Three meetings in the NBA Finals, two of which resulted in LBJ heading home empty-handed, have provided harsh lessons to the four-time MVP. And instead of taking a contentious stance ahead of a Wednesday meeting between his Cleveland Cavaliers and the Spurs, James offered up admiration:
James isn't just playing the diplomat; it's true that both he and the Spurs have benefited from their repeated meetings.
San Antonio was particularly motivated to avenge its improbable loss to James in the 2013 Finals last season, and the result was basketball played at a truly breathtaking level. And as for James, his run-ins with the Spurs have led him to appreciate the value of teamwork and sacrifice.
Even in defeat last spring, he was effusive in his praise to reporters: "They were the much better team. That’s what team basketball is and that’s how team basketball should be played."
Tim Duncan has been encouraging James for years.
LeBron has been the league's best player for the better part of a decade, and the Spurs have been its most consistently dominant team for even longer than that. Playing against one another has had the natural effect of forcing improvement. Or, as was the case for James this past summer, the search for a better situation to continue the fight.
Let's not forget the Cavaliers owe the Spurs as much or more than James does. Without San Antonio handing LeBron his third NBA Finals defeat last year, the King might never have returned to his hometown team.
According to Sam Amick of USA Today:
From Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert on down, they're thrilled that this is a what-if scenario rather than reality: James' former Miami Heat team gets the best of the Spurs again in the Finals, wins a third championship after its fourth consecutive Finals appearance and puts a world of pressure on James to re-sign as a free agent. The "Heatles," as they were known, would have had every reason to stick together and keep working toward the seven titles James famously said he was envisioning upon arrival in 2010.
Looking ahead, James should take care to glean all the remaining lessons he can from the Spurs before the dynasty inevitably breaks up in the next few years. His Cavaliers are a work in progress—playing fitfully effective offense and consistently disjointed D.
More than anything else, the Spurs have shown James the value of chemistry and continuity. And it'll be up to him to cultivate those qualities on a Cleveland team that, so far, has lacked both.