Lowe: LeBron vs. MJ, this Lakers season and a great NBA what-if

In late June 2016, just days after winning one of the most thrilling and historically significant NBA Finals in history, David Griffin, then the Cleveland Cavaliers’ GM, gathered his staff and gave them a directive: Explore ways to get Kevin Durant.

Everyone knew even getting a meeting was a long shot. They would have to gut most of their roster around LeBron James to acquire Durant. But they had to at least do their due diligence. By then, there was a creeping fear that Durant might really join the Golden State Warriors — fresh off a 73-win season and Finals heartbreak at the expense of James and the Cavs. Everyone understood what that would do to the league’s competitive landscape.

“I don’t believe you can dream big enough in the NBA,” Griffin says now in recalling that meeting. “You have to go through the exercise.”

Durant’s move has been on my mind — and the minds of a lot of league insiders — more than usual (sorry, KD!) in light of LeBron missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Does that failure impact LeBron’s legacy? When we ask that question, we are really asking whether it cuts against his claim as the greatest player in the history of the sport over Michael Jordan. (You could nominate a few others — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell — but in most discourse, it comes down to Jordan and James.)

Jordan didn’t miss the playoffs until his late-30s Washington Wizards phase, which we have all agreed shouldn’t really count for some reason. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Tim Duncan never did. Duncan played his entire career in the way superior Western Conference. James ran up eight straight Finals appearances against the junior varsity. One year in the real conference, and he’s going to the lottery. That seems like a thing.

LeBron isn’t blameless amid the Lakers’ organizational failure, but I’m not sure a 4-8 stretch should carry much (if any) weight in determining his place in history. That’s what we’re really talking about here: the Lakers’ record with James in the lineup after his return from injury, and before they punted on the season following last Monday’s loss to the Clippers. An aging superstar coming off the first serious injury of his career, clearly still finding his conditioning, could not carry an ill-conceived roster into the playoffs.

Before the injury, the Lakers were on track to be a mid-rung playoff seed. That is about right for a 34-year-old superstar with 56,000 career minutes under his belt playing in the West without an All-Star teammate. There was a time James could do more on his own. Everyone brings up the Cleveland team he carried to the Finals in 2007, but take a gander at the 66-16 Cavs of 2008-09.

Yikes. You could argue that roster fit LeBron better than the current Lakers’ roster, at least relative to how much shooting we expected teams to have in 2009 versus 2019, but it wasn’t exactly ahead of its time.

Those Cavs outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions with LeBron on the floor, and lost the non-LeBron minutes by 7.9 points per 100 possessions. The gap between those two numbers — 22.7 points per 100 possessions — is the third-largest for a player in the NBA’s database, which dates to 2007. (The two above him: Draymond Green and Stephen Curry in 2015-16. Curry and Chris Paul seasons comprise six of the top eight spots.)

LeBron was that great then, on both ends, but the Eastern Conference was also that pathetic — especially after Kevin Garnett’s leg injury in February 2009 crippled the best Celtics team of the Boston Big Three era. LeBron is older, and a little worse now. He is seventh all-time in combined regular-season and playoff minutes. He’ll be sixth by the end of this season, and third — behind only Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone — by the end of next season.

LeBron is a solo star in his twilight. This is what happens to those sorts of players. Had he remained healthy, evidence suggests the Lakers would have been a solid playoff team — a nice result for LeBron and the organization.

Something like the opposite has happened. Parceling out blame is tricky. LeBron is so powerful that separating him from any part of an organization is impossible. The midseason gambit to acquire Anthony Davis almost certainly doesn’t happen, or become so public, without at least LeBron’s tacit go-ahead. Those talks sapped morale, sources say. Ditto for Magic Johnson’s post-deadline lecture about treating the Lakers’ young players “like babies.” LeBron’s eye-rolling on-court scoldings, a staple whenever he feels things sinking, did nothing to reverse any of that. Unbecoming, but not new.

The Lakers, like the Cavs before them, found it hard to build any broader stylistic identity around LeBron on either end of the floor. Some within the Cavs theorized the team struggled to score with LeBron on the bench because they never developed any system beyond “LeBron doing stuff.”

The Lakers tried to shoehorn a different offensive identity around LeBron with a series of nonsensical signings, and it is hilarious now to watch and listen as every branch of the organization deflects blame for those signings onto other parts of the organization. Pointing fingers is the surest sign of a rotten culture. In that end, those signings — and the bizarre non-signing of Brook Lopez — fall on the front office, regardless of who “pleaded” or “suggested” what, when, and to whom. (Lopez has said he would have been interested in returning had the Lakers asked him.)

It is really hard to develop any sort of defensive identity — even a base system — when your best player doesn’t engage. The 2017-18 Cavs loafed on defense all season, and shockingly found it impossible to craft a workable strategy on the fly in the Finals.

Luke Walton and the players deserve credit for L.A. ranking within the top 10 in points allowed per possession before injuries to LeBron and Lonzo Ball. (They exceeded expectations on that end last season, too.)

Walton appears doomed, per several reports. He seemed happiest during his first season, when you could see glimpses of how he wanted to adapt some of Golden State’s principles to a young core he found exciting. “We want to see what this group can do,” he told me in December 2016. “We don’t want to rely on free agency or trades.”

Over three years, the rotating cast of young guys coalesced only in flashes. Even before LeBron, it was hard to pin down what the Lakers wanted to be. Some of that falls on ownership and front office regimes prioritizing star-chasing over internal development.

Some falls on the coaches. It was Walton who shoved Lopez to the fringes of the rotation toward the end of last season. Brandon Ingram swung wildly from role player to wannabe alpha scorer, landing in the appropriate middle ground only for stretches. You never got the sense Walton truly believed in Julius Randle. (Randle’s defense in New Orleans has been so terrible that I’m not sure his backers have won that debate.) Johnson didn’t believe in D’Angelo Russell. We know because he told us.

But debate about this Lakers catastrophe always returns to LeBron and What It Means. He is 3-6 in the Finals, and very close — a Ray Allen shot, some Draymond Green flagrant fouls — from being 1-8. And then you remember: that third Finals victory, the capstone of LeBron’s career, paved the way for Durant to go to the Warriors — and effectively took LeBron’s Cavaliers out of the next two Finals.

What if Durant had re-signed in Oklahoma City, or went anywhere else, and the 2017 Cavaliers faced the Warriors (or the Thunder, or some other team) in the Finals?

“It would have been a great series,” Kevin Love told ESPN.com last week. “With [Harrison] Barnes and [Andrew] Bogut, they were a really tough team that played so well together. [Durant] signing there shifted the NBA in a big way. It’s still tilting the balance today.” Love added the Cavaliers were confident anyway before the 2017 Finals.

“I know we all believe — and it’s just our opinion — that if Golden State brought back the same team [in 2017], we would have dominated,” Richard Jefferson told ESPN.com.

Folks within the Cavs almost universally consider that 2017 team the best of the second LeBron era. They obliterated the East — culminating in 44- and 33-point road wins in Boston in the conference finals. They entered the trilogy against Golden State with one of the half-dozen beefiest postseason scoring margins in league history.

We look back now, Cleveland having gone 1-8 over the past two Finals, and ask: Was Cleveland that good, or was the East that bad?

You cannot wish away the conference imbalance from LeBron’s career. It would have been exceedingly unlikely for his teams to make eight straight Finals had he played in the West. (He also could have won at least as many rings in some alternate “LeBron plays in the West” timeline.) That streak has almost erased from the consciousness the real black mark on his GOAT resume: his meltdown in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. That is the only one of LeBron’s Finals defeats that was close — the only one in which folks might argue he came in with the better team.

A theoretical 2017 Finals against the run-it-back Warriors might have been another — or maybe a toss-up. A ring there — a fourth title, and a 2-1 edge over Golden State — would have removed the conference imbalance as a cudgel for anyone to use against LeBron now, at this low moment.

(Cleveland insiders lament the 2015 Finals at least as much. Love missed that whole series, a 4-2 Golden State win, and Irving was lost after busting his knee in Game 1. LeBron put forth perhaps his greatest playoff run ever last season, and almost won Game 1 of the 2018 Finals by himself. Multiple Golden State officials have told me it is the best game they have ever seen someone play in person. Last season still feels like a 4-1 Golden State win even if the Cavs steal Game 1.)

A win in 2017 might even have swayed Irving against requesting a trade, though as our Dave McMenamin first reported that summer, Irving had already withdrawn from teammates during that playoff run. You can pile what-if atop what-if when it comes to Durant’s move, and all its ripple effects. That would-be 2017 Finals has always stood out.

Stack James and Jordan up against each other, and I’m not sure the conference thing matters, anyway. Jordan played his entire career in the East. It was better then — and even had a winning record against the West during Chicago’s second three-peat, per Pelton’s research — but the difference was not as large as we might remember.

During Jordan’s six title runs, the four highest seeds in the East aside from the Bulls went a combined 1,259-709 — a .640 winning percentage — with an average net-rating of plus-4.8 points per 100 possessions, per ESPN Stats & Information research. The same subset during LeBron’s run of eight straight Finals: 1,593-966 (.623), with a net-rating of plus-4.5. (Most of the East’s superiority in Jordan’s later Chicago years manifested in the middle and basement of the conferences.)

Chicago’s East playoff fields included seven teams with net ratings of at least six points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference. (Four of those seven ranged from plus-6.0 to plus 6.4.) LeBron’s featured just three: the Bulls of 2011 and 2012, and last season’s Toronto Raptors. An edge to Jordan, but a small one.

Derrick Rose’s knee injuries wiped away LeBron’s greatest potential long-term challenger for Eastern Conference supremacy. Other teams rose and fell — the Pacers, then the Atlanta Hawks for one year — but no true, lasting threat. Shaquille O’Neal’s move from the Magic to the Lakers might have had a similar effect on the East during Jordan’s second title run, though the 1997-98 Pacers rank among his toughest challengers.

Do all-time greats benefit from fallow periods within their conferences, or does their greatness almost accidentally produce them? Did LeBron leave the East at the right moment, or is the East gearing up because LeBron is aging and gone?

LeBron could have stayed in the East; the 76ers were one of several suitors that promised immediate title contention. LeBron chose the Lakers anyway. We can dissect his reasoning, but it is not debatable that he forfeited at least one season of chasing Jordan’s ring count.

That one season, torpedoed by an injury, brings some uncomfortable questions but doesn’t quite rise to the level — to these eyes anyway — of influencing the ongoing Jordan-LeBron argument. But the legacy discussion will take a weird turn if LeBron spends his L.A. years in decline, piling up numbers on mediocre teams. He wants to win. The Lakers need to win after six years of losing. The high pick they will get as a result of this disaster will help — Durant leaving again would, too — but it won’t be enough on its own in 2020. They have to get this summer right.

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