LeBron James Can’t Flip the Switch, Michael Jordan Never Had To
With this year’s finals devolving into a slaughter (something I said was going to happen on every social media outlet possible), it is easy to excuse LeBron James for the wretched Cleveland Cavaliers performance. Easy… but not smart. What is getting constantly overlooked is LeBron James has been coasting for some time now and while he has always had the ability to flip a switch and ascend to top-tier basketball, against a team like the Warriors, that toggle is stuck midway between on and off.
James’ primary numbers are what you would expect of him through two games
Game One: 28 points, 15 rebounds, 8 assists
Game Two: 29 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists
James is averaging 28.5 points through the first two games, 14.5 rebounds and 9.5 assists. He posted his eighth career Finals triple double to tie Magic Johnson all time and merely looking at those numbers you would expect he had a couple of great games, but you would be wrong. Part of the problem of trying to flip a switch against a transcendent team like the Warriors is that if you are not completely on, you are going to look clearly off.
In Game One of the finals, James almost had the triple double, falling two assists shy of the feat. However, what most people overlooked was he almost finished with a quadruple double, falling two tallies shy in the… turnover category. James was uncharacteristically sloppy in the pivotal first game, turning the ball over eight times. He was also far from locked in defensively.
For the past decade, the sexy thing to make people think you know basketball is to mention how good of a defender James is. This is only partly true. James, who is best known for his chase down blocks (and with good reason), is one of the best off-ball defenders of all time. He is constantly searching for the highlight reel block and more times than not, succeeds in his task. However, while all the pundits have lauded his defensive abilities, he is not nearly as good of an on ball defender. Relying on your ability to flip a switch is all well and good, but one of the hardest things to do in basketball is get back into a good defensive mode, and James is not close to being a good defender in this series through the first two games.
Yes, Stephen Curry put him the spin-cycle in Game Two (and yes it was a double-dribble), but it has been his lack of ability as an on-ball defender where James has really faltered.
James has been the primary defender on Kevin Durant this series and Durant has had his way with him. Durant (with James help) set the tone for the series in the first quarter of Game One. There were multiple instances where James was at least a half step slow in basic recovery defense, failing to close out in proper form. In one particular instance, it allowed Durant the chance to break down James and sky for a thunderous dunk. James was slow in general getting into proper defensive form against Durant and Durant schooled him throughout Game One. Game Two did not get much better with James getting beat on a few more occasions including one positively atrocious instance where he got roasted on a backdoor cut, which ended in another Durant slam. If it seems like Durant is getting the better of James in their pivotal matchup, it is because he is. Now tell me, can you recall a time where Jordan got constantly beat at any point in his career, much less an NBA Finals?
Through two games of the 2017 Finals, Kevin Durant is by far the best player on the court. Durant is averaging 35.5 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists and 2.5 blocks (with all five blocks coming in Game Two). Not to mention, Durant is shooting better than 50% from the floor and EXACTLY 50% from beyond the arc. The other thing to notice is that of Durant 22 rebounds, he has grabbed a pair of offensive boards in each game and is constantly hauling down defensive boards in traffic. Compare that to James who has 26 total rebounds, but only three offensive (and all three in the first game of the series) while almost never ripping down a board in traffic. James is getting outplayed by the guy he is supposedly guarding in this series, and James losing his matchup is a significant reason why the Cavs are getting dismantled. Simply put, for the Cavs (or any team James plays on) to win, James has to be the best player on the court. This is not the case so far and it is something we have seen from him in the finals on multiple occasions.
To be the Best All-Time, You Need to be the Best in Your Series
James has a long and sordid history of letting others take the spotlight from him in the NBA Finals. Go back to the first iteration of this Warriors/Cavs Finals. Many people would argue James was the best player on the court in 2015.
However, the Finals MVP (Bill Russell Award) voters got it right when they gave it to Andrew Iguodala for completely throwing James off of his game (I give credit to James for being so good that the man guarding him gets the MVP trophy, but point remains). In 2014 it was the rise of Kawhi Leonard and his dominance and frustration of James that earned him the award. The 2011 Finals? Dirk Nowitski shone brightest as James slinked away in six games. In 2007 it would have been a stretch to even think the young LeBron James could do much against the Spurs, but it was still Tony Parker of all people who grabbed the MVP award. Compare that to Michael Jordan and his six NBA Finals appearances and what do you get? Six Finals MVPs. If you want to be the best player in the world, you first have to be the best player in your series and LeBron James has failed to do that in four of the seven NBA Finals he has attended… and is well on his way to making it five of eight.
Even in the three Finals where James has garnered MVP trophies, he owes two of those MVPs to teammates. In last year’s Finals James was a monster. His move to goad Draymond Green into a flagrant foul turned the course of the series and propelled the Cavs to their first title. However, James was not the best, nor the most important player in Game Seven. That was Kyrie Irving. Kyrie Irving, in a game in which some people (wrongly) say the best player ever was playing, took over the game and even knocked down the series winning shot. Yes, James’ chase down block was crucial to the win, but even more crucial was Kyrie Irving’s otherworldly performance, and Irving being the best player in Game Seven gets glossed over all too often.
In James second title with the Heat, he was far from the best player on the floor. In that particular series it took perhaps the best clutch shot of all-time to extend the series in Game Six and give the Heat a chance to come back and win it in Game Seven. If not for Ray Allen hitting a miraculous corner three that literally nobody else on the planet could have made, we are talking about a world in which LeBron James is two for seven in Finals appearances. There is a reason that the correct answer for best baseball team in the 90s is the New York Yankees and not the Atlanta Braves, or the best 90s football team is the Dallas Cowboys and not the Buffalo Bills. Getting to the dance is not how you get remembered, taking home the Prom Queen is what sticks in people’s minds.
Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all-time. You can have your Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, your Wilt Chamberlains, Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons, or even Bill Russells, but the answer is Jordan. The answer will always and forever be Jordan. The reason is simple. Jordan was always… ALWAYS on. And Jordan was always the best player on the court. Everybody listed above had at least one player that at one time or another could be said was better than him. If Jordan did not take a two-year hiatus to play baseball after his father died, we would be talking about Jordan’s eight peat and eight Finals MVPs. Instead, we have to entertain this idiotic debates about whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan despite James routinely not being the best and most important player on the court numerous times when it mattered most. LeBron might be The King, but there is only one basketball god, and thy name is Michael Jordan.
(a Special Thanks to Levi Chatinover for contributing and elucidating the idea behind the second section)