On May 26, 2017, LeBron James bookmarked an achievement that is probably one of the most understated among his impressive list of laurels. With that day’s win, James, along with his long time teammate James Jones, entered his seventh consecutive NBA finals. It’s been more than 50 years since this feat has been topped.
No one in recent times comes close – not Jordan, not Duncan, not Bryant. It’s a staggering achievement and not nearly enough glossed upon, mostly due to James’ loss heavy Finals record and how reliant our mindset is on the “win or nothing” maxim. But, will “King” James be able continue this awesome run this season?
The stand out event of this volatile offseason has been the departure of Kyrie Irving – Cavaliers’ All Star point guard. There is no denying that Irving is a spectacular talent, and was a key cog to the Cavaliers offence, but what does his departure truly mean for James and his Cavaliers?
The Irving trade bought another firebrand offensive talent in Isaiah Thomas to the Cavaliers along with a solid 3-and-D player (a player who can both make and defend three pointers) – Jae Crowder. If Thomas is able to replicate his production from last year, he can prove to be an able replacement for Irving. Additionally, Crowder can be the much needed stress reliever the Cavaliers’ flagging defence needs. So, on the looks of it, the Cavaliers are a stronger team than before. Then, why even raise the question about James making it to his eighth consecutive final?
A season of firsts for LeBron
For starters, Thomas is nursing a hip injury and there isn’t any set timeline for when he will be back. This means that for a large part of the regular season (probably even some of the postseason), the Cavs will be without another reliable second scoring option to shepherd the offence when James is benched.
For the first time in his spectacular Finals run, James will start the season without a bonafide star guard. While, his near-superhuman fitness and durability has stood the test of time so far, he isn’t getting any younger. Now, even in a time when the regular season is slowly but surely losing relevance, James will have to sustain heavy playing minutes yet again. And once again he’ll have to play the delicate balancing act of having enough gas left for the postseason – when it really matters.
And there are the upstarts in the East: the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are arguably the most talented roster in the Eastern Conference. True, they lost some of their defensive manpower (Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder) to make big off-season acquisitions, but they still have enough depth and talent to be true challengers. The backcourt comprises of Jason Taytum and Jaylen Brown – young forwards with polished games and high ceilings on both sides of the floor.
Al Horford, a sharp, passing big man with an above average three point shot, provides the calming veteran presence. Their frontcourt has a good combination of high flying offense and stifling defence with Kyrie and Marcus Smart taking guard duties. Lastly, Celtics have acquired elite wing player Gordon Hayward, who will start over either Brown or Tatum. Hayward is one of the league’s best players. He poses a perennial threat on offense, and when locked in, can be equally effective on defence too.
Besides the Celtics, the Washington Wizards could put up a tough fight against James’ Cavaliers. A healthy John Wall and Bradley Beal present a deadly two punch combination, not unlike Hayward and Irving at Boston. It’s precisely this presence of two reliable scoring options that can prove to be too much for the Cavaliers leaky defence to handle.
This year will also mark the first year the “Process” of rebuilding the Philadelphia 76’ers will be fully realised. The 76’ers are the team to watch out for this season, with their eclectic group of young talent – Joel Embiid, the epitome of the modern NBA centre, Ben Simmons, a pass first guard with the size of a power forward, Markelle Fultz, the most versatile scorer to have come out of a draft class in years and JJ Reddick, a sharpshooter extraordinaire. Can the 76’ers rise to the occasion and cause an upset or two?
Celtics and 76’ers both have talent aplenty and if their core remains intact, the teams could become true championship contenders. But, a lack of experience will hurt them; more in the playoffs where the smallest kinks and weaknesses are amplified. James has broken plenty of talented cores over the course of his seven consecutive finals – Paul George-led Pacers, Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls, and an Atlanta Hawks team on the back of a sixty win regular season.
Don’t bet against him
There is a pattern in this: James finds a way to switch gears in the postseason and winning is not contingent on the talent of those playing against him or with him. A case in point: he took the 2015 NBA finals to a tight six game series against the Golden State Warriors without the company of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving for the majority of it. His point guard for the series was Matthew Dellavedova – a spunky defender but a no-go as a primary or secondary scoring option.
It’s no secret that this is season will begin with an air of uncertainty that is especially uncharacteristic for James. A constant rumour doing the rounds is of him preparing to leave the Cavaliers for the Lakers next year. The “King” will try for the final salvo, but will the rest of the team be able to motivate themselves and push for a championship, considering the shambles the team will be in after the possible departure?
The jury is still out but betting against James is hardly ever a good idea. Gameplay in the NBA has radically changed over the years. Offences have stretched outwards towards the three point line, centres can now shoot, and defences have to switch to survive. The only constant in this ever evolving landscape has been James’ dominance in the East. It’s a show of unmistakable greatness that LeBron James has not only survived NBA’s drastic transition, but thrived in it. In all likelihood he will continue to do so, at least till the end of this decade, when age finally catches up with him. He is after all a human, even though he has made a career by making us think otherwise.
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