CLEVELAND — LeBron James lives in the moment. Ask him to look back on what he and the Cleveland Cavaliers have accomplished this season — a campaign that he said Thursday has felt like “three or four, maybe four or five seasons wrapped in one,” given all the tumult and turnover that’s swirled around Northeast Ohio since last June — and he’ll tell you he’ll have to get back to you once the season’s actually over.
Sure, it might feel like it already is, after Kevin Durant dropped another Game 3 dagger to put the Golden State Warriors one win away from their third NBA championship in four years. But it’s still a first-to-four sprint, and there’s still Game 4 to play on Friday. So James demures, deflects; he can’t look backward now, not with something left to play for in his immediate future.
Unless, that is, you ask him to look way backward — to squint in the rear-view until he can see last decade, back before he took his talents south and shook the league. Then, evidently, the man with the sport’s most impressive memory can put that total recall to work, cast his “beautiful mind” back to what made him make that choice in the first place … and, maybe, offer us all some insight as to what he might be looking for in the very near future.
James was asked to think back to what many view as the genesis of the modern super-team era: the Boston Celtics adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to incumbent All-Star Paul Pierce in the summer of 2007. They begat the James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat, who produced four NBA Finals trips and two titles, before James’ return to Cleveland to team with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. That triptych made three straight championship-round appearances against these Warriors, who reached a new galaxy of star-clustering with the 2016 addition of Durant, the game’s most perfect scoring weapon and the final answer to any question the Cavs can pose.
As James considered the beginnings of the contemporary push toward All-Star aggregation, he offered an extremely frank assessment of what ultimately moved him toward “The Decision,” to South Beach, and to everything that’s come since.
“I felt like my first stint here, I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” James told reporters during his media session after the Cavs’ Thursday practice at Quicken Loans Arena. “[…] I knew that my talent level here in Cleveland couldn’t succeed getting past a Boston, getting past the San Antonios of the league, or whatever the case may be.”
It is no secret that the teams James led during his first run with the Cavs weren’t exactly laden with star-caliber performers. Some (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Drew Gooden, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Delonte West) were solid enough, both before and after their time with James. By and large, though, LeBron was asked to take role players elevated beyond their proper station — Larry Hughes, Eric Snow, Donyell Marshall, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, Anthony Parker, Damon Jones, J.J. Hickson, the latter-day models of Shaquille O’Neal, Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Joe Smith — and carry them to the upper reaches of NBA contention.
He did it, bringing the Cavs to five consecutive playoff appearances, back-to-back 60-win seasons and the 2007 NBA Finals. But after five straight springs of bowing out to deeper, harder, more smartly constructed teams — the championship-era Detroit Pistons, Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs, the Big Three Celtics, Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy’s ahead-of-their-time Orlando Magic, and the Celtics again — James felt something needed to change.
In discussing that feeling on Thursday, he made sure to highlight the specific trait he was shopping for back then, and that he’s been chasing since. Which seems like a pretty important piece of information, considering he can opt out of the final year of his contract in three weeks to become an unrestricted free agent.
“When you looked at [Rajon] Rondo and K.G. and Paul and Ray, you knew they were great basketball players, but not only great basketball players — you could see their minds were in it, too, when you were playing them,” James said. “They were calling out sets. Rondo was calling out sets every time you come down. It was like, ‘OK, this is bigger than basketball.’ So not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds, as well.”
That, he said, is what drew him to Wade and Chris Bosh, his longtime friends and teammates on the 2008 U.S. Olympic squad that won gold in Beijing: their minds, how they paired Hall of Fame talent with prodigious enough processing power to be able to think the game at an elite level, too.
Those Heat teams, built by Pat Riley, led by Erik Spoelstra, and buoyed by role players like Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and ex-Celtic Allen, stacked not only skills, scrappiness and shooting, but also smarts. The result: four Finals trips and two championships before the franchise as a whole ran out of gas, leading LeBron to look for fresh legs, untapped gifts … and curious, capable minds.
“I knew Kyrie, having the talent, I wanted to try to build his mind up, to fast-track his mind, because I felt like in order to win you’ve got to have talent, but you’ve got to be very cerebral, too,” James said. “Listen, we’re all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?”
Fast-forward four years, and James has made another presidential term’s worth of Finals appearances. He’s ended Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, inspired the creation of perhaps the greatest collection of firepower in modern NBA history, and found himself becoming, against all odds, an underdog once again. Irving’s in Boston now, part of a separate project with a similar goal running on a parallel track, aimed at answering a question LeBron voiced Thursday: “How do you put together a group of talent, but also a group of minds, to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?”
You get the sense that he, like Daryl Morey in Houston and Danny Ainge in Boston, never stops thinking about how to answer that question. You get the sense that, in a few weeks’ time, this particular question will dictate his next big decision: whether to leave Cleveland again, in pursuit of an organization capable of helping him provide a stiffer test to these Warriors than his squad’s been able to manage since Durant went west.
“Obviously, from a talent perspective, if you’re looking at Golden State from their top five best players to our top five players, you would say they’re stacked better than us,” James said. “Let’s just speak truth.
“Kevin Durant. You’ve got two guys with MVPs on their team. And then you’ve got a guy in Klay [Thompson] who could easily be on a team and carry a team, [who has] scored 40 in a quarter before. And then you have Draymond [Green], who is arguably one of the best defenders and minds we have in our game. So you have that crew. Then you add on a Finals MVP [in Andre Iguodala] coming off the bench, a number [four] pick in [Shaun] Livingston and an All-Star in David West, and whatever the case may be. So they have a lot of talent.”
And yet, after two days of reverential references to the “beautiful game”-era Spurs that pushed LeBron’s Heat to the limit before toppling them, and two days of cap-tips to a Warriors team whose predilection toward precision and mistake-punishing he compared to Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots — and after missing an opportunity to take Game 1 thanks to one of the biggest brain cramps in NBA postseason history — you get the sense that what he’s looking for goes beyond just talent.
“We’ve been in a position where we could win two out of these three games. So what do we have to do?” James asked. “Do we have to make more shots? Is it we have to have our minds into it a little bit more? Is it if there is a ball on the ground, we can’t reach for it, but you’ve got to dive for it? […] When you make mistakes, they make you pay, because they’re already more talented than you are, but they also have the minds behind it, too.”
Those minds bridge gaps. They minimize mistakes, and they amplify strengths. They raise both floors and ceilings. That Golden State’s filled with them isn’t an accident.
“It’s very important. It’s part of our identity, honestly,” Livingston told Yahoo Sports. “You look at [general manager] Bob Myers, you look at [head coach] Steve Kerr, when they came into the Warriors, wanting to put their prints on this team, on this organization. You look at who’s around, you look at some of the guys that they brought in, the free agents, [they] just wanted guys that understand the game.”
That collective basketball IQ doesn’t just manifest in making the right pass more often than not, or in creating a more harmonious locker room. As Livingston describes it, it offers something that would seem incredibly enticing to someone coming off one of the more remarkable one-man army acts we’ve ever seen in the playoffs.
“When you have enough of those guys on the basketball court, it makes the game easier. The game flows. Communication is easier,” Livingston said. “And these are all things that are paramount in a Finals, a Western Conference finals, the later you get. Because you’re going on the road, you’re facing adversity, you’re down 10. In that moment of the game, you’ve got be able to build trust. You rely on that IQ.”
But when you have it and other guys don’t — when too few guys “get it” on that level — it can add to an already heavy burden.
“You really learn where a guy’s IQ is, and then you kind of adjust to that,” Draymond Green told reporters. “IQ isn’t going to be everyone’s strength. Like, you look at LeBron, he’s probably one of the smartest players ever to play the game. You can’t say that about the rest of the Cavs’ team. He’s special in that aspect. But it’s on him to make sure that what he does rubs off on them, and he puts them in the right spot, and he does that.”
James does it because, as well as just about any basketball player we’ve ever seen, he adapts, evolves, covers. He carries the offense when no one else can and cranks up as a back-line defensive captain when he must. But he’ll turn 34 in December, with more than 54,000 total regular- and postseason minutes on his NBA odometer. As he strives to stave off the end of one season while preparing for the start of another, perhaps the player who always adapts to suit his team’s needs will soon search for a team capable of adapting to suit his.
“We had great moments,” James said when asked if he could take anything positive away from Wednesday’s loss. But …
“It’s hard for me,” he added. “I’m not a guy that takes positives from games. If you lose, it’s negative to me. It’s just how I am.”
Forty-eight minutes away from another season ending in defeat, the basketball world’s about to turn its attention to whether James took enough positives from this Cavs season to believe it’s worth sticking around, or if those moments aren’t enough to keep him from seeking a new setting, one stocked with at least few good minds.
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