As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 29th and final edition focuses on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron James. When those who lived through the peak of his greatness recall LeBron James decades down the road, it'll mostly be in terms of snapshot moments. The 46 points against Detroit in 2007. The buzzer-beater against Orlando in 2009. Game 6 against Boston in 2012. The block against Golden State in 2015. But when it comes to James' 2017-18 season, it's not one moment or even one game that really stands out; it's the whole thing. And it's going to be high on the list when making the case for LeBron James being one of the greatest players who ever lived, if not at the very top.
The regular season was one of his finest, as he averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 9.1 assists on 54.2 percent shooting with a new high for 3-pointers made (149). Even more remarkably, he played in all 82 games for the first time in his career. Sure, he conserved energy on defense a little, and he went into something of a midseason funk when it was clear the team's roster couldn't compete for a championship as it was constructed at the time, but it was still a season no other player on the planet could put together in their fifth season, let alone their 15th. "I’m playing the best basketball of my life, and I’m drinking some wine pretty much every day," James said in December. As usual, it was good to be the King.
But of course, the regular season turned out to be just the prelude to LeBron's postseason run. Against all odds, he showed he still had another gear to upshift to, and perhaps multiple. James averaged 34 points, nine assists, and 9.1 rebounds on 53.9 percent shooting with a 32.2 PER - both the highest scoring average and the best PER of his nine Finals runs. He scored over 40 points on eight occasions, over 50 points once (the first such Finals performance in 25 years), and dropped a triple-double in each of his four playoff series.
And as great as LeBron's numbers were, his performances went so much deeper. It was him refusing to let the Cavs go down 0-2 against the Indiana Pacers in Round 1. It was him ripping out the hearts of the Toronto Raptors in Game 2 of the second round. It was him willing Cleveland to victory against a superior Boston team in a Game 7 that he had no business winning. And yes, it was him having an absolute night for the ages in a Game 1 loss against Golden State, when his Cleveland teammates let him down once again - possibly for the final time.
The comparing of Michael Jordan and LeBron James became tired to the point of near-cliche toward the end of the latter's awe-inspiring 2017-18 run, but it was a conversation that was necessary to put LeBron's nightly performances into perspective. Even during a season when Kevin Durant won the Finals MVP award, and for which James Harden will almost certainly take home the regular-season honor, it was once again made clear that among the players of his generation, James has no true rivals, and all that's really left for him to fight against is history. Even that might not be much of a battle for long.
Everything except LeBron. Putting aside all the stats and highlights, you can aptly summarize LeBron James' 2017-18 greatness in one simple sentence: Everything went wrong for the Cavaliers this season, and they still made the NBA Finals. Any story about Cleveland that didn't involve LeBron was one of missed expectations, of locker-room drama, of injuries, and of disappointment. But ultimately, none of that mattered on the way to the team's fourth consecutive Finals appearance, and it's because there are very few NBA sins that the presence of James can't absolve. (Particularly in the East.)
Let's start with the team's offseason moves. Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and Jeff Green were all signed to bolster the team's depth and give LeBron some veteran teammates to run with in the postseason. Rose got hurt, lost interest, and was eventually traded; Wade underwhelmed, got passed on the depth chart, and was eventually traded; and Green ... well, he made it to the end, and had a couple nice moments along the way, but he was still basically Jeff Green. Now-journeyman point guard Jose Calderon also got a brief run as a starter before falling out of the rotation, as did rookie Cedi Osman.
And then there was the (first) big trade. Secondary superstar Kyrie Irving asked to be moved last offseason and got his wish, being shipped to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn's 2018 first-rounder. Kyrie went on to have an All-NBA-caliber season for the C's before getting injured, while Crowder and an injury-compromised Thomas never fit in with the Cavs, and nobody can really remember if Zizic is still on the team or not.
That all led to the second wave of trades, in which Crowder and Thomas were shipped out (along with Wade, Rose, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye) for a host of new players: Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance from the Lakers, Rodney Hood from the Jazz, and George Hill from the Kings. Clarkson turned out to be a disaster, Nance and Hood were wildly inconsistent, and by postseason's end, only Hill still had regular minutes in Cleveland's rotation – and he posted the worst playoff numbers of his career.
Beyond all that? Tristan Thompson lost minutes and declined in production amid off-court issues, Kevin Love still played at an All-Star level in the regular season but missed 20-plus games to injury and then shot under 40 percent in the playoffs, and J.R. Smith ... well, we all remember how things ended for him this season. Kyle Korver, who was somehow LeBron's one totally reliable teammate all season at age 37, was finally neutralized in The Finals, shooting 1-for-16 across the four games. Hell, even the coach had to miss time with chest pains and stress-related issues. You'd be hard-pressed to name one non-LBJ person involved with the Cavs who met expectations this season, let alone exceeded them. Everything and everyone came up short.
And yet, Cleveland was still the last team standing in the East. Having LeBron certainly has its advantages.
What happens with James? The Cavs do have other questions to deal with this offseason - whether they can unload some of their overpriced contracts, whether Hood's expiring deal is worth re-upping in the hopes he eventually gets his head straight, and most importantly, what to do about that Brooklyn pick, which ended up at No. 8 and is the last remaining consequential return from the Irving trade. All of those issues are important, but are also basically irrelevant because they follow the biggest question facing any team this offseason: Where is LeBron gonna play basketball in 2018-19?
James technically has a year left on his contract with Cleveland, but he has a player option for next year that he's not expected to exercise. If not, for the third time in his professional career, he'll become the league's most high-profile free agent, and for the third time, his ultimate destination seems pretty hard to predict. Could he go to Houston to form a superteam to rival the Warriors in the West? Will he join up with his protege, Ben Simmons, and help start the next NBA dynasty in Philadelphia? Perhaps he'll choose Los Angeles and its promise of future business opportunities beyond basketball. Or does Boston, already a juggernaut gaining steam, actually have a shot of trading for LeBron, dealing a death blow to the rest of the East?
Does Cleveland have a shot of actually keeping him, though? Well, the oddsmakers have James at +350 to remain in Ohio - behind only the Rockets as his most likely destination. The Cavaliers still have loyalty and comfort to sell him on, along with the promise of not having to endure a similar backlash to the one he experienced in 2010 upon his first departure from his home state. They also have that top-10 pick, which they can either use to find LeBron a running mate worth mentoring, or to deal for some veteran help that isn't coming off the scrap heap. If LBJ surveys his options and doesn't find a landing spot to his liking just yet, perhaps he just picks up that player option and deals with the longer-term decision next summer.
But LeBron doesn't have an unlimited number of years left – well, probably not, anyway – and this Cavs squad didn't do a whole lot this season to prove themselves as a supporting cast worthy of his leading talents. He dragged them to The Finals, but needed two very tough seven-game series to do so, and once there, Cleveland was pasted by Golden State for the second straight season. If James wants to suit up until he's 40 – or at least until he can run alongside LeBron Jr. – he can't keep playing 82-game seasons and 48-minute playoff games, and he can't be the entire team's offense when he does. Even the King needs some help, and it's unclear if he can find that in Cleveland.
And if he goes? Well ... that's it for Cleveland for the foreseeable future. Maybe LeBron ends up negotiating an opt-in-and-trade to get the Cavaliers back some assets when he goes, maybe the Cavs find more pieces by dealing Love, too, and maybe they keep the No. 8 pick and it ends up being a major piece in an eventual rebuilding effort. But the last time LeBron left, they won the lottery three times in four years and still couldn't get back into the playoffs until he returned. And this time, they're in an even worse way financially. Thanks to short-view deals for the overpaid likes of Hill, Clarkson, and Thompson, Cleveland has more than $100 million in contracts on the books even without LeBron next year, and might the year after as well if Love opts into his final season. (They're also out their own first-rounders this year and next for similar reasons.)
Without LeBron, it's a long hard road out of hell for the Cleveland Cavaliers no matter what. But as a price for getting to experience his 2017-18 season? It's hard to imagine it's a trade-off most Cavs fans wouldn't do over again.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)