Would LeBron James actually leave Cleveland again for a team with better NBA title chances? Only now am I beginning to wonder, and for a couple of reasons.
For openers, the Cavs are actually less competitive in the NBA Finals right now than they were when LeBron initally dragged them to the championship round at the age of 22.
Yes, I know, that’s really saying something since San Antonio swept Cleveland in 2007. What’s more, LeBron had only two teammates who scored in double figures on average in that series, and the best of them was Drew Gooden at 12.8.
Looking back, however, the Spurs really had to scrap to win the last two games, 75-72 and 83-82. Overall, San Antonio’s average winning margin was six points per game.
The 2016 NBA Finals are off to a much more lopsided start with Golden State winning by an average of 24 points per game. That’s a record for the first two games and it breaks a mark that stood for 55 years.
Of course, the Warriors are to blame for most of this. They play at such a high efficiency level that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson haven’t even needed to score much yet and the games are still blowouts.
LeBron has, however, everything he wanted in Cleveland, right down to the head coach of his choice, Tyronn Lue. Never mind that Lue finished the regular season 27-14 after taking over for David Blatt, fired at 30-11. LeBron is the boss and Cleveland fans trust him to make good on his pledge to throw them a championship parade. The best he has done so far is an 0-2 record in the NBA Finals and a big hole to climb out of in another.
Kyrie Irving is no Dwyane Wade. Kevin Love is no Hall of Famer, either, plus he’s uncertain for Wednesday’s essential Game 3 in Cleveland because of concussion protocols. The cavalry, in other words, isn’t coming. LeBron, nearly averaging a triple-double in the Finals at 21 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, is more isolated than ever.
If he hasn’t started thinking about other options by now, in other places, with other stars as teammates, it would be a surprise. Winning it all in Cleveland may just not be possible, no matter how much LeBron wants it, and playing out the rest of his career with that notion in mind would be torture for so competitive a man.
Here’s the second bit of historical context when it comes to the potential for another LeBron free-agency blockbuster this summer.
The last time LeBron leaped from Miami to Cleveland, it was coming off a demoralizing NBA Finals loss. San Antonio beat the Heat in five games and the last three victories were routs, with the Spurs winning those by an average of 19 points.
Either because he thought the run in Miami was over, or because he was compelled to make things right in Cleveland, or more likely a combination of both, LeBron said goodbye, burning bridges with Pat Riley on his way out the door. That was after a playoff blitz that included just three Heat losses on the way to the Finals.
What we’re looking at now is a Cavs team that lost two playoff games on an easy ride to the Finals but seems all set up for another quick knockout by a tougher team from the Western Conference.
If that’s not bad enough, this could make two straight losses in the Finals. That never happened to LeBron in Miami.
Put it all together and Wednesday’s Game 3 may come down to a referendum on how much more of playing in Cleveland can LeBron stand, and how much longer will Cavs fans believe they have Superman on their side.
If he blows town once more, no heartfelt letter to Sports Illustrated will make a difference. It will be an admission that nobody is ever going to strike gold in that market, and that would hurt more than all previous disappointments combined.
Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, I picked the Cavs to beat the Warriors in six games. So you’re saying there’s still a chance, right?