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While the Los Angeles Lakers aren’t officially eliminated from the playoffs quite yet, sitting nine-and-a-half games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the eighth seed with just 12 games remaining represents a deficit not even LeBron James can overcome.
In a season that started with James’ Lakers possibly securing home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, the 2018-19 season will now go down as one of the most disappointing moments of his career.
Luckily for the four-time MVP, there haven’t been many.
James is one of the greatest of all time, but his career has been marked with some lows both on and off the court. Many will point to his 3-6 Finals record, but it’s often been the times he didn’t reach the championship round where his season should actually be viewed as a disappointment.
In 16 professional seasons, there should only be six instances where James and/or his team didn’t live up to expectations. Here’s where missing the playoffs with this year’s Lakers fits in.
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It’s not that anyone expected James and the Cavaliers to win the 2018 Finals, but a sweep at the hands of what appeared to be a vulnerable Golden State Warriors team and the implications that came with it represented a low point for him.
Golden State went a perfect 12-0 through the 2017 Western Conference playoffs before beating the Cavs in five games in the Finals. Now, this Warriors team sputtered to 12-5 to get to the championship round, nearly losing to the Houston Rockets in the West Finals. Stephen Curry missed the first six games of the playoffs with an MCL sprain and didn’t look close to 100 percent.
Cleveland sensed this and nearly stole Game 1 on the road before George Hill missed a free throw at the end of a tie game which led to JR Smith now-infamously forgetting the score and dribbling the clock out.
The low point for James came in the locker room after, as he punched a white board in frustration and “pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand.”
“What happened? Self-inflicted, postgame after Game 1,” James said after being questioned about the cast on his right hand following the sweep.
“Very emotional. For a lot of different reasons, understanding how important a Game 1 is on the road for our ballclub, what would that have done for us, the way we played, the calls that were made throughout the course of that game.
“I had emotions on [how] the game was taken away from us. I had emotions of you just don’t get an opportunity like this on the road versus Golden State to be able to get a Game 1, and I let the emotions get the best of me. Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand, so that’s what it is.”
After putting up 51 points on 19-of-32 shooting from the field (59.4 percent) and 3-of-7 from deep (42.9 percent) in Game 1, he finished the last three games with 28.3 points per game while shooting 49.2 percent overall and 27.3 percent from three. Clearly, the hand affected him.
This series would also prove to be his last for the Cavs, ending with a sour note following a mostly positive four years back in Cleveland.
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James’ career coming into this season didn’t seem possible. Thirteen straight trips to the playoffs. Eight consecutive years reaching the NBA Finals, including three titles in that stretch.
This is the first time we can ever tweet or share a Facebook post about him not making the playoffs, since neither were invented/open to public use when he last missed the postseason in 2005. There are some high school students now that have never lived in a world where James wasn’t playing past April.
Besides hurting NBA viewership, James’ extended summer vacation means not being able to move up some significant lists as well.
He’s fourth all time in playoff games (239), 20 behind Derek Fisher for first overall. Even playing in a six-game, first-round series would have moved him past Robert Horry into third.
James is also third overall in career playoff assists, third in made three-pointers and sixth in total rebounds. His standing in all these records will have to wait another year, at least.
While it’s not James’ fault the Lakers didn’t reach the postseason, his decision to leave a Cavs team that had reached the last four NBA Finals in a weaker Eastern Conference seems even more questionable.
Yes, there are other perks to living in L.A., but the competitor in James can’t be enjoying sitting at home watching the playoffs for the first time in years.
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The Cavaliers finished the regular season 61-21, best in the Eastern Conference with James winning his second straight MVP.
The Boston Celtics were an older, less threatening version of their 2008 championship team, finishing just fourth in the East (50-32)
This was the best collection of talent the Cavaliers had ever put around James to date, punctuated by a trade for two-time All-Star power forward Antawn Jamison right before the deadline. Mo Williams averaged 15.8 points per game at point guard, Shaquille O’Neal was brought in the summer before to “win a ring for the King,” and role players like Anderson Varejao, Delonte West, Anthony Parker and J.J. Hickson all helped complement James as well.
With James’ impending free agency looming over the franchise, the pressure to win was cranked up like never before.
Boston was supposed to be the warmup for Cleveland on the way to a mouthwatering Cavs-Lakers Finals, one that would have been the first between Kobe Bryant and James.
Instead, the Celtics won four of the final five games to take the series and send Cleveland home in the second round. The Cavs only managed 95.2 points per game, as a 37-year-old O’Neal was their second-leading scorer with 13.5 points a night.
While James put up an impressive stat line (26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.2 steals), it appeared at times he could do more. His effort level wavered, as if free agency was already on his mind.
In Games 4, 5 and 6, James shot a combined 34.0 percent from the field for 21.3 points, far below what the Cavs needed from him. In a mysterious Game 5, he was just 3-of-14 from the field for 15 points in a 32-point home loss that put the Celtics up 3-2 headed back to Boston.
Cleveland would lose Game 6 and the series, leading to James famously ripping off his wine-colored Cavs jersey in the hallway before leaving for the Miami Heat just weeks later.
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After leading the Cavs to the 2007 NBA Finals, it appeared James and Cleveland would be back for years to come.
Of course, this wasn’t the case, as the Cavs lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 East semifinals following a disappointing regular season, where they tore up the roster with a three-team, 11-player trade.
Now, 2009 seemed different.
James led the Cavs to 66 wins (still a franchise record) and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Mo Williams averaged 17.8 points per game and made the All-Star team, and the Cavaliers led the NBA with a stingy 91.4 points per game allowed.
They steamrolled through the first two rounds, sweeping both the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. The No. 2-seeded Celtics had just lost in the second round, meaning just the No. 3-seeded Orlando Magic stood in the way of James reaching his second NBA Finals.
The problem? A 23-year-old Dwight Howard, who the Cavs physically had no answer for. Howard bullied his was inside for 25.8 points, 13.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in the six-game series, with Cleveland big men Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao all too slow or too small to guard him.
Hedo Turkoglu (17.2 points, 6.3 assists) and Rashard Lewis (18.3 points, 5.8 rebounds) proved difficult to guard for Cleveland’s forwards, although it was discovered later that Lewis had some extra help.
Even James’ game-winning three-pointer at the end of Game 2, one of the most memorable of his career, wasn’t enough to send Cleveland back to the Finals.
This was the closest we ever got to a LeBron-Kobe championship, as the Lakers would go on to defeat the Magic in five games.
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History books cannot be written about James without mentioning The Decision.
A one-hour, televised free-agency decision had never been done before and will almost certainly never be done again.
For James, it remains the one poor decision he’s made off the court. There have been no arrests, no drug or alcohol issues, no infidelities. Just one poor choice of a free-agent announcement in an otherwise squeaky-clean career.
“I would probably change a lot of it. That fact that having the whole TV special and people getting the opportunity to watch me make a decision on where I’m going to play, I would probably change that,” James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in 2011.
In his return letter to the Cavaliers in 2014, James even mentioned the Boys & Girls Club where The Decision was hosted, noting that if he had to do it all over again, he’d “obviously do things differently”.
The fallout from The Decision and him joining the Miami Heat cast a villain’s shadow over James for the first time in his life.
While winning two championships and making four trips to the Finals in four years put to rest much of the criticism he received for joining the Heat, the way in which he left Cleveland will forever be a black eye on his career.
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After fighting off the backlash from The Decision and the constant hate bestowed upon him and the rest of the Heatles, James and Miami had the chance to silence everyone with a title.
The Heat carried far more star power than Dallas, as the Mavericks’ core was mostly in their 30s and relied on 37-year-old Jason Kidd at point guard.
What transpired next is still hard to digest to this day. We’ve seen James rise to superhero status in nearly all nine of his Finals appearances. This time was different.
James was unusually passive and often passed off open shots in the fourth quarter of games. He finished the series with just 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists, turning the ball over 24 times in six games. Not only was he the third-leading scorer on his own team, but four total players (Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry) all averaged more points than James.
Heat teammate Eddie House would later claim James “quit” on Miami in the Finals.
“I can’t get over the fact he didn’t show up in Dallas,” House said on Fox Sports’ Undisputed (h/t Sporting News). “Not only because I was on the team, but the fact he was the best player and everybody was dependent on him to show up and do what he does, and he was M.I.A.”
James didn’t help his image after the Finals, telling reporters: “All the people who are rooting for me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They got the same personal problems they had, today. And I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do with me and my family.”
Obviously, James has come a long way both personally and professionally.
His Heat teams would win the next two NBA titles, with his villain perception slowly melting away.
Greg Swartz covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.