OPINION: LeBron James Won’t Face A Challenge Until Finals

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LeBron James is the MVP of the NBA. And while it’s nice to see him and his Cleveland Cavaliers blowing through the NBA Playoffs against subpar basketball teams, I’d definitely love to see the best player in the NBA face some sort of a challenge.

The Detroit Pistons did not pose a threat to King James and his royal court. And the Atlanta Hawks have proven that youth and exuberance is just that, and it doesn’t result in playoff victories against veteran NBA teams. So who’s got next?

Well, it could be the Orlando Magic, the most talented, poor executing team in the NBA. They have a lot of good players, starting with the man in the middle, Dwight Howard. But even as good as Howard, Rafer Alston, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu (the Turkish Michael Jordan) are, they lack any sort of offensive awareness. They rarely run any sets, don’t get a whole lot of assists, and they shoot way too many three-pointers, despite having one of the best big men in the league. They are absolutely dysfunctional offensively, and there is no way that they could get away with running lackluster offensive sets against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are perhaps the best defensive team in the NBA. There is no way that this series is even mildly interesting.

Then there are the Boston Celtics. Should they manage to make it past the Orlando Magic, they would be the next team to face the Cleveland Cavaliers. When these two teams played last season, it was one of the better series in 2008 NBA Playoffs. It went all the way to Game 7, with Boston eventually winning on their home floor in a thriller of a performance by both LeBron James and Paul Pierce.

However, that was with Kevin Garnett on the floor. With Garnett likely to miss the rest of the 2009 NBA Playoffs, we can’t really expect Boston vs. Cleveland to be a close series either. Cleveland is a much better team than they were last year, and even before KG’s injury I would have picked them to beat the Celtics; most likely in 6 games, but maybe in 7. But without KG, I can’t see the series even making it back to Boston for a Game 6. The Cavs would finish off a KG-less Celtics team, that really has no bench and no one (with the loss of James Posey) who can really be an impediment to LeBron James’ ability to score.

So it’s clear that the Cleveland Cavaliers will not be challenged by any team in the Eastern Conference. Is there a Western Conference team that could give them trouble?

We won’t even talk about the Dallas Mavericks, who are on the brink of elimination thanks to what was probably one of the most bogus “non-calls” in the history of the NBA.

We can also forget about the Houston Rockets. Without Yao Ming, there is absolutely no way they could go through the West and still have enough man power to match-up with what is likely to be a very well-rested Cleveland Cavaliers team.

That leaves us with the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nuggets have probably played the best basketball in the playoffs thus far. I know the Cavs have yet to have lost a game, but the Cavs also have yet to have had any sort of a challenge. The Nuggets, on the other hand, have beaten some very respectable teams and players (i.e. Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki), and there’s no reason why they couldn’t find themselves in the NBA Finals if they keep playing this way.

But can they really match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Yes!

The Nuggets definitely have the manpower to match up with Cavs. Chauncey Billups, as he has proven, is still one of the top point guards in the NBA, and if I have to pick who is going to win a match-up between him and Mo Williams, I’m picking Billups 7 days a week and twice on Sunday. Dahntay Jones starts, but essentially we’re talking about J.R. Smith going up against Delonte West, and I like J.R. Smith in that match-up. Kenyon Martin vs. Anderson Verajao is a toss-up, and Nene Hilario vs. Zydrunas Illgauskas may be slightly in Illgauskas’s favor, but Hilario could outplay him on any given night. As for the big match up between Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, clearly LeBron wins that, but that doesn’t mean ‘Melo can’t go off for 40 in 1 or 2 games and outplay him on a few occasions—even if King James is a 1st Team All-Defensive player.

So I definitely the like the prospect of a potential Denver vs. Cleveland series.

Nevertheless, as tantalizing as it will be to compare draftmates LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the individual matchup everyone wants to see is LeBron vs. Kobe.

That’s the NBA Finals matchup I predicted back on January 16th, and that just may be what we end up with. And while the Lakers still have a long way to go before they can even advance to the Western Conference Finals, we can at least speculate what this dream matchup will be like.

Before we even get to Kobe and LeBron, how about the potential matchup between Pau Gasol and Illgauskas? That could doom the Cavaliers before this series even starts. Gasol is the much better player, and there is absolutely no way Big Z can stay in front of Gasol when he steps out to the free throw line.

Then there is the matchup of the point guards. Certainly Derek Fisher can go toe-to-toe with Mo Williams, but for how long? As good as Fisher is, he is still kind of long in the tooth, while Williams can probably go the entire game against Fisher and not even think twice about it. It will be interesting to see what kind of minutes Shannon Brown can give the Lakers off the bench if Fisher needs to spend more time on the pine than head coach Phil Jackson might want him to.

And how about Anderson Varejao going up against Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum? He will definitely have his hands full, and my guess is that it will be a long series for him. Nevertheless, Varejao will play hard and tough, and whenever he is not in foul trouble, you can be sure that he’ll make his opponent earn every shot he takes.

As for the main course, Kobe versus LeBron, who knows what we might see from those two players? In all honesty, we haven’t had the top 2 players meet in the NBA Finals since Michael Jordan’s Bulls were beating down on Karl Malone’s Jazz back in 1997 and 1998. However, in the late 90’s, while Malone managed to get 2 MVPs (even stealing one from Jordan in 1997), there was never any question as to who was the best player in the NBA. Hands down it was Michael Jordan. But with Kobe and LeBron, there is a strong debate.

But that all could be decided in one NBA Finals matchup. And while going through the individual player comparisons, as I did, demonstrates that Kobe has a better supporting cast, I truly believe that the best player shall prevail. As you know, I lean toward the LeBron James side of the argument, and his MVP Trophy tends to agree with me. But that all could change in 7 games, and I think given the stage, both of their performances will be so outstanding that it won’t matter what the other 8 guys on the floor bring to the table.

So that settles it. The Cavaliers and LeBron James really don’t have anything to look forward to until the NBA Finals. They’ll sweep the Hawks. And they just might sweep the exhausted winner of the Magic-Celtics series. But with their potential match up against the Nuggets or the Lakers, the NBA Finals might sweep the nation.

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