We could spend all day talking about the hodgepodge that Lebron just tried to carry to a championship past Golden State, but that’s already pretty obvious. The series pretty much turned out as expected, if not better, since the Cavaliers’ castaways and D-leaguers could not score without Lebron, who needed to be on the floor every minute to give his vastly overmatched squad a chance.
But, unlike the inevitable droning that will come from people pointing to Lebron’s Finals record, or how many rings he has (basketball is suddenly no longer a team sport, depending on what model of greatness is used in judgment), Lebron has a truly unique burden in some other ways.
First, Lebron’s unselfish skill set and tendencies both raise the level of otherwise mediocre teammates, yet also render them entirely dependent on him. Watching how the other Cavs played this series was like watching a cycle of dependency and addiction – this is why I was a fan of players like Mario Chalmers, who while not otherwise outstanding just had IDGAF moments where he’d try to make something happen and play with confidence. Sure, Lebron and the other Heat stars would pick on him like a little brother, but he had big moments in their championship runs, big games and fearless plays. There wasn’t any of that left on this 2014-15 Cavs team, except for maybe Dellavedova, who looked like he could barely bring the ball past halfcourt at times. Obviously, if there’s more talent, Lebron doesn’t have to play this way. But it’s hard to find a balance between players who work as a unit because they totally complement (but are dependent on) Lebron, and players who can work with him without forcing huge sacrifices to team balance (defense, for example).
We already knew about the potential difficulties Irving and Love face as Lebron’s star teammates, but the added burden going forward is that Lebron by all accounts seems to be acting as Coach and GM of the franchise. Lebron has guys he trusts and wants to go to war with, players like Mike Miller, James Jones, and Tristan Thompson. But when he’s no longer just the megastar that a contender builds around, but also the Coach and GM? What happens if Miller and Jones decline noticeably (which happened this year), or if Thompson isn’t worth a near-max deal as a frontcourt piece, but Lebron decides he is? Who can step in and balance James’ power and influence, knowing his place with the Cavs?
I don’t think we’ve ever seen a player with this much power and influence over an entire franchise’s decision-making. Even Jordan didn’t get paid anything near what he was worth until his second Bulls run, had to constantly battle management, and likely didn’t return for another season because of front office alienation. Lebron is blessed in many ways to be in the driver’s seat of his own home state franchise…but he can also very easily get in his own way. Much has been said, most of it garbage, about Lebron not embracing the challenge, not stepping up to the moment. The question now should be whether he’s taking too much of the burden, and not just in his on-court contributions. It takes a certain skillset – of which impartiality is probably important – to build a quality roster. It takes another skillset to manage and get the most out of that roster. How much can you blame GM David Griffin or coach David Blatt if their hands are effectively tied because Lebron has taken it squarely on his own shoulders to engineer Cleveland’s first NBA championship? I’ll be watching all the way but, as this Finals proved, there are burdens that even Lebron can’t carry – and certainly shouldn’t be adding to.