LeBron James gets by with more than a little help from his friends

David Friedman Columnist

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers might trade Kev Love. (EDrost88 / Flickr)

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    LeBron James is the best player in the NBA and the world, but he is not a one-man team. He needed a lot of help to get past the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference semi finals.

    Matthew Dellavedova led the Cleveland Cavaliers with 19 points on 7-11 field goal shooting as the Cavaliers eliminated the Chicago Bulls with a 94-73 Game 6 win.

    James finished with 15 points on 7-23 field goal shooting, though he added 11 assists and nine rebounds. Tristan Thompson dominated the paint with 13 points and a game-high 17 rebounds.

    The Cavaliers also received significant contributions from Iman Shumpert (13 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and J.R.Smith (12 points, eight rebounds).

    The popular narrative with LeBron James throughout most of his career often emphasises that he has little help around him and thus must play at a superhuman level to give his team a chance to win.

    The Cavaliers’ 2-9 record without James in the 2014-15 regular season lends credence to the notion that the team is not very good without him.

    However, matters are not quite so simple. James has many teammates who have filled similar roles in previous situations and/or who one could easily picture filling similar roles on other teams. J.R. Smith is a proven shooter, Tristan Thompson’s heart/hustle game would be welcome on any squad, Iman Shumpert is a solid defender and Timofey Mozgov is a skilled big man.

    James also has two All-Star calibre teammates, though Kevin Love is out for the playoffs and Kyrie Irving is currently hobbled by knee and foot injuries.

    James deserves some credit for his teammates’ success, because his presence on the court opens up opportunities for his teammates even on plays when he does not make the final pass for the assist. James’ impact goes beyond his individual
    numbers and beyond his field goal percentage.

    None of this is meant to suggest that James performed terribly against Chicago. He led the Cavaliers in scoring (26.2 ppg), assists (8.8 apg), steals (1.7 spg) and blocked shots (1.7 bpg). James also averaged 11.0 rpg, just .2 rpg behind Tristan Thompson for team-high honors in that category.

    James was outstanding in Cleveland’s 106-101 Game 5 win, scoring 38 points on 14-24 field goal shooting while also producing 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocked shots and no turnovers in 41 minutes. That is one of the best all-around stat lines you will ever see.

    However, James struggled mightily with his shooting during the Chicago series and if his teammates had not stepped up then the Cavaliers would have lost.

    James shot just .399 from the field, including .107 from three point range.

    James is shooting .424 from the field during the first two rounds of the 2015 playoffs. His .146 three point shooting percentage ranks last in the 2015 playoffs among the 48 players who have attempted at least 25 three pointers.

    During James’ four years in Miami, he worked very hard to improve his outside shot and his post up game. Prior to that, he relied on his size and athleticism to score, so defences could exploit his weaknesses in ways that they would not try against Kobe Bryant in Bryant’s prime.

    For instance, in the 2007 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs clogged the lane, daring LeBron James to either shoot from the outside or else force passes – and James did both, to very little positive effect (.356 field goal shooting, .200 three point shooting, series-high 5.8 turnovers per game average) as the Spurs swept the Cavaliers.

    LeBron James has authored several epic playoff performances and he is the main reason that the Miami Heat won two championships while reaching the NBA Finals for four straight years.

    The extent to which James’ offensive game has regressed during the 2015 playoffs is puzzling. As James ages and his athleticism wanes, he will be increasingly forced to rely upon his post up game and his jump shot, much like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant did after they entered their 30s.

    The Cavaliers have a very good team but they will need more from James than they are currently getting in order to win the championship.

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.

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