Has LeBron found a way to step out from Michael’s shadow?

Whether or not we teach it in schools, whether or not we claim otherwise, Americans believe in evolution. Our nature demands that whatever comes next prove itself better than what came before. If it does, we worship it. When it doesn’t, we show it no mercy. Get the Best NBA Playoff Point Spread Picks.

That is LeBron James’ curse. This generation’s greatest player has felt the pressure throughout his career to surpass the greatest of the last, the greatest of all time. He has pushed back against that pressure every step of the way. Nothing he has done has been enough.

Le Bron has been to seven straight NBA Finals. He still could make it eight. Michael Jordan only went to six finals in his career but won them all. King James has won titles with two teams. His Airness retired then came back to win a second set of three consecutive NBA titles with the Bulls. For every individual record LBJ has set, MJ still holds another.

When James and the Cavaliers stunned the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the 2016 NBA title, preventing Steph Curry and Co from closing the deal to eclipse the 1995-96 Bulls team that went 72-10, all he accomplished was to confirm Jordan’s greatness. It seems he cannot win. Or can he?

The 2017/18 Cavs are arguably James’ worst team since his Finals run began. It was so old and slow that Cleveland GM Koby Altman blew it up. At the trade deadline, Altman dealt away Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and a first-round pick. George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr, and Jordan Clarkson came to the Quicken Loans Arena. The end result? Cleveland was younger, faster, more sound defensively, but much less dangerous with the ball. Of Jordan’s six NBA title-winning teams, this Cleveland side is most like the first.

There were three players on that Bulls squad who averaged double-digit points per game: Jordan (31.5), Scottie Pippen (17.8), and Horace Grant (12.8). The season-ending Cavs roster has three comparable players in LeBron (27.5), Kevin Love (17.6), and Jordan Clarkson (12.6).  Rodney Hood and Jeff Green’s matching 10.8 ppg averages compensate for the 4-point difference between Jordan and James. Bill Cartwright, John Paxson and BJ Armstrong were the other primetime players in that Chicago squad. They provided 9.8, 8.7, and 8.8 ppg respectively.

The similarity ends there, however. Phil Jackson had a short bench and came at opponents in one way, through Jordan and the triangle offense. Tyrone Lue uses his bench players more liberally, adopting different strategies according to the opponent. In Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, for instance, Kevin Love had a poor shooting night, going 3-13, scoring just seven points but grabbing 13 rebounds. Kyle Korver and Jeff Smith picked up the offensive slack, with help off the bench from Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson.

Kyle Korver doesn't rate as LeBron James' Scottie Pippen.

The other difference, the one that will help LeBron make his case in the GOAT debate, is that he is the only future Hall-of-Famer on this team. Kevin Love is essentially LBJ’s Horace Grant. James has no Pippen. If he can carry this team to the Finals, he will have to win it on his own, which is something Jordan never had to do.

Of course, we’re a long way from the Finals but the Cavs stunned the Raptors in Game 1, stealing a one-point victory on the road in overtime. LeBron and Co found a way to get it done, just as they did against Indiana. They’ve beaten Toronto on the way to the Finals in the past two seasons, as well. Will the Game 1 victory mess with the Raptors’ heads? If the Cavaliers can hang with the Eastern Conference number one seed in tonight’s early game — seriously who starts a game at 6 pm? — it might clear the road to a third meeting with Golden State.

The Warriors may have too many weapons for the new defensive-oriented Cavs. Proving he can carry a team to glory on his own may not happen for the King. Expect him to give it a good run, however, and maybe bet the under with Cleveland until they match up with Golden State.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

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