The signature event of LeBron James’s first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers was probably his 48-point outburst against the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 the 2007 Eastern Conference finals.
His performance in that game said everything about the team James carried to the NBA Finals that year. In a game that was 3.1 times as important as the average playoff contest, James used 43 percent of the team’s possessions and scored 29 of its final 30 points en route to victory. He essentially rendered his supporting cast superfluous: Aside from James, the ’07 Cavs still rank among the least-talented teams ever to reach the brink of an NBA title.
Upon joining the Miami Heat in 2010, James of course enjoyed a far better set of teammates, including future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen (and borderline candidate Chris Bosh). But now James is back with the Cavaliers — and back to carrying a mediocre set of teammates through the playoffs.
While we speculated last August that this year’s Cavs might actually represent the best group of players James has ever taken the court with (All-Star Games and the Olympics notwithstanding), that was before Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao were lost for the postseason, and before Kyrie Irving was hobbled with a knee injury. As a result, James’s best teammates of late have been the solid-but-unspectacular trio of Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert — a far cry from Wade, Bosh and Allen.1
If we look at a multi-year Statistical Plus/Minus talent projection for every NBA Finals team,2 this Cavs team ranks as the ninth-least talented NBA finalist since 1985. (By contrast, Cleveland’s opponents, the mighty Golden State Warriors, rank as the 14th-most talented.) Remove James, and things get even more dire; his supporting cast ranks as the third-worst team carried by its best player3 to the NBA Finals since 1985.
For James, though, this year’s supporting cast still eclipses the group he dragged to the Finals in 2007 — if barely so. Replacing James with a league-average player (rated 0.0) would drop this season’s Cavaliers from a +5.4 talent rating to -0.1. Yanking James off the 2007 Cavs would make a +6.2 team play to a rating of -0.2. James’s own rating was marginally better that year, but the 30-year-old has also relied more heavily on his teammates this season, playing 10 percent fewer minutes per game (weighted by the leverage of each game) than when he was an up-and-coming 22-year-old.
Either way, these are not the types of teams Lebron took to the Finals as a member of the Heat. Then again, it also bears mentioning that his supporting cast in Miami in last year’s playoffs wasn’t much better. That team was soundly beaten in the Finals by the San Antonio Spurs — as were James’s 2007 Cavs — so there’s a reason the Warriors are favorites in Vegas this year. But it’s also a testament to James that he’s carried the load for two of the bottom three — and three of the bottom eight — Finals supporting casts of the past 30 years.