Today, as the NBA Finals prepare to begin, let’s get something straight, particularly for you younger folks who haven’t the slightest clue what you’re talking about.
LeBron James isn’t Michael Jordan. Never really has been. Never will be.
But if you insist on having LeBron-a-palooza just the same, let us know if anyone other than Bill Laimbeer shows up. (And if Laimbeer is there, that pretty much guarantees that no one else of any consequence will show up.)
The NBA Finals are due to begin tomorrow night in California with the Golden State Warriors hosting James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and we don’t need to tell you all the score: if James and the Cavs lose to Golden State in this series, LeBron will have a career record of 2-4 in the Finals. Maybe that’s fair, maybe it isn’t. But anyone with half a brain will tell you that the NBA’s greatest of the greats are judged on titles – that’s plural – and simply getting to the Finals is not enough.
Jordan? He went 6-0 in the Finals. He never so much as reached a Game 7. Anyone who saw Jordan play – and that means something more than YouTube clips – knows that Jordan dominated the game like no player before or, for that matter, since. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either under the age of 35 or an ignoramus, not that those things are mutually exclusive.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Shaquille O’Neal was right: Magic Johnson always has been a better comparison for James. Magic was one of the greatest players ever, a physical freak who could play all five positions on the floor. Ditto for James. LeBron’s combination of size, strength and skill make him a certifiable mutant, and I mean that as a compliment.
But when it comes to greatest, everyone is playing for second place.
Now, as it pertains to the matter of these Finals, what we have here is a most interesting matchup: the best team in the game vs. the best player, with all due respect to Stephen Curry, MVP or no MVP. (If you were starting a team today, for one season, you’d take James.) The NBA has lots of flaws, of course, not the least of which is that the singular, star player usually dominates the leagues, for lots of reasons. Someone like LeBron can dominate the ball and never leave the floor, which is something that simply cannot – and does not – happen in any other sport. In hockey, goalies don’t really handle the puck. In baseball and football, the starting pitcher and quarterback are off the field for at least half the game.
Get the picture?
In that way, these finals are a test of everything the NBA represents, good and bad. If James wins, he will destroy the current myth that a championship NBA team can truly be built without the singular franchise player taken No. 1 overall, like a Shaq or a Tim Duncan or a, yes, James. If the Warriors win, it suggests something altogether different. Curry is a unique talent, but he was the No. 7 pick and is a 6-foot-3 point guard. Klay Thompson was an 11th pick, Draymond Green 35th. The Warriors are essentially what the Indiana Pacers were supposed to be, or maybe the Atlanta Hawks.
And we all know what happened to those teams in the last year or, in the case of Atlanta, days.
Admittedly, this series might be different if the Cavs still had Kevin Love, who has missed almost the entire postseason after suffering a shoulder injury against the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Still, ask yourself this: what if the Cavs and Warriors are tied (or close) entering the final five minutes, and Cleveland elects to have James cover the smaller Curry? Then what? Golden State’s offense could get choked before it even starts to chew, putting an awful lot on the plate of Thompson, or Harrison Barnes, or Green.
If you’re looking for the best series, it’s at least something worth dreaming about.
In the end, will the Warriors win this series? Probably. James feels a little undermanned. While it certainly is worth noting that Cleveland and Golden State split their two meetings this season by nearly identical scores – Golden State won at home by a 112-94 count, Cleveland at home by a score of 110-99 – the Warriors have home court advantage and have been listed as a significant favorite in Las Vegas. James himself spoke of the Finals with trepidation after the Cavs wiped out the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, an interesting approach given that he is the best player on the planet.
Then again, if you had his record in the Finals, wouldn’t you be cautious, too?
Tony Massarotti covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, and 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.