Kyrie Irving requested and was granted a trade in the offseason, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder bombed and Dwyane Wade was only slightly better.
Thomas, Crowder, Wade and pro’s pro Channing Frye were dealt at the trade deadline for George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood, who offered immediate hope before settling into mediocrity, at best.
Through it all, LeBron James played in 82 regular-season games for the first time in his 15-year career, then played even more spectacularly in 18 postseason games to reach the NBA Finals for the eighth straight time and ninth time overall in his unparalleled career.
So here we are, the overwhelming underdog Cavaliers about to take on the supposedly unbeatable Golden State Warriors in The Finals for a major pro sports-record fourth straight season.
All this is why James got straight to the point — Cedar Point — when asked about the entirety of the 2017-18 season following the Cavs’ Game 7 Eastern Conference finals win over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden.
“Well, it’s now six (seasons in one),” James said at the interview podium that Sunday night. “It was five, now it’s six. It’s now six seasons in one. I guess this is the last chapter for our team in this season.
“It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been Cedar Point. ... It’s been a roller coaster. It’s been good, it’s been bad, it’s been roses. There have been thorns in the roses. There’s been everything that you can ask for.
“I’ve said this has been one of the most challenging seasons I’ve had. ... But (before the trade deadline) I just kind of reset my mindset and said, ‘OK, this is the season and let’s try to make the most of it.’ That’s what’s gotten me to this point.”
James, in turn, has gotten the Cavs to this point.
The 6-foot-8, 250-pound small forward also played point guard, shooting guard, power forward and even center while averaging 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists in the regular season.
In the playoffs, he’s been even better, averaging 34.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists while leading the Cavs to victory in three potential elimination games.
“I thought I had as much respect for him as I could have, and it just keeps going up,” 37-year-old teammate and fellow 15th-year pro Kyle Korver said. “He’s amazing.”
How amazing? Consider the following:
- James is about to become the sixth player to appear in eight straight NBA Finals, joining former Boston Celtics Bill Russell (10 from 1957-66), Sam Jones (9), Tom Heinsohn (9), K.C. Jones (8) and Frank Ramsey (8).
- James became the third player in league history to have at least 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists in a Game 7 by posting those numbers Sunday vs. Boston, joining Dolph Schayes (35, 16, 9) vs. the Celtics in 1959 and James Worthy (36, 16, 10) vs. Detroit in 1988.
- James is the league’s all-time leader in Finals triple-doubles with nine.
- With 1,247 points in The Finals, he trails only Jerry West (1,679) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,317), while his 339 assists trail only Magic Johnson (584) and Bob Cousy (400).
- James averaged a triple-double in the 2017 Finals with 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists. He has posted at least a double-double in 10 straight Finals games, and in 18 career Finals games vs. Golden State, he is averaging 32.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 9.2 assists in 43.3 minutes.
Yet despite James’ heroics in 2017, the Cavs lost to the Warriors in five games.
Now they don’t have Irving in what may be the weakest Finals squad they’ve brought into any of their five appearances in franchise history, though the James-led, happy-to-be-there team of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Larry Hughes and Co., which got swept by San Antonio in 2007, would have to be in the conversation.
Though he refrains from going on social media in the playoffs, James is familiar with how alleged experts view his current teammates.
“I kind of know the narrative throughout the season if we lose,” he said. “If we have a bad month, I already know what’s going to happen on the outside world. I’ve been a part of it. If we win, I know the narrative. I get it. It’s all a part of the storyline.
“But me personally, I don’t really get involved in it. I’m kind of over that at this point in my career. But I think Coach (Tyronn) Lue, he feeds off it. Some of our teammates kind of feed off it, on people just counting us out and counting them out personally.”
It’s happening again, as the Cavs opened at plus-650 in Las Vegas to win The Finals. That means a $100 bet on them would return $650. The Warriors, by comparison, were minus-1,000, meaning a bettor would have to risk $1,000 to win $100.
James, who will almost certainly become a free agent in July, is 3-5 in The Finals for his career and 1-3 with the Cavs. He’s 1-2 with Cleveland vs. the Warriors, having won in 2016 and lost in 2015 and 2017.
As in tune as any player in the league about what’s going on around the NBA, James is fully aware of this Cavs team’s underdog status, but he doesn’t waste time worrying about things that are out of his control.
“The game is won in between the lines, and we have an opportunity to play for a championship,” he said. “That’s all that matters. No matter what the storyline is going to be, no matter if we’re picked to win or not, let’s just go out and play ball.
“We’re going to have a great game plan. We’re going to try to get better throughout the series, and we’ll see what happens. For me, I don’t know, I’m kind of the wrong guy to ask because I just like to compete. I have a love for the game. I have a passion for the game, and everything else will take care of itself.”
In some ways, James and the Cavs are playing with house money right now, because virtually no one outside their own locker room is giving them a chance to beat Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the mighty Warriors.
For that matter, whether James agrees with the narrative, just getting this Cavs team to The Finals was one of the greatest accomplishments of his legendary career.
And should Cleveland somehow shock the Warriors — and most of the sporting world — by winning the series, it would immediately vault to the top of James’ already-crowded r￩sum￩.
“It’s been a satisfaction in the fact that I like to be successful,” James said of his eight straight Finals trips. “But more importantly, just that work that I put into it. I mean, it’s an every-single-day work ethic that I have while I’m playing this game, while I have the ability to play this game at this level. I love the competition.
“Being available to my teammates and being available to my franchise, the two franchises I’ve been with (Cleveland and Miami), throughout this run is what’s been more important than anything — always being available.
“I’ll be available for at least four more games, and we’ll see what happens.”
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