The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

LeBron James is still the best player in the world, but he may never beat the Warriors again

The Washington Post's Tim Bontemps and Adam Kilgore break down Game 5 of the NBA Finals. (Video: The Washington Post)

OAKLAND, Calif. — The last time LeBron James lost in the NBA Finals, he sat in front of his locker, a towel over his head and in full uniform, for 45 minutes. It came before he had brought a championship to Cleveland, before Kevin Durant had moved to Golden State, before the NBA had changed forever.

Monday night, James dressed quickly in a red-and-black striped T-shirt, black sunglasses, black leather jacket and light jeans with words printed on them. (Examples: Zoom and So Very Nice.) He grabbed a small Aquafina bottle from a cooler and chatted with his adviser, Adam Mendelsohn. He seemed to understand he had not reached the end of a quest but had rather only started one.

In the 2017 NBA Finals, the fifth championship loss of his career, James reasserted himself as the best player in the world while the Cleveland Cavaliers team fell a chasm short of the Golden State Warriors. He became the first player to average a triple-double in the Finals, punching up 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in five games.

[Warriors win NBA title behind the Hamptons 5]

James dominated Game 5, ramming from the perimeter to the rim over and over in the fourth quarter, unstoppable as a freight train. He finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, and yet he watched Durant win Finals MVP and witnessed yellow confetti floating from the Oracle Arena rafters.

These Finals provided James an unsettling glimpse of how the rest of his prime might unfold: proving he’s the best player in the world while the Warriors thrash his team. There are two preeminent forces in the NBA, the Warriors and LeBron James. These Finals anointed and stabilized one, and forced the other to ponder his future.

The Warriors, with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Durant all in their primes, are going nowhere. At 32, James must grapple with how to beat them with an uncertain number of years remaining in his.

“I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team,” James said. “I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short. So it would be the same if you feel like you [had the greatest professional achievement] of your life and somebody picked another one over you. That’s — how would you feel? You wouldn’t hold your head down. But you would be like, okay, it’s just not my time.”

When, though, might it be James’s time again? With the Warriors looming in the West, he faces a rigid obstacle in his path to his fourth title. At this stage of his career, rich beyond comprehension and three NBA titles on his résumé, James possesses a singular goal. “I want to compete for championships every year,” he said. But how can he compete with the Warriors?

“It’s a two-sided question because for me personally,” James said, starting to answer the question before trailing off. “I don’t know. I need to sit down and figure this thing out. And so I don’t know as far as me personally right now.

“But as far as that team, they’re going to be here for a while. They’re going to be around for a while. Pretty much all their guys are in their 20s. Pretty much all their big-name guys are in their 20s, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down.

“So there’s going to be a lot of teams that’s trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try to match that if they’re able to actually face them in the playoff series, both Eastern Conference and Western Conference. From my eyes, they’re built to last a few years.”

[The Warriors unveiled a never-before-seen lineup — and it clinched them a title]

James’s goals and influence create the potential for tectonic player movement, up to and including, ultimately, himself. He does not figure to stand pat. Cleveland is in flux, with General Manager David Griffin no longer under contract and a massive payroll.

The Cavaliers as constructed cannot compete with Golden State. They need better two-way wing players. Kevin Love is a great player, but his lack of defensive versatility will not help his team win a title. The Indiana Pacers’ Paul George has one year left on his contract and has been rumored as a possible target for the Cavs.

James will be a free agent after the 2017-18 season. Could he jump ship and try to re-create the Warriors in Los Angeles? The first-in-50-years title he brought Cleveland would mitigate, if not eliminate, the potential for backlash if he left his home town again. In the offseason, James lives in Brentwood. He owns a production company and has loudly outlined his Hollywood ambitions.

“I’m not the GM of the team,” James said. “I’m not in the front office, but I know our front office is going to continue to try to put our ballclub, put our franchise in a position where we can compete for a championship year in and year out.

“Like I said, teams and franchises are going to be trying to figure out ways that they can put personnel together, the right group of guys together to be able to hopefully compete against [the Warriors]. They’re assembled as good as you can assemble. And I played against some really, really good teams that was assembled perfectly, and they’re right up there.”

James drew a careful distinction, in defeat, between how the Cavaliers and Warriors were assembled. As a questioner asked him about the “superteams” he had played for in the past, James raised his eyebrows. James has been publicly supportive of Durant joining the 73-win Warriors, expressing the belief it’s good for the NBA. But he also noted, in so many words, that there’s a difference between him joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami — and later Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland — and joining an already complete team.

“I don’t believe I’ve played for a superteam,” James said. “I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe we’re a superteam here.”

The Warriors certainly have one, and a strong chance to maintain it. There is uncommon chemistry on a team talented enough for dynastic pursuit. Pat Riley coined the term “disease of more” to describe how individual players sought greater credit following team success. The Warriors are uniquely suited to avoid it. Durant joined the Warriors not to assert his independent greatness, but to experience and contribute to a harmonious basketball ballet. The singular talents of Curry, Green and Thompson fit together without diminishing one another. They enhance one another, and they know it.

“Everyone complements each other really well, so there’s no clashing,” Andre Iguodala said. “Everyone does what they do really well within the grand scheme of things. If there is overlapping, then it’s in the team concept or personalities, guys blending really well. It makes the whole picture something that’s beautiful.”

The scariest part, if they truly can preserve their equilibrium amid success, is that the Warriors are at the beginning. They have only played one season with Durant, and believe they can better integrate Durant than they showed this season.

“In our system, we can make it even easier for him,” Iguodala said. “Just as easy as he makes it for us. We definitely we feel like we can play even better. We can take it to another level, and that’s what we’re trying to do. I personally we feel, this team, we have another level.”

That is what stands in James’s path. As the Warriors try to improve, if that is fathomable, James will be in pursuit. He called it “part of my calling to just go against teams in the midst of a dynasty.” To win another title, James must prevent the Warriors from becoming one of those dynasties. In these Finals, James proved himself the best player in the world. Now, he must determine if, and how, he can ever play for the best team again.