LeBron James’ critics will only set him free if he can deliver an NBA championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Oddsmakers say that James and the Cavaliers will roll through the Eastern Conference with little opposition.
If that happens James will reach the NBA Finals for a sixth consecutive season (including four with the Miami Heat), a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by an NBA player since Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1960s.
But for James the ultimate prize is obviously a title for the the championship-starved city of Cleveland, looking for its first professional title since the Browns’ NFL championship in 1964.
“There’s always going to be pressure for him because the expectations are so high,” said former Clippers and Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “When he’s on your team, you’re supposed to win the championship. That’s just the way it works with star players, with superstar players. LeBron went back to Cleveland to bring them a championship, and that adds to the pressure.”
Toronto had the second-best record in the East and has an All-Star backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But the Raptors lost in the first round of the playoffs the previous two seasons and the franchise hasn’t advanced to the second round since 2001.
Meanwhile, the Nos. 3-6 seeds, Atlanta, Miami, Boston and Charlotte have roughly the same level of talent going into the playoffs.
But none are on par with the Cavaliers, who had the best record (57-25) in the East.
That’s the kind of pressure James faces when the playoffs start.
James actually has been in the Finals six times — four with Miami (2011-14) and twice with Cleveland (2007 and 2015) — and he’s 2-4 when playing for the championship ring.
The Cavaliers lost forward Kevin Love (left shoulder injury) in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and point guard Kyrie Irving (left knee) was sidelined in Game 1 of the Finals, which the Cavaliers lost in six games to the Golden State Warriors.
But the Cavaliers, who start their championship quest Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, are healthy going into the playoffs this year.
James talked openly about wanting to join a team with his friends Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. And he was challenged by Lue to play better after a blowout loss at Miami on March 19.
He responded in his last 10 games by averaging 28.4 points, shooting 63% from the field and 51.8% from three-point range, and accumulating 8.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game. Cleveland went 8-2 in that stretch as James upped his game.
And now his real challenge begins.
Follow Broderick Turner on Twitter: @BA_Turner