Following a disappointing first round exit against the Jazz in the 2018, the Thunder looked to be in a difficult spot, with Paul George a free agent and the team seemingly stuck with Carmelo Anthony who had underperformed throughout the season.
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Much of the narrative surrounding the Cavaliers during the 2018 NBA finals is how little help LeBron James had on this Cavaliers roster.
All corners of the media haven’t held back when damning the play of the Cavs supporting cast, and to be fair, if you took LeBron off this roster, it is headed straight to the top of the lottery.
A concurrent and complimentary storyline revolves around the greatness of LeBron – how only a player of his immense talent and stature could carry this squad to the NBA finals and, were it not for the bumbling efforts of his teammates, he would have stolen Game 1 on the road.
If LeBron were to have won this series, it would have elevated him above Michael Jordan in the eyes of many as the greatest player ever.
However, maybe we are looking at this all wrong. Can we apportion 100 per cent of the blame for the Cavs’ shortcomings to the supporting cast?
First and foremost, this supporting cast is James’s making. Since returning to Cleveland James has wielded great influence over the franchise – he’s commonly referred to as GM LeBron – as he brokered trades and free agency signings and established a roster of trusted players and friends.
In the summer of 2014, before he had even begun playing with the Cavs again, James recruited Kevin Love, a player who was not a free agent. He sold him on the city and the team, and not long afterwards the Cavs traded for the All-Star forward. It has not been a perfect marriage – there is no doubt Love took some adjusting to playing alongside LeBron – and Love has not maintained the All-NBA level of play he was known for in Minnesota, but he is no scrub.
James also put huge pressure on the Cavs to re-sign Tristan Thompson in the summer of 2015. Thompson and the Cavs entered into a stalemate in negotiations that led to Thompson holding out on training camp. James frequently commented publicly regarding the value Thompson brought to the team and how the holdout was a distraction. Thompson also shares James’s agent.
Eventually the Cavs handed Tristan Thompson, a valuable but limited rotation player, a five-year $82 million deal. In 2016 LeBron urged the Cavs to re-sign JR Smith, who ended up getting a four-year $57 million contract.
Many question Tyronn Lue’s coaching ability, and remarkably Lue has escaped the Game 1 fiasco with only a small apportionment of blame despite choosing not to call a timeout after the JR Smith rebound.
Pretty much every aspect of Lue’s coaching has been criticised this season and it all feels justifiable. Lue’s inability to get anything meaningful out of the Cavs supporting cast is an indictment on his quality as a coach. It is impossible to be sure the Cavs would have been more competitive had they been led by a better coach, but it certainly feels like it wouldn’t have hurt.
The Cavs, however, did have a guy who notionally knew basketball in David Blatt. LeBron didn’t like him and orchestrated his firing before the Cavs hired Lue at James’s insistence
Last summer the NBA world was shocked by the announcement that co-star Kyrie Irving was demanding a trade. The details around his reasoning have never been clear other than that he wanted to have his own team. This is not uncommon or unreasonable in the NBA. The only thing that is clear is that the situation in Cleveland was no longer meeting Kyrie’s needs, and in Cleveland LeBron is the situation.
I find it hard to believe LeBron didn’t understand how valuable Kyrie was to that team. I do not know what lengths LeBron went to to ensure he stay, but it was obviously not enough.
Isiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, who joined the Cavs as part of the Irving trade, also struggled to fit in and get on James’s good side. Neither were able to string together consistent performances on the court and were promptly traded away midseason to assuage LeBron’s general disdain for the roster.
When we reflect on the 2018 NBA finals many of us will wonder how competitive LeBron could have been with even a league average supporting cast, but we cannot forget that LeBron played a large role in building this team. LeBron has made achieving success with the Cavs more difficult than it may have otherwise been.
Cleveland’s front office is certainly not without blame for the roster either – after all, they are the ones who execute LeBron’s wishes. However, their rationale may be slightly more understandable.
The Cavaliers’ entire basketball strategy has focused on doing whatever it takes to keep LeBron James in Cleveland. If this year has proven anything it is that if you have LeBron James on your roster (in the east), you are going to the NBA finals. And, notionally, once you are there, anything can happen.
Obviously this season it didn’t feel that way, but there were 14 other eastern teams that weren’t able to earn the right to be there. Four finals trips in four years for the Cavs and eight in eight for rosters featuring LeBron – the keep-LeBron-happy strategy gets results.
Of course you would like to think that the front office team could do more to build around such a phenomenal talent, but their top priority was always his happiness rather than basketball fit.
Great players are supposed to make their teammates better. Maybe the belief is that this supporting cast is so poor it is not reasonable to expect LeBron to elevate their play to a level of positive contribution, but I think that is giving him a pass. There is no doubt the Cavs role players are not elite, but these guys are no scrubs – in fact there are no scrubs at all in the NBA.
Rodney Hood, who was virtually unplayable in the play-offs, averaged 16.8 points per game and 2.6 threes per game in 28 minutes a night this season when he was with the Jazz. Adjusting to a new team midseason is surely no easy task, but this guy can play. Yet between LeBron, coach Lue and his staff, no-one could figure out how to get productive minutes out of him.
Kyle Korver is one of the best three-point shooters the NBA has ever seen. This one is certainly more on the coaching staff, but not finding a way to get him going in the finals is criminal.
George Hill is a highly capable starting point guard. He spearheaded the best defensive team in the league during his time in Indiana. He had an outstanding season with Utah just last year, averaging 17 points, four assists, three rebounds and a steal. Yet with the Cavs both his shooting and passing dropped off.
Jeff Green is an NBA enigma. I won’t hold this one against LeBron as no-one has been able to figure him out.
Larry Nance is a perfectly good NBA rotation player and a prime candidate to explode when playing alongside LeBron. He rebounds, he screens and he dunks. He does the little things and can finish when being gifted looks. However, his numbers were virtually identical to when playing alongside a rookie point guard in an overloaded and ill-fitting front court.
And of course there is JR Smith. LeBron has got more out of Smith than was ever intended by God in seasons past, but Smith’s play in the 2018 play-offs was a far cry from those days.
By and large LeBron just hasn’t been able to elevate the play of his supporting cast. A big part of this seems like excuse making for his impending departure in free agency.
Another part of it seems that LeBron can be a difficult teammate. I do not blame him; we have all been in jobs where our colleagues frustrate us with incompetence. Even though we know it is our job to support and develop them, that frustration can cloud judgement and make for a very unproductive environment.
The best managers try to avoid ever being frustrated with their staff. Is it fair to expect the same from LeBron? Basketball is a team sport, and as the team’s best player and captain LeBron is a leader whether he wants to be or not. So, yes, it is fair to expect this of him.
After Game 4 Warriors coach Steve Kerr told the media “We had more talent than they did, and talent wins in this league”.
That the Cavs were grossly outmatched in the NBA finals is undeniable. The odds were against them, and as the dust settles, it is clear there isn’t much more LeBron could have done to change the outcome of this series.
But there is also no doubt he was not without fault both in building this team and in its failure of leadership.