The Warriors won the title in 2015. They then followed that accomplishment with the best regular season in NBA history, and were 48 minutes removed from winning a second straight title and completing the best season in NBA history. Not once, not twice, but three times. If Draymond Green doesn’t get suspended for game 5, if Andrew Bogut doesn’t go down with injury, or if Andre Iguodala doesn’t tweak his back there’s a good chance they win the championship.
Furthermore, the Warriors are probably back-to-back champions if LeBron James doesn’t leap from Jupiter and time a perfect block, if Kevin Love doesn’t step up and guard Stephen Curry on the perimeter for the first time all series, or if Kyrie Irving doesn’t hit a contested three pointer over Curry’s outstretched fingertips.
So why is a 73 win team that was one shot and a couple of bad breaks away from winning a second straight championship totally retooling their roster? LeBron James.
While many NBA fans and players are complaining that the Durant move to the Warriors ruins the competitive balance of the NBA, there’s one guy that’s not complaining, and that’s LeBron.
LeBron’s favorite competition
If there’s any single player LeBron loves playing against the most, it’s Kevin Durant. Durant’s prolific scoring ability has made him the biggest threat to LeBron’s title as the world’s greatest player since 2012, a fact James is surely acutely aware of. In 21 head-to-head matchups against Kevin Durant in both the regular season and playoffs, LeBron James is 17-4 and averages nearly 30 points per game. LeBron’s size and strength simply make him too much for Durant’s smaller frame to handle defensively.
If there’s any single team LeBron loves play against the most, it’s the Golden State Warriors. In the 2015 NBA finals LeBron, who was essentially playing the Warriors by himself with the absence of both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, put up 36 points, 13 rebounds, and 9 assists per game. This year in the finals LeBron led all players in all major statistical categories including back-to-back 41 point games and the third triple-double in NBA finals history.
The Warriors understood they couldn’t stop LeBron James, so they got Kevin Durant to simply try to outscore him. In return, they lost their best rim protectors and their depth. LeBron James couldn’t be happier. This Warriors team, who lost the NBA finals as a result of their complete and utter inability to guard LeBron James, just got worse at guarding LeBron James.
Michael Jordan was never able to beat the super team in his career. He beat a Lakers team with a 33 year old Magic that had just lost Kareem and Michael Cooper, and a mid-30 year old Karl Malone and John Stockton, respectively. Every team Jordan met in the finals, his team was significantly better than at the time. When Jordan went up against the “super teams” in their prime early in his career, he lost. He lost twice to the dominant Celtics team with Bird and Mchale in the mid 1980’s, followed by three consecutive losses to the Bad Boy Pistons.
LeBron James, on the other hand, just beat the super team this season, a team that broke Jordan and the Bulls’ 72 win record. That team just added another superstar MVP in his prime. If LeBron James can beat them again, there will be a solid argument that he accomplished what Jordan was never able to.
LeBron’s MVP window has been reopened
There’s another reason why this move was really good for LeBron’s legacy. James has won four MVP’s in his career, the third most of all time (one behind Jordan and two behind Kareem). It looked like LeBron was done winning MVP’s in his career as he transitioned his game to relax and rest during the regular season and explode during the playoffs. LeBron has still been putting up ridiculous number, hovering in the ball park of 26-7-7, but for the last three years two players have far exceeded LeBron in the regular season. Their names are Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, and they happen to be on the same team now.
With three of the top 15 scorers in basketball last season, there’s no way that there’s going to be enough shots to go around in Golden State for either player to put up numbers anywhere near what they have been. This take Curry and Durant out of the MVP discussion for all intents and purposes, and reopens LeBron’s window.
Does the mean LeBron’s guaranteed another MVP? Of course not, but it makes him a leading contender once again. The other potential MVP’s at this point in time are guys like Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, and Damian Lillard. LeBron will likely outscore Leonard and his stats will be far better-rounded than Lillard, leaving Westbrook as the primary competitor. There’s a good chance Westbrook goes off next season as a ball dominant superstar without Kevin Durant getting 25+ shots a night, maybe even averaging somewhere near a triple-double. But there’s one problem for Westbrook. There’s no evidence Westbrook is going to be able to lead that Thunder team to a successful season, and MVP awards historically only go to players who lead their teams to be top seeds in the playoffs.
LeBron couldn’t be in a better position in his career
LeBron is facing the least amount of pressure he’s been under since he was 16 years old. He proved he was a star coming out of high school, he proved he could perform in big games, he proved he could win with the Heat, and then he came home and ended the Cleveland drought. James is no longer the NBA’s villain and he’s unanimously recognized as the best player on earth, and one of the greatest ever. As an additional weight off LeBron’s back heading into next season, he’s got a teammate in Kyrie Irving that is quickly developing into an absolute superstar. Irving allows LeBron to step back and play the masterful mental games without having to constantly shoulder the entire physical load on the court. As was displayed in this year’s finals, that makes LeBron a far more dangerous player.
On the one hand, LeBron has a real opportunity to win more MVP’s and more championships. On the other, the immense external pressure he’s dealt with his entire career is finally gone. This combination of opportunity and mental relaxation puts LeBron in the best position he’s ever been in, and it’s a position that could catapult him into the conversation of the greatest player to ever play the game.