I can’t satisfy critics who call me a coward for leaving undermanned Cleveland and joining two stars in Miami. I guess they feel I should’ve taken a D-League team to the NBA finals. Look at Kevin Durant. He had talent in Oklahoma City – Russell Westbrook and for a while Westbrook and James Harden – but he’s not getting hit much for signing with Golden State to play with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Listen, they’ve probably got four hall of famers now and may keep me from winning enough to prevent people saying LeBron’s only won three times in eight NBA finals, and Michael Jordan never lost and Bill Russell won eleven titles in thirteen seasons. I know. I’m a historian and understand and appreciate those guys. Russell would tell you, and Jordan might, that teams win championships. I don’t think my teams ever lost a series we were good enough to win.
In 2007 at age twenty-two, when most players are years from leading a team to the NBA finals – Jordan was twenty-eight his first time – I headed a team whose second and third leading scorers in the series were Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson, sincere but undistinguished teammates who averaged about thirteen and eleven. Granted, they shot a lot better from the field than my embarrassing thirty-six percent but the Spurs and shrewd coach Gregg Popovich had decided to hound me defensively while throttling back on my guys. Sound strategy, particularly when your top three players are Tim Duncan, the best power forward ever, splendid point guard Tony Parker, and clutch swingman Manu Ginobelli. Their defensive grinder, Bruce Bowen, dedicated himself to harassing me. While being swept, our largest loss was by eleven points and at home we lost by only three and one. Michael Jordan, taking my place on the Cavaliers or bringing in his Bulls from the eighties, would have done no better. I say this not to belittle a man enshrined on the Mt. Rushmore of athletes but to urge perspective.
After being outgunned three straight years in the Eastern Conference, by the Boston Celtics and the Orlando Magic, I became – and let us henceforth view it in this manner – the next Wilt Chamberlain or the Kevin Durant before his time. Chamberlain, as connoisseurs know, twice arranged to be traded to unusually talented teams, the Philadelphia 76ers of Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham, and, even more stunning, the Los Angeles Lakers of virtuosos Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. As I left Cleveland, and my lifelong cradle in Akron, I (too loudly) celebrated a union with stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. I wish I hadn’t promised so many titles.
In 2011 the Dallas Mavericks played supreme basketball, defending me well wherever I went, and limited me to fifteen shots a game. By contrast, Dirk Nowitzki fired twenty-one times an outing, and Dallas, trailing one game to two, won the final three and the championship. I don’t know why I didn’t shoot more, other than the aforementioned harassment by Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler. Observers casual and professional concluded I lacked the heart and soul of a champion. Nowitzki outplayed me by miles as did my man Dwyane Wade, but I averaged eighteen points, seven rebounds and assists, and shot forty-eight percent from the field. No one mopped the floor with my mug. I understood the problem, though. Everyone including myself had expected a transcendent performance, yet I merely delivered like an average all star, and that’s not good enough for the best player on earth, if I really was the best.
I knew I was. I think I knew I was. I prayed like hell. But what if I wasn’t the best? Or what if I was only the best during the regular season? I’m not comparing that concern to war and pestilence but in my world, in my head, it caused recurring pain. In the 2012 finals I attacked doubt, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, by shooting twenty-two times a game, averaging about twenty-nine points, ten rebounds, and seven assists as we won in five. I was relieved though only slightly more so than my fans. Even many critics felt better. I couldn’t then have imagined that the stud on the other team, Kevin Durant, who averaged thirty a game in defeat, would in a few years take his skills to a team that had just won a record seventy-three games.
The Spurs blocked our path in 2013. Bruce Bowen had departed and was replaced by Kawhi Leonard, an even finer defender and much better scorer. I only played fair the first two games, which we split, and stumbled in game three, hitting seven of twenty-one from the floor as we lost by thirty-six points. LeBron’s taking a dive again, came the catcalls. He doesn’t know how to win championships. I can’t attribute my response to their insults. I simply know in game four I lit it up, totaling thirty-three points and grabbing eleven rebounds as we tied the series at two. The Spurs counterpunched in game five, defeating us by ten, and we returned to Miami on the edge of elimination.
I wasn’t particularly hot in game six but was tough as I painted a triple double of thirty-two, ten, and eleven, all essential in a game tied at ninety-five at the buzzer and that we won in overtime. That’s what I needed, my first finals victory on the brink. I was twenty-eight and still standing in the overwhelming shadow of Michael Jordan, who, I continued to remind myself, at this stage was seeking his first title with the Chicago Bulls. In the title game I wrote the LeBron James story, hitting half my threes and all my free throws and more than half my field goal attempts and snatching twelve rebounds to lead us to a seven-point win and the title, my second. Now, at least, I had as many as Wilt, but I’d need more. In 2014 the Spurs whipped us four games to one, and as my number two and three guys, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, averaged only fifteen and fourteen points, I could see their athletic bodies yielding to Father Time. You know what I did. I put aside, but didn’t forget, the ungracious comments of team owner Dan Gilbert, and I went home.
I believe we’d have beaten the Golden States Warriors in 2015 if my new second and third guys, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, hadn’t gone down. We still won games two and three but the Warriors plugged Andre Iguodala into the lineup, replacing passive giant Andrew Bogut, and Messieurs Curry, Green, and Thompson coalesced to outgun us in games four, five, and six. I played the best ball of my life, and as well as anyone’s ever played – thirty-six points, thirteen rebounds, and nine assists per, while thrice tallying forty points or more – but did not win the finals MVP. That distinction went to Iguodala. Did I care? Not particularly. Big stats without titles bring agonizing appraisals. Fine. Let’s move to 2016.
The Warriors burned a lot of gas down the stretch to win seventy-three games, beating Jordan’s 1996 Bulls by one, and looked beat in the conference finals, trailing Oklahoma City, and Kevin Durant and Michael Westbrook, three games to one. They came back, though, winning three in a row, and then smacked us in the first two games at Golden State. I thought I might’ve scared them with my way-high right-hand alley-oop slam in our game three victory, but the Warriors took the fourth game and held a three to one advantage never overcome in the NBA finals. See, LeBron’s gonna be two and five on the big stage, I continued to hear. Were these words spoken to me or simply sounds in my head? Both, probably. At worst I’d be able to tell myself: two titles and six straight trips to the finals. But maybe we could still win. Let’s move to game five in Oakland where Kyrie Irving smoked the Warriors billion-dollar backcourt, nailing seventeen of twenty-four from the field, amassing forty-one points, same as I got. I also contributed sixteen rebounds and seven assists, and that feels great any time, especially during a fifteen-point victory in an elimination game. Now we were going back home, and the Warriors still needed only one more game, of two, and most of the money, real and emotional, rode on them. In the first quarter we ambushed and outscored them by twenty points, and won by fourteen. I again dropped forty-one on the defending champs.
Game seven loomed at their place in Oakland. So what? I’ll be frank. They’d be going against LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and company, who’ve blitzed them twice in a row, and the first time I played in a finals game seven, in 2013, you know what I did to San Antonio. Can the Warriors really match that? My guys and I were confident and played high-level ball. So did Draymond Green, who shot three-pointers like Steph Curry, swishing six of eight. The first forty-six minutes of the game resulted in a tie and a Warriors fast break that promised to yield a layup and the lead. Steph Curry from left of the lane bounced a pass to streaking Andre Iguodala who with his right hand laid the ball on the glass, and as it flowed some foot and a half above the rim I sprinted at the target, planted my left leg, and soared to right-hand pound the ball against the glass and into the hands of my teammate J.R. Smith. With fifty-five seconds left, and the game knotted at eighty-nine, Kyrie skied over Curry to release and make a three-pointer. Golden State didn’t score again, and Cleveland had its first championship since the 1964 NFL title game when mathematician Frank Ryan threw three touchdown passes to Gary Collins and Jim Brown rushed for more than a hundred yards in a twenty-seven zip victory over the Baltimore Colts.
Our city by the lake celebrated. We’d love to hold another victory parade this year. To do so, we’ll face about the same Warriors team plus Kevin Durant, the second best player in the world. Let’s say he and I play about the same. No, I’ve got to have an edge, if not in points then in rebounding and assists. And Kyrie Irving must play at least a little better than Steph Curry, who wasn’t completely healthy last time. And Kevin Love’s got to play even with Draymond Green, one of the best all-around performers in the league, a vocal man who scores inside and out and rebounds and blocks shots and assists teammates. That’s their top three against ours. But now their former second or third guy, Klay Thompson, is their fourth, and our J.R. Smith, though capable, cannot match Thompson in a best of seven series. At center we have the edge with Tristan Thompson, a powerful rebounder, against anyone the Warriors play in the middle. I believe our substitutes are a little better than theirs but won’t swear that. I can’t guarantee victory, either, just a superlative effort against one of the finest teams in history.