For the past six seasons, LeBron James has been on the team that represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. After winning two championships in four seasons with the Miami Heat, James “came home” to Ohio and lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals last year, but the Golden State Warriors ended up with the crown.
Now, once more, James and the Cavaliers head to the Finals with title-aspirations, although many believe the Cavaliers are once again destined for the silver medal. James and the Cavaliers might have the upper hand this time around however, as the Cavaliers look like a much more complete team.
With both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving healthy, James has his sidekicks ready to play, unlike last season. Love went down in the first round, and Irving was knocked out of the Finals early on. Now, injury-free, the Cavaliers seem to be on the brink of a championship, even if the Warriors are the likely favorites.
Don’t mistake this team’s health as the only reason they have improved, in fact, the team is finally starting to play like a team. In the 2016 postseason, the Cavaliers rank 2nd in assists per game, behind only the Warriors. In the regular season, the Cavaliers ranked at around league-average, so the improvement is easily noticeable.
The biggest reason for Cleveland’s success though is their three-point shooting. As a team in the regular season, the Cavaliers only made 10.7 threes per game, but that number has jumped up to 14.4 in the playoffs. Not only is Cleveland making more threes, but they are making them at a much better clip: the Cavaliers’ 3P% is up to .434, compared to a .362 figure from the regular season.
Channing Frye, a Cavaliers mid-season acquisition, has nailed 26 of 45 threes in the postseason, and along with Frye (.578), Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert (.474), J.R. Smith (.462), Kyrie Irving (.456), and Richard Jefferson (.455) are all shooting above 45% from long-distance. This three-point onslaught has been the defining factor in the Cavaliers incredible 12-2 postseason, so far.
But for the Cavaliers to finally win a championship, the pressure still belongs to James. Let’s look at LeBron’s stats this postseason compared to his last two:
Although his points, assists, and rebounds are down this season, LeBron actually has a better PER. If we go back even further, LeBron’s PER this season is better (28.1) than in his last championship in 2012-13. Now, PER isn’t a perfect statistic, but it can tell us something very clear about LeBron’s playoff performance this year: James is playing much more consistently and efficiently for the Cavaliers offense.
Going back to the Finals last season, it’s clear that James didn’t have this kind of efficiency. James only shot .398 from the field in the 6-game loss to the Warriors, and he attempted a whopping 196 shots; for comparison, Golden State’s Steph Curry only attempted 122 shots. With no Love or Irving though, it’s clear why James was forcing the issue: he didn’t have the kind of help he needed.
James is only attempting 17.9 shots per game, down from 27.2 shots per game last year. These shots have instead gone to his running mates: Love and Irving. Love’s 13.7 FGA per game is up roughly 3 shots from last year, and Irving’s FGA per game have jumped from 14.2 to 19.2. Since James has some legitimate help this time, he’s taking smarter shots, and it shows: LeBron’s FG% in the postseason is .546, a career-high.
With the 73-9 Warriors up next, a team that has chased history all season, the Cavaliers have a rough road ahead. Leading the charge for the Warriors is the back-to-back MVP, Steph Curry, and this same team just won the Finals last season. If James and the Cavaliers are ready for a championship, it doesn’t get any easier.
The Warriors play extremely tough defense, which they used to their advantage in the Finals last season, forcing LeBron into taking bad shots. The Cavaliers will need every supporting character, from Irving and Love all the way down to Richard Jefferson and Tristan Thompson, to take some of the pressure off James. He simply can’t do it all himself, as we saw last season.
Health is on their side this time though, with Irving and Love ready to play. The Cavaliers “took it easy” in the regular season, resting their starters regularly and winning only 57 games, quite a few less than the historic Warriors. It didn’t end up meaning a whole lot, as the Cavaliers mostly coasted through the Eastern Conference playoffs. But the accumulated rest may prove beneficial in the Finals, since the Warriors didn’t have that same luxury.
James, Love, and Irving all played less than 80 games, with Irving only playing 53. The Warriors “Big 3” of Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Curry played 80, 81, and 79 respectively. Each of the Warriors “Big 3” played more than 33 minutes per game as well, while the Cavaliers’ Love and Irving played roughly 31 MPG each. It may not seem like a huge difference, but it adds up over the course of the season.
With a more talented, healthy supporting cast around him, James has the help he needs to unseat the Warriors. This year, finally, may be Cleveland’s year.
Statistics provided by: ESPN.com, basketball-reference.com
Images thanks to: Forbes, LA Times, Getty Images, Sporting News, Fox Sports, popista.com