able to watch Cleveland rejoice; they finally witnessed a championship banner being raised in their building.
LeBron seemed to be emotionally and joyously overwhelmed. Then, the game started and he dominated. He recorded a triple-double, leading the Cavs to an 117-88 dismantling of the Knicks.
However, quite interestingly, the ring ceremony and subsequent Cavs victory are little more than an afterthought in the sports world the day after. In fact, it wasn’t even the lead sports story in Cleveland. Images from the Indians’ Game 1 win graced the front cover of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday.
It wasn’t even the most-discussed NBA game from opening night, as that was the Spurs’ rout of the Warriors.
For the first time in a long time, James is not the epicenter of the NBA universe. Love him or hate him, LeBron generated the most buzz, most clicks, and most debate this decade. However, Kevin Durant joining the Warriors to form a superteam has been the talk of the NBA since July 4. It will likely continue to dominate coverage of the league until the middle of June.
One gets the sense that is perfectly fine with LeBron. He’s been subjected to unimaginably intense pressure and attention since his sophomore year in high school. Somehow, he found a way to live up to the incomparable hype by winning four MVPs and multiple championships. But last season, by bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy home to Cleveland, he accomplished his greatest achievement.
It’s safe to assume LeBron enters the 2016-17 campaign feeling more confident and carefree than ever before. That’s not to say he won’t be motivated. LeBron himself admitted he’s chasing the uncatchable ghost of Michael Jordan. Still, if he seems just a bit quicker on the floor this season, or appears to be moving with greater ease and joy off the court, it’s probably because he’s currently carrying considerably less weight on his shoulders nowadays.
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