Soon after LeBron James extended congrat hugs to the Warriors, LeBron James and Jerry West were trending. LeBron has six NBA Finals losses. Jerry West has eight. The NBA Logo and the greatest of his generation are now lumped together in the same conversation because both suffered mind numbing losses in the NBA Finals.
The losses to the Celtics were a Jerry West rite of passage that repeated year after year. It took something out of West even if it didn’t change the arc of his career. He retired two years after finally winning his first title. In hindsight, it was those losses he remembered more. The exhaustion and sorrow remained in the West psyche as a never ending burden. West wanted to play another year even though his best friend Elgin Baylor had already retired and Wilt had retired.
In the 1974 playoffs, the Lakers lost to Milwaukee in five games. West felt he had one more year in him but he became embroiled in a contract dispute with Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke. He didn’t need the stress. He let his career go.
LeBron James has a more organic approach after losing which is not to say he doesn’t get into his feelings. But he does the math, crosses the i’s and t’s, balances credits and debits and then, in a group think process, plans his next strategy. For most humans, three titles would be a good career but LeBron is not the average NBA champion.
Ever since he donned a jersey with Michael Jordan’s number on it, LeBron James achievements have threaded the prism of iconic. In the James era, winning the last game of the season is mythologized, particularly in a visual society. It’s hard to imagine today the circumstances and culture in which the NBA Finals of 1980 showcased a rookie Magic Johnson on tape delay, after the local news. Most people didn’t see it. Contrast that to the NBA Finals that ended on Friday. As a series and entertainment vehicle, it was viewed, tweeted about, photographed and photoshopped, friended, liked, and in Cleveland, cried over. It just may end the Cleveland career of LeBron James.
11 years. 1 title.
Jerry West was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1960 and retired from the Lakers in 1974. Every year except his rookie year, he averaged 20 ppg. He had an 11 year run of averaging 25 points per game, his last two years being the outlier. Beginning in his third year, he never shot less than 46% until that last season, 1973-74. He only played 31 games that year because of a groin strain. The competitor in him didn’t want his NBA career to end on an injured footnote. But Jack Kent Cooke played hardball.
In the playoffs of 1965, Jerry West averaged 40.6 points a game and he lost to the Celtics. In the playoffs of 2018, LeBron James averaged 34.0 points a game and he lost to the Golden State Warriors. In the 2009 NBA playoffs, James averaged 35.3 points a game and didn’t win a title.
On paper, the James and West careers look similar but it’s all illusion. The objects are not closer than they appear. West had one of the greatest scorers on his team, Elgin Baylor. The Lakers poured on the points against the Celtics. They didn’t have an answer though for Bob Cousy and Bill Russell and John Havlicek.
After the Lakers wasted West’s 40 point per game performance in the Finals, the next year West dropped 34 points and they lost again. The Celtics were loaded with talent, were an organizational genius (Red Auerbach drafted Larry Bird when Bird was still in college) and had excellence on the sidelines. They had everything you needed. Toughness, scoring, defense, teamwork. They had stars up and down the bench and were steeped in the teammate culture. You first.
LeBron has spoken extensively about the Warriors not being an accident. This was built. You start with Klay who mysteriously dropped in the draft and then you add Steph. You trade Monta Ellis, the fan fave, for Andrew Bogut who needed microfracture surgery, angering the local ticket holders who came to Oracle rain or shine. You draft a second round pick, jack of all trades, master of none Draymond Green, then send him to the bench. Steph has injuries and he allows the Warriors to low ball him in his restricted deal. Mark Jackson is out. Steve Kerr is in. An injured David Lee sits and Draymond gets his opportunity. Cap space is made for Andre Iguodala. All roads lead to Kevin Durant and there it lays. Three titles in four years.
The Warriors took time to build while the Cavs didn’t do much building. They passed on Giannis Antetokounmpo. They traded away Andrew Wiggins, Dion Waiters, Kyrie Irving. The Cavs are good at tearing things up but don’t have much talent for idea, design, construction, piece by piece. A then B. B then C. C then D. Their only luck has been LeBron James, the best player since you know who.
Advances in the sport, shooting excellence, quickness, size and athleticism, explosiveness, make it a requirement to stockpile talent like the ‘60’s Celtics did, the team that buried Jerry West in pain.
LeBron doesn’t have the Jerry West pain because he doesn’t have the Jerry West story. He has a victory against his nemesis but not much else. In 22 NBA Finals games against the Warriors, LeBron has won 7. That’s a 31% winning percentage. It’s not a small sample size to come to the conclusion that Cleveland has done very little in the building of a team part of the equation to compete with excellence. One player can’t play all 5 positions ala Magic Johnson. Magic only did it for one NBA Finals game. LeBron has been asked to play that way all season because the Cavaliers thought it prudent to trade Kyrie Irving because Irving’s feelings were hurt. Organizationally, the Cavs are underwater. That’s not LeBron’s fault and he takes zero ownership for the front office crash and burn.
And so he is here. Six NBA Finals losses. Perhaps he stays in Cleveland but it feels like a ridiculous ending to the LeBron James story. The team is idea poor. They don’t think outside the box. They take chances but those moves usually fail. They don’t have history of building on the fly, of miracles. The best thing that happened to them was luck. Drafting LeBron James. And Draymond Green’s NBA Finals suspension that allowed the Cavs back into the 2016 Finals. Luck, though, isn’t sustainable. It puts you in a place where you are begging for mercy.
So now the begging begins. The Cavs have to create a plan and convince their best player it is viable. Everything is at stake, even more than this season that went sideways after the Kyrie trade. Trying to beat a dynasty by himself only had one predictable ending. Furthermore, no other athlete of his talent level ever had that burden. They could always look to their left and their right and to the bench and to the front office. LeBron in Cleveland is alone.
Alone and gone. Not retirement gone like West. But let me save my legacy and get outta here gone like Kevin Durant.