2007 vs 2018: What Finals run is LeBron’s greatest achievement?

LBJ-HD
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The Cleveland Cavaliers’ quest for a ring effectively ended the moment J.R. Smith caught a rebound and foolishly ran away from the scene like he was following Gandalf’s orders, but most pundits knew the team was never going to up-end the Golden State Warriors – and all-time dynasty that are only going to lose if they beat themselves.

Therefore, expecting an early dispatch, basketball journalists and NBA Twitter tried evaluating where the journey to the Finals sat on the expanding list of LeBron James’s greatest career achievements.

Outside of winning the championship in 2016, one of the main comparisons was 2007; when the San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron during his first trip to the NBA Finals with Cleveland. So as the Cavaliers’ season comes to a close, it’s time to truly see how this team’s roster stacks up against the season 11 years ago.

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LEBRON JAMES VS LEBRON JAMES

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LeBron James had been in the league four years and was just 22 by the time the 2007 playoffs began. His talent was clear and he showed the ability to dominate in the Eastern Conference Finals when he scored 25-straight points on the way to 48 and propel the Cleveland Cavaliers past a Detroit Pistons that won a championship just a few years earlier. He already and showed a ridiculous level of composure against Detroit, which allowed just 91.8 points per game for the second-best defense in the league.

He had a quicker first step than he does today, could dunk at will, absorb contact and already had a great turnaround fadeaway jumper from the post. In the playoffs, he put up 25 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists on 44 minutes per game. But in 2007, despite making a strong play in the post, then commentator Steve Kerr said: “That’s where he can make the most improvement in his game.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TF-9MHTLQdk

This year he is playing 41 minutes in the playoffs, scoring 34 points with 9 and 9. Against Kerr’s Golden State team, James’s efficiency is staggering. During one of the greatest Finals’ performances in league history; in game one, his 51, 8 and 8 was compiled on 19 of 32 shots (59%) while hitting three from behind the arc, and 10 of 11 free throws.

But James is even better than that. He has discovered areas of the game where he is able to rest so that he can play a full 48 minutes when required, just like he did against Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The younger James was the best young player in the game, but today, there is an argument for him being the best player of all time.

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2007

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2018

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ZYDRUNAS ILGAUSKAS VS KEVIN LOVE

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Zydrunas Ilgauskas was a veteran leader of the 2007 Cavaliers. He had recorded 11 years in the NBA, after playing four years in his Lithuanian hometown of Kaunas. His career in the States got off to a shaky start when he broke a bone in his foot ahead of his rookie season. He made the All-Rookie team the next year but played five games during the next two seasons and was never the same. Regardless, Ilgauskas was a dependable leader and recorded 12 points and nearly 10 rebounds during the 2007 playoffs. While he had great footwork earlier in his career, at this stage, Ilgauskas’s great assets were his high basketball IQ, his leadership and his length.

On the flip side, Kevin Love began his career in Minnesota as “The Man” for the Timberwolves but couldn’t reach the playoffs. He was a prized player when he joined the Cavaliers in 2014, but he has suffered injuries and been the punching bag for the media, which has led to inconsistency.

In 2018, the team has been at its most successful when he has been a big contributor. His 15 and 10 are solid, and he has occasionally exploded, like he did against the Toronto Raptors for 31 points and 11 rebounds, when he displayed myriad skills. His great strength is passing, his high-post play is still elite, and his shooting can be great, but he suffers on the defensive end.

It’s a close battle, but in his 10th season, Love is the greater talent.

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2007

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2018

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DREW GOODEN VS GEORGE HILL

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The Cleveland Cavaliers were the second-best rebounding team in the NBA during the 2007 regular season, behind the athleticism of LeBron James, the length of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the tenacity of Drew Gooden. During the playoffs, Gooden scored 11.4 points per game and snared 8 rebounds while providing a good defensive presence and could set the most bone-crunching screens, like this one from his time with Milwaukee a few years later.

He was never a great scorer, his highest career points per game for a season was 14.8, but he was reliable.

George Hill began his NBA playing days with promise on the San Antonio Spurs, so much so that he was traded to the Indiana Pacers for three draft picks, including one that would become future Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. He was considered a good leader for the Pacers and went to battle against LeBron James during both his tenures with the Cavaliers and the Miami Heat.

A bumpy road brought him to Cleveland during a mid-season trade after stints at Utah and Sacramento. The ups and downs, however, continued when he joined James and his playoff performances have been varied, averaging 9.8, 2 and 2, and crucially missing the second free throw at the end of regulation in game one of the Finals to eventually go on to overtime and lose.

You can blame it on not having time to settle due to the trade, but Hill just hasn’t got the cool head he was once known for. This one goes in Gooden’s favour.

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2007

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2018

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LARRY HUGHES VS KYLE KORVER

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In some ways, it would have been more appropriate to compare Larry Hughes to Jeff Green – they both pinballed around the league like basketball wizards, only to be outplayed by lesser opponents who might as well be deaf, dumb and blind. However, the points-per-game head-to-head made this comparison more interesting.

During 32 games with the Golden State Warriors in 2000, Hughes scored 22 points per game. At the end of 2005 in the last year of his contract with the Washington Wizards, Hughes again averaged 22 and earned a decent contract from Cleveland. His points dipped to 15.5 in 2006, then 14.9 in 2007, and he managed 11.3, 4 and 2.4 in the playoffs. There are some phenomenal highlights during Hughes’s career, but he never really showed up when it mattered.

Contrast this to Korver, one of the hardest working players in the league, who has managed to stay in the NBA despite being a sieve on defense, a sub-par ball-handler and not a great rebounder. But Korver has never shot below 35 percent from behind the three-point arc. He works his butt off as a weak on-ball defender by having solid positioning and knowing offensive sets so well that even though he struggles to make plays, he is still able to pull them off.

At times, Korver has saved the Cavaliers’ season during this playoff run, but he cannot be relied upon to produce. Hughes had the better talent in 2007.

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2007

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2018

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2

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SASHA PAVLOVIC VS J.R. SMITH

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Sasha Pavlovic was a real one. While playing in the NBA, he never led any teams in any major statistical categories, but he was a tough, sneaky athletic, defensively minded sharpshooter. He loved being scrappy and during his fourth year in 2007, Pavlovic recorded his best season in the NBA.

However, he probably never possessed the raw talent of J.R. Smith. At one time, Smith averaged 18 points for a season, when he had unrivalled leaping ability and all-world handles at the age of 27. Now, at 32, his hops are less likely to jump over a dude and more likely to trip on a skipping rope.

In terms of talent, Pavlovic probably represented a better comparison to some like Cedi Osman on the 2018 roster. He played way above his head for the 2007 season and never really reached the same offensive heights despite being a strong defensive player, whereas there are still rare flashes of offensive and defensive ability with Smith.

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2007

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2

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vs

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2018

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3

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DANIEL GIBSON VS JEFF GREEN

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The 21-year-old, second-round draft pick of the Cavaliers became a cult hero in Cleveland because of what he was able to do in the playoffs. Averages of 8, 1 and 1 barely touched the surface of what he meant to the city, especially after his performance in the Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit. If game five in that series was about LeBron’s James’s 48-point explosion, game six was about Daniel ‘Boobie’ Gibson.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COb3KtPj2DM&t=22s

By tallying 31 points, he helped spread the floor. But against the best defense in the NBA during the Finals, the San Antonio Spurs halted any hope for Gibson to get going.

Meanwhile, 11 years later, Jeff Green is the ultimate all-talent, no-faith player. As one of the last two players in the league to play on the Seattle SuperSonics, you know Green has been around a while, but he is just grateful to be alive and playing at this point after suffering an aortic aneurism that shut him down for a season. His career high of 43 is a distant memory, and since then there have been few extended periods where he has played reliably. The talent might burst out in one or two games, then disappear for longer. And in the Boston Celtics series of the Eastern Conference Finals, Green performed well, but he struggled to do it in the Finals.

Despite the inconsistency, Green takes this one.

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2007

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2

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vs

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2018

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4

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ANDERSON VAREJAO VS TRISTAN THOMPSON

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This is perhaps the most fun match-up. Both men played 22 minutes each during the playoffs, they each scored six points and grabbed six rebounds per game. In terms of production, it’s a dead-heat.

That being said, almost everyone in the world knew that if Anderson Varejao gave you points, it was a bonus. He was there for defensive purposes, and to provide good screens. A few years later, when Kyrie Irving was in his rookie and second years, Varejao turned into a force, averaging 10 and 11 in 2011-2012, and 14 and 14 (!) in 2012-2013. However, he only played 25 games each season due to a broken wrist and then a clot on his lung. And despite this, Varejao never had it in his game during 2007.

While scoring is not part of Tristan Thompson’s game, he has patience and a soft touch around the rim when the ball is dumped to him in a pick-and-roll, and he is a fierce rebounder who can get the ball off the rim and back up again with strength.

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2007

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2

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vs

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2018

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5

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DONYELL MARSHALL VS RODNEY HOOD

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Donyell Marshall had a decent career prior to joining Cleveland, averaging double-digit points and being strong on the boards, but he joined the team during his 11th year in 2005. In the 2007 playoffs he could still shoot the three, but wouldn’t offer much more than that, and famously missed a wide open three-point shot in the first game of the Conference Finals against Detroit.

Being one of the new guys in the mid-season trade, Rodney Hood joined the team from Utah and his play immediately suffered. His playing time dipped, he was no longer handling the ball. During the playoffs, he refused to play in garbage time of a losing game so lost a place in the rotation until game three of the Finals, when he proved to be a useful player again. While he is frustrating to watch night-to-night, but there is no doubt Hood has talent and deserved a bigger role in 2018.

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2007

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2

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vs

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2018

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6

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DAMON JONES VS JORDAN CLARKSON

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Coming from the up-tempo LA Lakers, Jordan Clarkson showed signs of being a good scorer, with the potential to be like Lou Williams but probably more like Austin Rivers. However, the Cleveland Cavaliers represent a slower offense with greater scrutiny and higher stakes, and for a trigger-happy guard, this is not ideal – even J.R. Smith’s enthusiasm has been curbed over the years.

An assistant coach on the 2018 Finals team, Damon Jones played with great swag on the 2007 squad. He never put up the kind of points Clarkson managed during his years in LA, but Jones was in his eighth year in the NBA in 2007, and had been a decent three-point shooter throughout that entire stretch. He was reliable from behind the arc, and while he certainly played with sass, he knew the limits of his game, which puts him slightly ahead of Sir Shootsalot.

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2007

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3

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vs

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2018

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6

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ERIC SNOW VS LARRY NANCE JR

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Some day, there is hope that Larry Nance Jr will be the kind of player for Cleveland that warranted the Cavaliers un-retiring his father’s jersey number. He has shown promise during a three-year career. He scores efficiently, and per 36 minutes he averages a double-double. But with all the marbles to play for, LeBron James and coach Ty Lue don’t have enough trust in the newer players. In a few years’ time, with decent minutes, Nance could be a starting center on a good team, but for now he can’t do much and offers just four points and four rebounds per game.

At the 2007 stage of Eric Snow’s career, he was just happy to be there. Indeed, an article in a Cleveland newspaper at the time ran the headline ‘Snow: Finally back in the NBA Finals, only this time as a spectator’ due to his low minutes. He’d previously had good playoff performances as a 76er supporting Allen Iverson during their epic run to the Finals, but with the Cavs, he was nothing more than a good locker room presence.

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2007

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3

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vs

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2018

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7

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THE OTHER CAVS

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During the playoffs, Jose Calderon, Ante Zizic and Cedi Osman combined for a total of nearly 16 minutes per game, with a total of 30 DNPs between them. Calderon is too old and weak on defense, Ante Zizic is fine but the rookie is not ready for big playoff games, and while Cedi Osman probably brings more to the table he doesn’t deserve big minutes either.

In 2007, Shannon Brown, Ira Newble and Scot Pollard were the three main benchwarmers. While Brown was young and went on to do better things, Newble and Pollard’s best days were behind them, and they combined for 50 DNPs during the playoffs.

The youth and energy tipped a little benefit in favour of the 2018 trio.

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2007

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3

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vs

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2018

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8

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So while many are right in saying that getting the 2018 team to the NBA Finals is LeBron James’s greatest achievement since 2007, that’s as far as it goes. Despite his youth and lesser supporting talent, getting past a tough Washington Wizards squad, a Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets and a defensively brilliant Detroit Pistons was a greater achievement for James in 2007 than taking on an upstart Indiana Pacers, destroying a hapless Toronto Raptors and eventually dismissing a feisty but young Boston Celtics in 2018.

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Featured photos – via NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Roadell Hickman / The Plain Dealer

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