SPECIAL: How Good Were Lebron’s Teammates?

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(Originally published in 2012)
The career of Lebron James has been a fascinating one.  He’s clearly the most talented player in the NBA right now, but always comes up short.  Why can’t he get over the hump? When he was leading the Cavaliers the argument was, “Well, he has no help! He needs better teammates. Even Jordan couldn’t do it without Pippen.  Bird couldn’t do it without McHale, Magic couldn’t without Kareem.”  Recently, the Basketball Blog contributed toESPN’s 5-on-5 Discussion on the top Small Forwards in the NBA and ever (where I made an argument most thought was ridiculous for Scottie Pippen over Larry Bird.  I’ll have to defend that one in the near future.) Underneath, users debated the column and I got into a feverish debate about the quality of Lebron’s teammates over the years.  He contended that Lebron had little help, that he played with losers, and that last season’s Cavalier season was the perfect proof for that. Is this the truth?  Let’s look at the teams that Lebron has played with in his career, season by season:

2003-2004 (Lebron’s rookie season): Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Eric Williams, Tony Battie, Darius Miles, LeBron James, Dajuan Wagner, Kevin Ollie, Ira Newble, DeSagana Diop, Kedrick Brown, Bimbo Coles, Bruno Sundov, J.R. Bremer, Carlos Boozer, Jason Kapono, and Jelani McCoy What a sorry bunch. This team finished 5th in the Central Divison.  This team consisted of 6 quality players: Lebron, Eric Williams (solid defensive specialist, had some success with Boston), Darius Miles (people forget how great he was with Quentin Richardson with the Clippers. I think this trade literally broke his spirit because he was never the same after being separated from him), Boozer (future All-Star, in his third year in the NBA), Dajuan Wagner (a bust in the NBA, but had serious potential out of college), and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (NBA All-Star the year prior, still in his prime).  Not a very good team, but some decent role players.  Journeyman Kevin Ollie wasn’t horrible, Diop is still waiting to come into his own, Battie was a decent defensive big man, and Bimbo Coles’ name alone almost killed me because I forgot he was still playing in 2004.  Not a good team at all.

2004-2005: Lebron, Ilguaskas, Eric Snow, Jeff McInnis, Drew Gooden, Ira Newble, Diop, Wagner, Lucious Harris, Luke Jackson, Robert Traylor, Scott Williams, Sasha Pavlovic, Steven Hunter, and Anderson Varejao Some better players. Lebron in his 2nd year, Eric Snow wasn’t far removed from his successful stint in Philly (but did not perform up to those standards…and that’s being generous), Jeff McInnis (good streak scorer), Drew Gooden (reliable double-double guy), Lucious Harris (slightly past his prime, but not far removed from his successful stint with the Nets and two Finals appearances), and former NBA Champion Scott Williams (completely washed up).  This team finished in the middle of the NBA, 42-40.  Ilgauskas was an All-Star in 2005 again and was still in his prime.  A solid team, but still waiting for Lebron to make “the leap.”

2005-2006: Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Eric Snow, Donyell Marshall, LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Damon Jones, Ira Newble, Luke Jackson, Sasha Pavlovic, Alan Henderson, Anderson Varejao, Mike Wilks, Martynas Andriuskevicius, Flip Murray, and Zendon Hamilton. A better team. Finished 50-32 under Mike Brown in his first year.  They added some quality players: Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall (a serviceable role player at the time), Damon Jones was also a quality streak shooter to join in with them.  Lebron averaged 31 a game, Big Z and Hughes added 15, Flip Murray had one of his quality seasons adding in 13 a game, and Gooden averaged 10 and 8.  A solid team all-around.  Still probably needed a few years and maybe another piece or two before they could contend, but a good team.

2006-2007: Shannon Brown, Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson, Larry Hughes,  Big Z, Lebron, Damon Jones, Dwayne Jones, Donyell Marshall, Newble,  Pavlovic, Scot Pollard, Snow, Varejao, and David Wesley. Same record as last year.  This is the NBA Finals team.  They made the  Finals and got swept by the Spurs.  Lebron had a lower scoring year  averaging 27 with 6 boards and 6 assists, Hughes was the second leading  scorer with 15, Ilguaskas slipped to 12 per game, and Gooden averaged 11  pts and 8.5 rebounds per game.  Varejao was starting to get more minutes  as the hustle guy we’ve come to know (and despise).

2007-2008: Devin Brown, Lebron, Ilgauskas, Damon Jones, Daniel Gibson, Dwayne Jones, Pavlovic, Gooden, Varejao, Newble, Hughes, Joe Smith, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace, Snow, Shannon Brown, Donyell Marshall.

This team finished 45-37 and lost in the semifinals to the Celtics.  Hughes and Gooden leave in the middle of the season in a trade for Ben Wallace (who was underperforming in Chicago), Szczerbiak is brought in after averaging 13 a game and shooting well from 3 pt land with Seattle that year, but fails to continue when he shows up in Cleveland.  He only averaged 8 ppg, on 36% shooting from 3 pt land.  Ilgauskas gave them more production with 14 pts and 9 rebounds per game.  Did the team panic and make too many moves?  I think so.  They certainly missed Hughes’ scoring and Gooden’s overall production.  In my opinion, this could have been a breakout year for Cleveland if they had stayed in tact. Ben Wallace wasn’t producing in Chicago, so why roll the dice and give him a shot there?  It was almost certain that he was washed up (believe me…as a Bulls fan, I was 135% certain he was washed up).  I think Cleveland missed the mark here.  Lebron’s numbers?  30 pts, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, almost 2 steals and a block.  My goodness….and the team only won 45 games?  What happened here?  It has to be the trade for Wallace right?

2008-2009: Gibson, JJ Hickson, Ilgauskas, Darnell Jackson, Lebron, Trey Johnson, Tarence Kinsey, Pavlovic, Joe Smith, Szczerbiak, Varejao, Wallace, Delonte West, Mo Williams, and Lorenzen Wright.

This team finished 66-16 and lost in the Eastern Finals to the Orlando Magic.  This is probably the most intimidating Cavaliers team featuring Lebron.  This team was absolutely intimidating.  Mo Williams gave this team some swagger.  He’s what the Sports Guy calls the Irrational Confidence Guy.  He is not afraid to take shots.  Let me just be honest…I hated these guys.  I couldn’t stand the Godfather blaring through the Quicken Loans Arena after every Mo Williams 3, I couldn’t stand Varejao’s hair, and I especially couldn’t stand the comparisons of Lebron’s 3 point game winner to Jordan’s shot on Ehlo.  Are you kidding me?  It was a great shot, but it was no where NEAR the Ehlo shot.  Jordan hung in the air and drained it, capping it out with a maniacal fist pump and Ehlo crumpling by the scores table.  That will never be topped.

The stats on this team: Lebron: 28, 7 boards, 7 assists, almost 2 steals, and a block. Mo Williams averaged 18 a game with 4 assists, on 43% shooting from 3 and 46% from the field, Ilgauskas gave them 12 pts and 7.5 boards, Delonte West gave them 12 a game, and then consistent scoring from Varejao (8 ppg), Szczerbiak and Gibson (7 ppg), and Joe Smith (6 ppg and 5 rpg) were the best performers.  Ben Wallace gave them 3 pts and 6.5 boards, but only in 23 minutes per game so he was still fairly productive.  So the question to me is this: Why didn’t this team make the Finals?  They were the heavy favorites in the East…so what happened?  Yes, the Magic hit a hot streak.  I remember the series, they were really good, but all the games were close….so what happened?  Isn’t this where Lebron should’ve rose to the occasion?  Are you telling me Dwight Howard, Turkoglu, Courtney Lee, Rashard Lewis, and Rafer Alston should beat Lebron and his supporting cast?  Lebron was the MVP this season!  He was that unstoppable!  I hated him more this year because he was so great and then in the Eastern Finals, he fell apart.  This team should’ve easily been playing the Lakers in the Finals.  I can’t understand what happened.

To me, it’s almost as dumbfounding as this year’s Finals.  I do remember thinking that the Cavaliers were just on their way to a championship, but I also remembering watching Lebron.  In the final game of the series, he came up with 25 pts (on 8-20 shooting), 2-8 from 3 pt land (why in the world was he jacking up 3’s?), 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 turnovers, and he was 7-11 from the free-throw line (63%? WHAT?), no steals, and 1 block.  Not a horrible game, but this was the league MVP, the supposed successor to Michael Jordan and his team was only down 3-2…they HAD to win this game right?  There was urgency!

By the way, his “inferior” teammates?  Delonte West had 22 pts in 46 minutes (more than Lebron) on 47% shooting with 4 boards and 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block.  Mo Williams played 38 minutes and had 17 points on 50% shooting from the field, 3 of 4 from 3 pt range (75%), 3 rebounds, 5 assists, and only 1 turnover.  Ilgauskas came up horrible…2 pts, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, in 21 minutes of play.  Varejao had 14 pts, 8 rebounds on 52% shooting.  Their bench? 10 pts, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, a block, and 3 turnovers….COMBINED.  However, the starters (with the exception of Ilgauskas) played over 30 minutes.  Varejao was the lowest with 32 minutes, then Mo Williams with 38, Lebron with 44, and West with 46.  It wasn’t like the bench had much of an opportunity to play.  Still, with the production this team had from everyone not named Lebron, they should have won shouldn’t they?But Lebron didn’t seem to the have that “fire” that Kobe or Jordan or Bird had.  He just seemed to be overwhelmed by the responsibility and the moment.  It just seems like this is when we should’ve realized that he wasn’t the next Jordan and that he was never going to live up to our expectations, but we didn’t.  We still had hope for him.

2009-2010 (Lebron’s last Cleveland year): Gibson, Danny Green, Hickson, Ilgauskas, Cedric Jackson, Lebron, Jamison, Jamario Moon, Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Parker, Sebastian Telfair, Varejao, West, and Mo Williams.

This team finished 61-21 and I remember this team more vividly because they bounced my Bulls from the first round of the playoffs. (Note: During this season, I was hoping the Bulls would tank and draw Cleveland in the first round….I fully believed we could ‘upset’ them because I believed Lebron to be a choke artist.  By the way, we won one game and I broke roughly four remotes and dropped 60,000 profanities during the series.  It’s almost worse than when Gilbert Arenas almost killed me.  That’s a story for another time…anyways…)

Shaq gave this team 53 games, Jamison gave them 25, and the rest of the team played the majority of the season.  People often criticize Shaq during this season because he didn’t put up “Shaq” numbers.  He averaged almost 13 a game, 7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, but he only averaged 24 minutes a game.  That’s about right considering the amount of time he played.  Mo Williams dropped off to about 16 points per game, Jamison gave them 16 points  and 8 rebounds, Teflair gave them about 10 off the bench, Delonte West averaged 9 off the bench, and Varejao was giving them 8 points and 8 rebounds a game.  Ilgauskas’ production dropped off this season because of Shaq’s arrival and old age: 7.4 pts and 5.4 rebounds in 20 minutes per game.  Not a bad team, but I remember the Shaq trade.  It dumbfounded me.  Perhaps he would be a good addition and would help them in the playoffs, but didn’t this team need to run and gun a little bit?  Didn’t that make sense?  I always felt he took away the identity of this team.

Like I said, this team steamrolled the Bulls, danced and caused Joakim Noah to call out Lebron in the regular season.  I remember Wade dunking so violently on Varejao that it caused me to jump out of my recliner (literally).  This team was interesting…

And then I remember them playing the Celtics in Round 2.  They were up 2 games to 1 and then Game 4 came around…and the Celtics won.  Something didn’t look right…then Game 5 and another Celtics win.  Huh? Look at Lebron’s stats in the first 3 games:

Game 1: 35 pts, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 50% shooting, 50% from 3 pt

Game 2: 38 pts, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 63% shooting, 66% from 3pt

Game 3: 24 pts, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 46% shooting, 0% from 3pt, 5 turnovers

Um, what happened in game 3? They won big, but the stats were dropping. Let’s look at the final 3 games:

Game 4:  22 pts, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, 38% shooting, 0% from 3pt, 7 turnovers (lost by 10)

Game 5: 15 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal, 0 blocks, 21% shooting, 0% from 3pt, 3 turnovers (lost by 32)

Game 6: 22 pts, 19 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 38% shooting, 50% from 3pt, 9 turnovers (lost by 9)

What in the world happened?  Did Boston make “adjustments” and slow him down?  Come on…I watched the games.  For the most part, he checked out.  He didn’t give them any effort and just rolled over on his teammates.  21% shooting?  He went 3 games without hitting a 3?  19 turnovers over the last 3 games?  Unbelievable.  This is his teammates fault?  In game 6, Mo Williams gave them 22 pts, Shaq added 11.  In game 5, Shaq gave them 21 and Anthony Parker had 14, but Mo Williams only gave them 9 pts.  In game 4, all 5 starters scored in double figures and Shaq contributed 17, Mo with 13, Jamison with 14, and Parker with 10.  You’re telling me his “inferior” teammates are responsible for him not winning a championship in Cleveland?  Again, look at his stats!  This is not what we’ve come to expect from a superstar.

The verdict: Lebron had some years where his teammates just weren’t up to par with a championship caliber team, but when he got Mo Williams, Jamison, and Shaq he should have had a breakthrough.  He didn’t, in fact he quit on his team.  His numbers almost reflect his non-production in the 2011 Finals and should have been a warning for us as fans.  Lebron just doesn’t have what it takes to be the greatest individual winner.  Perhaps he has the most talent in the NBA.  Maybe he is the most marketable.  But whatever he is, he will never be considered the greatest.  To be the greatest, you have to lead your team to the championship…you have to have the respect of the fans, analysts, and your team and the city you play in.  You have to rise up when your team needs you and most of all, you have to be the best on the biggest stage.

Look at two first-time champions: Garnett and Dirk.  When Garnett won his with Boston, he was only looked upon as one of the “Big 3” and we didn’t question how this moved him up in the argument of great players in NBA history.  When Dirk won, leading his team single-handedly to the championship, we immediately cemented him in the top 20 players of all-time.  That’s what greatness is.  Sticking with a franchise through thick and thin and rising up to have those feel-good moments….not betraying them and leave the fans burning your jersey after your egotistical one hour special announcing where you’d take your regular season talents.  Sorry Lebron, you had a quality situation in front of you.  I hope the sun of South Beach is worth the tarnish to your legacy.