When LeBron James told everyone he was glad his Cleveland homecoming was over, it was pretty clear what he meant — for a guy that’d spent his entire on-record time alternatively hyping the Cavs’ home opener and downplaying it as the regular season game that it actually was, his forgettable statline was going to be under the microscope typically reserved for players playing in games that really matter, like the playoffs. The fact that they were playing the Knicks, who had just been booed out of Madison Square Garden after a convincing loss to the Chicago Bulls (the first game that most NBA fans saw of the season), was even worse.
That said, there are times when Carmelo Anthony will spend a few weeks playing like the best scorer in the known universe, and those are the times when it’s all right to lose to the Knicks. Anthony was not playing like that last night, and the Cavs still lost. For a team that opened the season as heavy favorites to come out of the East, despite the fact that James is the only player in the starting five who could give you a working example of defense, this is not exactly what they wanted to happen, even if it is just the first game in a long season for a new team.
LeBron is the best player in the NBA. That’s an inarguable point by now, and while he’s never going to make it to that Jordan, Russell, and Wilt tier of players who become mythological beings in the basketball pantheon — and it’s a distinct possibility that no player from the Internet age will — he’s still tremendous. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had terrible games. Let’s look at some of the worst.
5. Game One, NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, 2008
The Boston Celtics were the bane of LeBron’s formative years, at least after they brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and the Boston Big Three were one of the (unstated but obvious) reasons behind James teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Back in 2008, though, LeBron was becoming the youngest player to score 10,000 points in NBA history, and the C’s were busy crafting the biggest single season record turnaround at the same time. When they met in the Eastern Conference Semis, sparks were expected, particularly after they’d tied their regular season series.
If there were sparks in that first game, though, they were the vague beginnings of a garbage fire — James made just two shots out of 18 and committed ten turnovers on his way to watching Cleveland lose 72-76 in what was one of the more unwatchable games in recent (L)Eastern Conference history. James was missing fingerrolls, missing teammates on passes, and generally looking like an athletically gifted wing who couldn’t hit anything from anywhere. It was rough.
4. Game One, NBA Regular Season, 2014-2015
At the half, Lebron was one for nine from the field, with two assists and three turnovers. He couldn’t find his teammates, flubbing passes on the fast break and in the half court, and earning the compassionate ire of television analyst Charles Barkley, who was, predictably, getting on James for thinking too much. At least Cleveland wasn’t trying to learn the Triangle at the same time?
3. Game Six, NBA Finals, 2011
The first time LeBron James made it to the NBA Finals, it was him, a ragtag band of players, and head coach Mike Brown going up against Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. It was a sweep for Tim Duncan and company, but no one really expected anything different: Even though it was true that Michael Jordan had never lost in the Finals, it was also true that His Airness (James’s de facto comparison) spent years toiling away before he made it that far. No one held 2007 against LeBron. That was not the case in 2011, when the Dallas Mavericks took their exceptional coaching and got into James’s head, holding him to just one make from the free throw line and forcing him to cough up the ball six times.
2. Game Five, Eastern Conference Finals, 2013-2014
In another decisive defeat for Miami, our intrepid hero was forced into the scary yellow wall that was the Indiana Pacers defense — where he was hounded by Paul George, David West, Lance Stephenson, and the ghost of Roy Hibbert. Game Five of the ECF was his personal low point against the best defense in the league, as Indiana held him to the lowest score of his playoff career (7) and just two shots made, not to mention five fouls. It was brutal, but it was also relaxing for Miami supporters, since even with the abysmal play from LeBron, they only won by three points. Miami would win the series.
1. Game Five, Eastern Conference Semifinals, 2009-2010
It had to be this one. LeBron’s last home game in Cleveland before The Decision changed his life, as well as his career, was the entire NBA fandom watching as King James completely and utterly bailed on his hometown franchise. It was the team’s biggest playoff loss ever, and even though he was playing with a sprained elbow no one who was tuned into that game could ever forget watching one of the league’s biggest stars sleepwalk through what was a must win game. The statline (22 points, seven assists, six rebounds) doesn’t read too terribly, and the bad shooting night aside — James went three for 14, including nothing but misses from beyond the arc — you could make the argument that this wasn’t his worst game.
But you’d be wrong, and if you were saying that it would be clear to all involved that you weren’t watching the game that night. This was the night LeBron James checked out of Cleveland to secure his legacy, and it happened in real time, during the game, on that very basketball court.