OAKLAND, Calif. — When Steve Kerr is asked about LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors coach often starts talking about Michael Jordan.
The instinct is understandable. James, in his 15th season, in now in the very small group of Jordan peers. He might be at the top of it.
And so, when Kerr was asked on Saturday how much of a difference it makes, when coming off a crushing loss, to have a transcendent player like James on the floor, he went right back to the well of Jordan, his former teammate.
“There is just so much confidence in that player amongst the group. That’s how it was with Michael,” Kerr said. “If we lost a game, you go back to the hotel, you’re upset and then you go, oh, yeah, we’ve got Michael. We’re going to win Game 2.”
Kerr said Jordan projected that confidence to his teammates partly in the way he carried himself: “Like, ‘we’ve got this,’ you know?”
The same thing is often said of LeBron. That has also led to a particular type of NBA analysis that studies James for any hint that his confidence, and specifically his confidence in his teammates, has waned. The LeBronologists have had a lot to work with. On Thursday night alone, there was his arms-outstretched total exasperation with J.R. Smith over the latter’s failure to check the score. There was also his walking away from the post-game interview podium when he grew tired of a reporter asking him if he knew what Smith was thinking when he effectively dribbled out the clock in a tie game (James helpfully advised the reporter to “be better tomorrow,” before walking off in a huff, which is a tough thing to pull off while wearing a suit with short pants).
These were just the latest signs that maybe, we are at the end of LeBron’s Cleveland comeback era. People have been chiselling the epitaph on that portion of his career since about this time last year, when the Cavaliers were waxed by the Warriors in five games and it became evident that he would have great difficulty adding to his championship total of three if he remained in his hometown. It seemed evident when Kyrie Irving left in the off-season, and evident when the Cavs traded half their bench in seeming mid-season desperation, and when they lost Game 1 at home in the first round and then the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. Every time, he has managed to turn things around. There are a lot of half-chiselled epitaphs by now.
But that question has given this series a weight that it wouldn’t otherwise have. Yes, there is the importance of an NBA title at stake, even if the result is largely thought to be pre-ordained. But there is also the looming uncertainty of LeBron’s future. There is what happens now, and there is what happens next.
A pending free agent, he has the ability to reshape the league based on his own whims, and there can be little doubt that the decision he makes in the summer will be significantly informed not just by the result of these Finals, but the way in which that result is reached. If Game 1 was the peak for Cleveland, with James throwing his best haymaker and the Warriors, staggered, still surviving it, that will significantly increase the expectation that he will leave. If the Cavs make this a series, he’s more likely to stay.
It is such an odd moment in the history of the NBA. James, at 33 years old and with all those miles on his odometer, should be in his career twilight. His 2003 draft class is populated by guys who are well past their prime (Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony), have long been role players (Kyle Korver, David West), or are now coaches (Luke Walton) or mascots (Kendrick Perkins). And yet James might still be, somehow, improving. He just scored more points in his 43th NBA Finals game than he had in any of the previous 42, coming in a season in which he has led both the regular season and playoffs in minutes played.
Kerr said after Game 1 that the Cavaliers “have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I’m not sure anybody’s ever seen before,” a statement all the more significant given how often he invokes Jordan.
All which makes LeBron’s next move all the more intriguing. It is impossible to imagine him as a role player on a contender, as usually happens with fading stars. He hasn’t faded enough to be that.
But would he be better positioned to win a title with some other East team next year? Or would he rather try the super-team thing again in somewhere like Houston or San Antonio? In either of those scenarios, would he really abandon the Cavs for a second time?
It feels all the more, after his ridiculous Game 1, that whatever LeBron James does on the court will be the story of these Finals and this NBA season. A close second, though, will be what he decides shortly after it is over.
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