There is still nothing more fearsome in the NBA than when LeBron James takes his game to the next level in the NBA playoffs.
The Cleveland Cavaliers hold a distinct advantage over the rest of the Eastern Conference as they enter the NBA playoffs, and it's because of how LeBron James prepares for the postseason.
"Flip the switch" is an expression frequently heard in the NBA this time of year. It refers to the idea that players and teams can take it up another level when the playoffs begin. League observers say James' ability to go to another level is unlike anyone else in the league.
"That gap between regular season LeBron and playoffs LeBron is bigger than any player in the league," said one league source.
"I think LeBron always has another level," said James Jones, the Phoenix Suns' vice president of basketball operations. Jones was a teammate of James with the Miami Heat and the Cavs.
"LeBron's always a level ahead, always thinking a level above," Jones said. "So I guess you could say he has a playoff level, but I just always think he has another level, another gear, depending on the situation."
The Cavaliers have been a magnet for regular-season drama since James' return in 2014, but this year may have been another level entirely. They were plagued with infighting that threatened to tear apart the team until they blew up the team at the trade deadline, shipping out five players and bringing in four new players to reset the locker room.
While team chemistry seemed to improve, they didn't experience much of an uptick on defense, by far their weakest side of the court. They finished the season ranked 29th in defensive rating.
To the same league source, that will change in the playoffs because of one man — James.
It's often said that superstars' efforts can have a chain reaction on a team. If they're not playing their hardest, the rest of the team will follow suit. This year, James' lackadaisical effort on the defensive end may have spread through the rest of the team.
"LeBron taking plays off really matters defensively because he is their most important defender," said the league source, adding, "When he's not engaged, he doesn't even rotate."
Consider what Kobe Bryant recently said about the idea of "flipping the switch" in the playoffs.
"'Flipping the switch' is just another word for you have one team that you're focusing on, so you can really zero in on that team," Bryant said. "That's all that is. You're still playing just as hard, you're doing all the things, but playoffs means if you have one team to focus on, that means you can study all your regular-season matchups against them, you can learn all the information you need to learn to prepare yourself for this playoff series. That's flipping the switch."
The league source said that James and the Cavaliers flip-the-switch mentality could have a crippling effect on opponents because, frankly, no team has seen the way they really play.
"That flip-the-switch mentality, it's real. Because they didn't even try [in the regular season]," the source said. "So, the gap between their playoff intensity defensively and what they've been is so profound that they can overcome a lot of schematic issues because there's no film of them looking really locked in defensively.
"It's an amazingly simple formula. The NBA works on the notion of advanced scouting. You're gonna take film of that team, and you're going to watch them and say, 'This is what they do on offense, this is what they do on defense.'
"And not one thing that you've seen on that film is going to translate to the physical experience of LeBron at full throttle. And people don't know what to do when they see it."
James doesn't just coast in the regular season. Though his effort may wane on defense at times, and he preserves energy for a late postseason run — he's now played into June seven years in a row — part of it is that no player in the NBA carries as much responsibility as James.
James has always been the engine of the Cavs' offense, but over time he has become the entire system. The offense runs through him, and though the Cavs, like all teams, have plays that they run, a lot of the time, it's James dictating the action and poking holes in the defense.
According to Dan Favale of NBA Math, based on points scored and points generated by assists, James accounted for a higher percentage of his team's offense this season than any other player in the league.
Jones admitted that playing with someone who controls the offense so heavily can be difficult for role players, but that it may be the only way to use James properly.
"He's such a big part of everything you do because the honest truth is he's so good at everything a team needs a player to do," Jones said. "He can score, he can pass, he can screen, he can defend, he sets guys up and gets easy buckets, he draws double-teams and plays well out of the double-team. So it's hard to have the world's best player and have a player of 'Bron's caliber on your team and not utilize him to the max. Because if you don't do that, you short-change yourself."
"LeBron will break the system all the time to do what he does," said the same league source. "And he does it so well that coaches don't have the intestinal fortitude to say, 'No, my [system] is better.' Because he's, like, 'Really? It's better than that?'"
It's hard to argue with the results. In James' 15th season, at age 33, he has scored slightly better than his career average, averaged a new high in assists per game, and posted the third-best True Shooting Percentage of his career. All while playing 82 games for the first time in his career. The Cavs finished fifth in offensive rating.
"He already does a lot. He probably does more than anybody else in the league, and every month it's about doing more. Every summer it's about adding. He just keeps adding and adding and adding," Jones said. "And you wonder where he gets all of the time and energy and discipline to do it because human nature says that after you've been good at something for a very long time, you typically either get distracted or your intensity or focus wanes. But for him, he continues to drill down."
There are reasonable concerns about James' ability to carry a team to the Finals while carrying so much weight. Can he ramp it up on defense while acting as the fulcrum of the offense?
"Of course," Jones said. "That's the way he's wired mentally, and that’s the way he's built physically."
"He has as much as he needs right now physically," said the league source. "And the reason that he does in the playoffs is that there's no back-to-backs. He's so blessed physically that if you give him a day off, or, God forbid, you give him two days off, you can't deal with the guy."
When the Cavs traded Kyrie Irving, there were concerns about how well they could generate offense outside of James. Kevin Love could play a more significant role this postseason, and his return to the court recently has improved the Cavs' overall play.
Also helping the Cavs is the chips seem to be falling in place for them to breeze through the East again. Irving will miss the entire playoffs for the Celtics, rendering one of the top teams in the East somewhat rudder-less on the offensive end.
The Cavs have had two rather convincing wins over the Toronto Raptors, the No.1 team in the East, in the past month, leaving some to feel that the Raptors just can't get over the hump against James.
Some see the upstart Philadelphia 76ers as the Cavs' biggest threat, but doubts remain about how such a young roster will handle the playoffs. If both teams take care of business, they won't meet until the Conference Finals.
The Cavs were hardly a convincing team in the regular season, looking very little like a genuine title contender. But remember, opponents haven't seen the real thing yet.
"Despite all of the turmoil, with all of the issues, all of the injuries, all of this bulls--- and [LeBron's] not even attempting to play, and they still win 51 games," said the same league source. "Because he's so good offensively that he can just do whatever he wants.
Opponents "all know that LeBron doesn't play hard defensively in the regular season. And now they're all, like, 'Oh my god, now we’re gonna get him really playing?' I think for your psyche, it's probably hard when you're a player playing against him."