There have been cryptic tweets. There have been team meetings. A coach has been fired. There was an Instagram post by the franchise player posing as a morose cartoon Batman. There is uncertainty clouding the future in Cleveland, and angst in the present. But in the end, there is still LeBron.
From a basketball standpoint, LeBron James remains a cheat code. He is the size of Bill Russell with a point guard's vision and the power of Karl Malone. He's averaging 25.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists since the All-Star break. He is the only player in the NBA who can make Draymond Green's versatility look ordinary, and he outplayed Curry through most of last year's Finals.
Yes, Golden State destroyed this Cleveland team in January, but I'm not sure a matchup this June would be so lopsided. Golden State will have to survive wars with two of the other teams on this list, and they'll have to stay healthy. The Cavs should have a much easier road.
Whether they go big or small, Cleveland has more talent to throw at the Warriors than any team in the league. Tristan Thompson can punish them on the glass, and Kevin Love can chip in from the perimeter. Iman Shumpert is a capable foil for Klay Thompson. Kyrie Irving can do damage on offense, and his defensive shortcomings can be hidden on Harrison Barnes. J.R. Smith.... Well, he can't play any worse than he did last year. And while nobody is stopping Curry, Matthew Dellavedova is the most obnoxious defender this side of Chris Paul, so that's a start. The Cavs can make these games ugly, and that's the first step to beating the Warriors.
But mostly, this is about LeBron. Imagine how disgusted he must be reading this, a series of pieces whose premise is that any scenario in which the Warriors lose should be considered theoretical.
So the ball is in the King's court now. Toward the end of last year's Finals, LeBron announced that he wasn't concerned. "I feel confident because I'm the best player in the world," he said after a loss. "It's that simple." At the time, it was that simple. Now nobody is so sure.
Given the sudden rise of Curry, there's a real chance that LeBron will be known more for what he didn't win than the titles he did. There are plenty of people mocking and doubting him. It's not all that different from where he was in Miami once, when the Heat had lost to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals and were roundly considered a failure. Back then, the basketball world wondered in hushed tones about LeBron's future—until he went off and dominated the Finals the following season.
I don't know whether LeBron has it in him to do that against Golden State. He almost did last year, but the Warriors are a better team now. All I know is that LeBron has no better opportunity to cement his place in history than in a head-to-head matchup with Curry. And if the Warriors want to go down as the greatest team of all time, they'll have to go through a pissed-off superhero to do it.
CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ROYAL PAIN James should have help this postseason, but he showed last year he's capable of making a series interesting all by himself.