This year’s NBA Finals have been must-see TV, even for casual basketball fans, largely due to the historic performance of LeBron James. Love him or hate him, the polarizing two-time champion is one of the most riveting and scrutinized players in all of professional sports.
Earlier this year, James generated national headlines when he decided to return to his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who he infamously rebuked with his decision to “take his talents to South Beach” and join the Miami Heat in 2010. Five years and considerable image rehabilitation later, James is competing in his fifth straight finals appearance, something no player – including NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan – has accomplished in decades.
As his Cavaliers attempt to take a 3-1 series lead over the heavily favored Golden State Warriors on Thursday, here are a few reasons to bow down to “King James,” and a few others to suggest he should be knocked off his throne.
Five reasons to root for LeBron James
1) He’s an underdog this time: James is unquestionably the greatest basketball player in the world, and yet this time around he is clearly outmatched by his opponent. Over the course of the playoffs the Cavaliers have lost two All-Star players – Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – to injury, leaving James with a ragtag bunch of outcasts to achieve the improbable. Few, if any, experts give his team a chance against the league-best 67-win Golden State Warriors, who have a deeper bench and a younger, faster team. If James’ team somehow pulls of a victory, it’ll likely be one of the greatest upsets in NBA history.
2) His play has been phenomenal: In the first three games of this series, James has been on the court for nearly every second and has been scoring at a historic rate. Right now, he is averaging a breathtaking 41 points a game (a feat only accomplished once, by Michael Jordan, in the 1993 NBA Finals), and he has scored more points than any player ever through the first three games of a finals. James has accomplished all this while still elevating the games of previously unknown role players like fan favorite Matthew Dellavedova. You may not like James as a person, but you can’t discount how dominant he has been as a player.
3) Cleveland needs this: For 51 years, the city of Cleveland has been denied a championship win in every major professional sport. The NFL’s Cleveland Browns are a perpetual under-performer, and baseball’s Cleveland Indians have come close but can’t seem to seal the deal. This economically depressed city has needed something to buoy its spirits, and a Cavaliers win could possibly provide a boost to local businesses. Despite near-riots when James first departed the city, he has been welcomed back with open arms, and his quest to deliver a title to Cleveland has been one of the feel-good NBA stories of the year.
4) A win would silence (most) LeBron haters: For his entire career, James has been unfairly compared to everyone from Kobe Bryant to Magic Johnson, and most exhaustively Michael Jordan. In this over-saturated, 24-hour news cycle, James’ every move and mistake is held up to scorn and ridicule. Take for instance his infamous decision to leave Cleveland in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t receive more money to play in Miami, he simply put himself in a better position to win. In his four years at Miami, James made the finals each time, winning two, and yet some basketball fans will never forgive him. If he pulls off a miracle and beats the Warriors, James will have proven he can not only win almost entirely on his own but that he did right by the city that first made him a star.
5) History will be made: Once Irving was knocked out of the playoffs for good in game one of the NBA Finals, most sports reporters were writing the Cavaliers’ obituary. The team is one of the lowest ranked in finals history in terms of talent, and due to injury they are only playing about six to seven players a night. Make no mistake about it, a Cleveland win would be historic. No team that has won as many games as the Warriors, in both the regular season and playoffs, has not won it all. The Cavaliers could change that overnight.
Five reasons to root against LeBron James
1) He games the referees: All NBA superstars whine about the officials’ calls, but James is in a class by himself. Even his staunchest defenders must admit James gets downright petulant whenever a ref’s decision doesn’t go his way. James’ perpetual griping not only detracts from the enjoyment of games, but also leaves fans with the sneaking suspicion that officials go easy on him in order to appease him. All series have their share of questionable calls, but an uncomfortable amount have gone James’ way.
2) Golden State is more likable: The Warriors boast a bevy of bright rising stars, but the team’s main attraction is its popular back court – prolific shooters Steph Curry and Clay Thompson, also known as the “Splash Brothers.” This photogenic duo has put on an unparalleled performance this season, draining three-point shots with ease and playing with poise and humility, which is rare in the NBA. Curry in particular has become a fan favorite, thanks to his boyish charm, winning smile and spellbinding ability to get the best of players nearly twice his size. James remains the most physically dominant player in basketball, so it makes it a little hard to root for him.
3) The torch is ready to be passed: The NBA is hungry for an heir to the Air Jordan legacy. James has occupied that space for about a decade, and some fans are eager to see someone else emerge as everyone’s favorite superstar. Curry and the Golden State Warriors seem like the ideal fit. They have a fervent fan base – their Oracle Arena is bathed in the team’s blue and gold signature colors – and are young and healthy enough to have several competitive seasons ahead of them. At 30, it’s unclear how much James has left in the tank, but the Warriors could go down as one the sport’s greatest teams ever.
4) Cleveland plays dirty: Some call it being scrappy and physical, others say it’s just plain unsportsmanlike. The Cavaliers have shown a willingness to throw elbows and occasionally take out knees if it will help them on their way to a championship. Breakout star Matthew Dellavedova, in particular, has been singled out for a series of potentially dangerous plays. Of course, all teams cut corners and try to get away with fouls from time to time, but Cleveland’s occasionally ugly style of play doesn’t sit well with a lot of basketball fans.
5) Riley Curry!: The real breakout star of this year’s NBA playoffs has been Curry’s unbelievably adorable 2-year-old daughter, Riley Curry. The pint-sized cutie made two high-profile post-game press conference appearances alongside her dad in the lead-up to the finals, where she stole the spotlight with his typical toddler antics. If James wins, it will deprive sports fans of a potentially precious photo-op of Riley celebrating with her MVP-winning dad. Let’s face it, Riley is a winner no matter what.
Game four of the NBA Finals takes place Thursday night. The winner of game four in a 2-1 series split historically goes on to win the championship title. Stay tuned to see if James gets his third ring or comes up empty handed.