Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) walks on the court in the first half of Game 4 of the second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, Sunday, May 8, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
The 2015-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers have risen from title contender to title favorite over the course of a dominant, two-month stretch. Cleveland raced to a 10-0 start in this year’s playoffs after two convincing wins over the Toronto Raptors last week in the start of the Eastern Conference Finals. Led by LeBron James, this year’s Cavs team might be the strongest squad in Cleveland Cavaliers’ history as they’ve backed up a strong regular season with a stretch that has them in reach for the best postseason start in NBA history. While James has been part of some powerful teams, none of them has had the look of this year’s Cavaliers. The 1989 and 2001 Los Angeles Lakers share the record for best start in the playoffs with 11-0 records, apiece. This year’s Cavs are only one game away from tying the mark. Although they haven’t secured a ring the question must be asked: Is this the best team that James has been on? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question.
Riley: James has made the NBA Finals for five straight seasons and he appears headed for a sixth appearance which would bring his Finals total to seven. He’s been on a number of Finals teams from the comically outmatched Cavs team that made it to the final round in 2007 to the super-talented Miami Heat teams that controlled the Eastern Conference from 2011-2014. The supporting cast has always been a question when it comes to James but this might be the best one he’s had. The depth of scorers is tremendous and Cleveland has worked hard to become a strong defensive team. Current sidekicks Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love don’t have the accolades or match the ilk of James’ former running mates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but they better suit James’ talents. Wade’s and James’ games clashed at times because both were similar players who excelled at scoring in the paint. Wade never had the range that Irving has that can keep defenses from doubling up on James. And Love’s rebounding and range is something that Bosh had to grow into to make the Heat successful.
Green: The 2012-2013 Miami Heat made a summer addition in Ray Allen and used an in-season add-on in Chris Andersen to strengthen a team that had just captured a title from the prior season. Andersen’s defense and flare were much-needed and Allen’s series-saving three-pointer in Game Six of the Finals pushed Miami to a 4-3 series win over the San Antonio Spurs that year. That Heat team was without question the best team that James had ever played on. There was savvy, accomplished veteran talent at every position, an MVP in James and the entire team had an extra shot of championship confidence from winning the prior season. This Cavs team doesn’t have any of that. James is the common denominator but there were moments in both of those Heat title runs where players besides James made big-time plays. This Cleveland team has yet to be challenged so we truly have no clue how good this team really is or if they’re just conquerors in a weak conference.
Riley: We don’t need a bunch of voters and a ceremony to figure out who the league’s MVP is – it is James, and it’s been that way for a while. This Cleveland team went from picking first overall in the NBA Draft in 2014, 2013 and 2011 to what’s shaping up to be back-to-back Finals appearances, and they’re doing it without two of those top three picks. Irving is the only holdover from that four-year stretch of incredible luck but the ultimate constant has been James. Irving isn’t as accredited as Wade, but he’s equally as good of a scorer if not more diverse. Love has had his challenges but I really don’t see too much of a difference in playing style between him and Bosh. Despite the abundance of talent that the Heat had, I like what this Cleveland team brings to the table. Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith are two athletic shooting guards who can get hot from long range. Reserve forward Channing Frye spaces the floor for James and Irving to work inside and big men Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov gives Cleveland two statues in the paint that rebound and persuade opponents to rethink driving inside. This team is deep, versatile and may be the best team that James has been on.
Green: It doesn’t matter how talented this current group of teammates are if they haven’t won anything yet. That 2012-2013 Heat team had a ring to back up their talent, and James definitely felt more confident going to war with battle-tested veterans. I’m always wary of crowning teams before they win anything and I’m not going to do that with this bunch. If anybody saw the ESPN special “Believeland” then it was shown clearly that the city of Cleveland typically falters in the postseason. The Cavs ran through the Eastern Conference last summer with no problem until they caught the bright lights of the NBA Finals. I get that both Love and Irving wound up missing serious time and I get that they’re both back and everybody is excited about Cleveland’s potential but it’s just something about Cleveland teams that doesn’t equal championship success. James has been on six Finals teams and only two have captured trophies. Until another James-led team brings home a ring then I’ll reserve my judgement on whether this current group is better than his previous championship Heat teams.