“If I were him, frankly, I’d probably want to strangle you guys.”
— Jerry West, on the media criticisms of LeBron James
And so, as the Cleveland Cavaliers return to their home arena for Game 3 of the NBA Finals, here is the question: at what point is LeBron James responsible? At what point is the self-proclaimed “best player in the world” accountable for his team’s repeated failures on basketball’s biggest stage?
Yes, yes, yes — it’s a team game. We know. Kevin Love is soft. Kyrie Irving has been horrid. But LeBron James has been to The Finals seven times now — seven — one more than the great Michael Jordan. And yet LeBron now has nearly as many finals losses (four — soon to be five?) as Jordan has championships (six), which should put an end, once and for all, to the question of whether LeBron belongs in the same sentence as Michael.
For that matter, he doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Magic. Or Larry. Or any of a collection of big men, from Kareem, to Shaq, to Hakeem.
Tell you what: let’s keep this simple. Is LeBron a winner or not? I say no. If you say yes — and that winning is a product of having the best team — there is mounting evidence against him. In the NBA, the truly great players are defined by how they do on this stage, against the other very best players in the world, no ifs, ands or buts. Jordan never lost a series he should have won. LeBron has, against the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki in 2011. And that one left a mark.
Remember: when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forced in Miami, they frolicked about on stage, before ever having played a game, wondering how many titles they might win together. Four? Five? Six? They were the consensus best team in the league, the prohibitive favorites, James in the prime of his career. They got to four Finals, and went 2-2. Then James did what he does best — act in his own interests, at least off the court — because a moving target, as we all know, is harder to hit.
A great player? You bet he is. But what James has never been — not really, not consistently — is a great competitor, at least the way Michael was. Or Kobe. Or Larry. Or Magic.
By now, you get the idea.
“Well, for me, I try to do whatever it takes to help our team win, and I do everything offensively, defensively, getting guys involved, rebounding, everything, so my game doesn’t waver one way or the other,” James told the assembled media yesterday. “I’m not a pure scorer. I’m not an all-assist guy. I’m not just a rebounder. I do everything. So for me, I said after Game 2 that I’ve got to play better. But as far as my numbers, I don’t worry about that.”
But here’s what he should worry about: the winning. And if that means becoming a pure scorer, then James needs to do it. If it means grabbing 20 rebounds, so be it. If it means guarding Steph Curry, he needs to do that, too.
Here’s the problem with these Finals: the Cavs are putting up less of a fight now than last year, without Love and, effectively, Irving. To this point, these Finals have really been a rather indisputable embarrassment. Maybe the Warriors are better than the Cavs. But they’re not this much better, or at least they shouldn’t be. The Oklahoma City Thunder took the Warriors to seven games, remember, holding a 3-1 series lead at one point. The Cavs have basically been steamrolled in this series from the start, which brings us back to LeBron and that competitive glitch.
Want to hear an incredible stat? James has been in the league 13 years now and has played in an astonishing 194 career playoff games. Only five of them have been a Game 7. James is 3-2 in Game 7s in his career, winning his only such instance in The Finals, against the San Antonio Spurs in 2013. But does anyone else find it odd that James has played in only five Game 7s? With him, the series is almost always over early, one way or another, because it certainly feels like LeBron makes up his mind early.
Remember: when James left the Cavaliers following the 2009-10 season, he did so following a playoff loss against the Celtics. In the middle of that series, it certainly felt as if he quit. LeBron accepted defeat far more than any great player should, all too eager to put the defeat on the absence of a supporting cast than on his own competitive flaws.
Again, do not misunderstand. James is a great player, a positively brilliant passer, an absolute force of speed and strength, even if he has never been a great shooter. He is a tremendous rebounder. But his size, strength and athleticism give him an advantage over most everyone he competes against — and have for almost his entire life — except for when he reaches the highest levels. And then, only then, is James pushed to a point where he fights back.
Can the Cavs still win this series against a Golden State team steamrolling toward the history books? Maybe not. But it should be a series. And it always should have been. Now the Cavs are returning home for Game 3, their egos and bodies battered, facing the most desperate of desperate scenarios. In a game like this, a great player takes over his team, takes over the game, maybe even takes over the series. He leads. He fights. He wins.
Most of all, he competes as if to the death.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.