In order to win the 2018 NBA Championship, the Cleveland Cavaliers will need an all-time great performance by LeBron James.
Bold stuff there from me, the proud winner of today's Most Really Obvious Statement competition. Everyone thinks this. Everyone knows this. Everyone saw this exact thing in the 2016 NBA Finals, and everyone has seen that exact thing thus far in these NBA playoffs. Particularly so in Sunday night's game seven victory over the Boston Celtics, in which James played every minute and recorded 35 points, 15 rebounds and 9 assists. He might have had 20 assists were he not playing with The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight.
But here's the thing - how? Where? Doing what? And when? What is LeBron to do to put on this all-time great performance, specifically, and for the entire game?
If LeBron is to largely do this himself, and particularly so if Kevin Love is out, what is the formula that the Cleveland Cavaliers and he must follow if they are to pull this thing out?
Key to winning that game seven was that, no matter how many shots Cleveland missed as a team (and particularly from three-point range), the Celtics missed more. Shooting 7-39 from three-point range as a team, Boston missed plenty of good looks and took plenty of bad ones on their way to a second half offensive collapse that cost them a spot in the NBA Finals, and the boast of ending LeBron's stranglehold on the East.
This is not something that even a generous Cleveland partisan could ascribe primarily to his team's defence. Cleveland's defence was pretty solid, yes, moreso than at many other times in this postseason, and few completely uncontested shots and passes were to be seen. It was however more due to Boston simply missing. Be it due to tired legs, simple variance, tension, or some combination thereof, the Celtics' good shooters missed good looks. And this is not something that can be relied upon for success.
What seemingly can be relied upon, though, is LeBron James.
LeBron James played all 48 minutes in game seven, not single for a single second or possession of a massively important game. Cleveland have struggled so badly to play any minutes without him that it seems that they decided simply not to.
In this era of heightened awareness of player's minutes distribution, and of higher-intensity defensive schematics that use up more of a player's energy in off-ball movement, almost no one plays 48 minutes of a game any more, and certainly not without overtime. They definitely do not do so after playing 46 minutes in the previous game, and two games after suffering with cramps due to excessive workload. They definitely definitely do not do so at the age of 33 and when also shouldering such a hefty workload of what the team seeks to do on both ends.
Except LeBron, of course. And to do so meant relying on more than just his own preternatural physical qualities. Specifically, it involved adapting his style of play so as to incorporate as much on-court rest as possible, without lessening the workload he needs to share for the Cavaliers to win.
This starts on the defensive end. It is known that LeBron walks a lot - per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, he does so more than any other player in the league. He particularly does so on defence, though, in a strategic bid to save his energy. To do so means being able to just what part of the court he defends.
Every line-up has its offensive weak points. Between starting power forward Aron Baynes (whose postseason three-point explosion was fun yet not enough to change this relative deficiency) and backup guard Marcus Smart (who plays as though he is a considerably better shooter than Baynes without the results to ever back up that thinking), Boston very rarely played any line-ups that did not feature at least one such offensive weak link in it.
This gave LeBron an opportunity to somewhat hide defensively, and certainly to rest. Partly because he is perversely the team's best interior shot blocking presence amongst the starters despite ostensibly being a perimeter player (and the second best defensive rebounder, rising to best when Love is out), James spent as much time as possible in the Celtics series on the defensive end lingering on the back line. He will start on whoever is in the corner or on the baseline (often Baynes and Smart in the Conference Finals due to the aforementioned scoring limitations), and if his man should be a shooter who subsequently gets into motion, LeBron will communicate that to a team-mate, who will pick up the task.
It is not James's place to be on the perimeter chasing around those like himself. He could do it, perhaps, but he has too much else to do. LeBron also has an excellent knowledge of the game, and specific knowledge of his opponents, their playbooks and tendencies. From the back line of the defence, he can read and react to every, and be the ultimate defensive quarterback, calling out rotations and switches for his team mates. Even if he is not making many plays on the ball defensively himself relative to his peers, he is still the hub of the unit in and around the paint. Back there, he can be at his most useful - and more importantly, still save his legs.
The job of chasing, then, fell unto his peers. George Hill was brought in as a part of the Cavaliers' mid-season reload with a view to being able to chase opposing point guards around, as well as being big enough to contest on bigs when called upon to switch. He has done this decently, and certainly better than Isaiah Thomas before him. J.R Smith mixes in good defensive plays with some completely absent ones, yet does provide some size on the wings, while Kyle Korver plays with as much energy defensively as he does offensively, and has always been a better defender than it is assumed he is.
Alongside him in the paint, Tristan Thompson has been reborn in the second half of the season, and brings the Cavaliers versatile defence and excellent offensive rebounding that they do not otherwise have. So long as doing so does not overly sacrifice having men back to counter the Warriors' deadly transition game, having Thompson's presence on the offensive glass could be key to countering Golden State's switch-heavy gamble-friendly defensive schematic, as well as being a key part of Cleveland's own. And while a match-up against Al Horford was not favourable to him (and nor will a match-up against Draymond Green be), Larry Nance Jr could be an impactful defensive player around the basket against a team full of wing players that like to drive there, and against the unathletic big men the Warriors run out when not playing the Hampton Five.
If it is taken that Kevon Looney and Andre Iguodala are somewhat similar in their offensive usage to Baynes and Smart, then perhaps LeBron can find similar comfort zones defensively again. It will be harder considering the barrage that Golden State can put up offensively versus the limited weaponry of the depleted Celtics, yet it will be possible, especially considering their lack of bench scoring compared to past incarnations of themselves. Defensively, then, the Cavaliers can cover for James.
Offensively, they have had less success at managing without him. Cleveland's offence is reliant upon LeBron's presence, and this is more functionally the case than can be countered by just having him function as a decoy. It is James whose transition plays, half-court drives and post-up presence create the space off of which everyone else can operate.
This has long been the case and is still is. When James is out, everyone else's role changes, and apart from the post-ups and elbow touches of Kevin Love and then you'll-only-stop-us-by-benching-us offensive aggression of Clarkson and Rodney Hood, the Cavaliers do not feature shot creators. When the team needs to get looks in the half court game without James, it struggles to even get meaningful penetration beyond the first line of the defence, and no one has the handle or the control to shift defences around consistently. This jarring weakness, distinctly, is the biggest difference between the pre- and post-Kyrie Irving trade Cleveland Cavaliers.
Still more can be done to alleviate this imbalance, of course. Hill could stand to do more offensively - he is a good weakside shooting threat, standing in the corner and waiting for LeBron's skip passes, yet he could also stand to do more in the way of ball handling responsibility, half-court penetration to either kick or score. or cuts off the ball. He has spent a career doing these things, and he needs to get back to doing them more often like he did in his days at Utah.
Furthermore, Cleveland has had some success operating a Hill/James pick-and-roll. With James setting the screen, he is essentially impossible to stop rolling to the rim. Maybe Cleveland should employ him more accordingly. Cuts use up energy, to be sure, but so does all the post-ups LeBron is employed in, and all the bumps that come with them. Diversification is key.
In game seven, starting power forward Jeff Green was empowered to take on some ball-handling opportunities in the transition game. His reckless abandon in doing so got the Cavaliers some high percentage, highly efficient offence from a source other than James, and while James himself did this in the first half of the game too, he was running out of legs with which to do so by the end.
The Cavaliers as a unit can run without James - Lord knows that some of them, and particularly Jordan Clarkson, will willingly try. Turning the series into a track meet will not work considering that the Warriors run up and down better than anyone else. But if the Cavaliers can sneak-attack in semi-transition at times, they may be able to relieve the burden on themselves, and James as an individual, to simply try and outscore them in the half court.
To succeed in this series, the Cavaliers will need as much LeBron as possible. Considering the pace of play of the Warriors, the Cavaliers might not be able to do the never-sit-LeBron thing, and slowing the Warriors' pace of play is only theoretically possible. So they will have to score in the half court. LeBron James will do as much as he can, but he can only do so much - now, others must give him the support.