When LeBron James co-authored his “Sports Illustrated” piece explaining why he was returning to Cleveland, he preached patience.
At that point, the Cavs hadn’t traded for Kevin Love, but he knew breaking in Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and the younger guys on the roster who had grown accustomed to losing so much over the years would require an adjustment period.
Curiously, he never mentioned No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, who ended up being traded for Love, but the fact is James didn’t expect to win last season, even with another All-Star joining the fray. His return to Cleveland was always going to be the highlight of the season, and it was a testament to his greatness and the lack of talent in the Eastern Conference that he was able to lead an injury-riddled roster to two wins in last year’s NBA Finals.
Love was lost in the first round with a shoulder dislocation, while Irving fractured his kneecap in OT during Game 1. The Warriors took advantage and won the championship, but only the most delusional of trolls took James to task for it, recognizing he had put his team on the shoulders and dragged them to the promised land, even if they were ill-equipped to seal the deal.
This season, there’s no reprieve. There are no excuses.
James not only has a healthy supporting cast behind him, but has stated down the stretch and throughout this postseason that this is the healthiest he’s felt in years. Even in the playoff runs with Miami, James always dealt with a tougher road, usually having the Paul George-led Pacers standing in his way.
This season has been a picnic by comparison, starting with sweeps of the Pistons and Hawks before a bit of work against the Raptors in a series that went six games but was never really out of Cleveland’s control.
James has largely created for others, choosing to sit back and pick his spots in which to attack, making sure to get his teammates off first and foremost. The 22 shot attempts he took in Game 6 of the Toronto series were his second-most this postseason, leading to a playoff-high 33 points. He hasn’t forced shots, avoiding looks outside the paint since his jump shot has been suspect for much of the last few months.
In many ways, it seems like he’s been pacing himself, conserving all his energy for June and all that is to come, understanding he’ll need every bit of it to take out the Western Conference champ.
The 31-year-old James has been incredibly sharp, both mentally and physically, and if it doesn’t pay off in a championship for Cleveland, he’ll deserve all the criticism that comes his way.
Consider that LeBron is rightfully being lauded for making it to six consecutive NBA Finals, something that hasn’t happened in 50-plus years since a number of Celtics did the trick en route to reaching the championship round in 12 of 13 years. If James can’t win this season, he’ll be 2-5 in Finals over his career, which will decidedly tarnish the legacy of a player who has deservedly earned the right to be lumped in with Michael Jordan and the rest of the game’s all-time greats.
Sportsbook.ag has James second among Finals MVP contenders, offering 2-to-1 odds (+200), just behind Stephen Curry (+180), who may or may not be in the mix depending on the Warriors’ ability to hold serve in Game 7 in Oakland.
Either the Warriors or Thunder will obviously be worthy adversaries, but a Cavs team that enters the championship round at full strength can’t miss this opportunity to deliver Cleveland’s first championship since 1964.
The Cavs would be underdogs against Golden State and favorites against Oklahoma City since they would hold home court advantage over OKC, but either team would be beatable if James takes his game up to an elite level he’s more than capable of. His supporting cast is deep, stocked with more than enough versatile talent to create matchup problems throughout a best-of-seven series.
Thus far, every step in Cleveland’s championship quest has gone according to plan. They were able to dispatch of their first two postseason opponents quickly enough to gel behind closed doors and stay out of harm’s way while others worked overtime just to get back to the NBA Finals. They’re healthy. Everyone is available and confident.
Most important, James is confident in them. If he can’t deliver on his promise to bring the city of Cleveland a long-awaited championship, it wouldn’t be all that shocking to see him walk away since the best chance to make it happen would have just gone out the window.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].