EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published on May 17, when the Cleveland Cavaliers trailed Boston 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
I've argued for years that LeBron James is the second-best player in NBA history. He's an all-time great enjoying a season -- and postseason -- for the ages.
Well, until now.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals was the worst game he's played all year. LeBron managed just 15 points on 16 shots and turned the ball over seven times, allowing Boston to thump Cleveland, 108-83. In Game 2, James posted a 42-point triple-double. Unfortunately, the bulk of his production came in the opening quarter ... and then the Celtics outscored the Cavaliers 84-67 over the remaining 36 minutes to win by 13 points.
Suddenly, the Cavs are on the ropes, and the greatest player of the 21st century is at serious risk of missing the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. Even for the all-timers, the one-man band plays flat when opposed by a well-coached, exuberant team team.
Still, LeBron's solo mission got me thinking about various NFL players tasked with carrying their team and/or side of the ball. You know, those gridiron stars who routinely have to do it all by themselves.
Heading toward the 2018 season, here are nine one-man bands across the NFL:
1) Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
The fact that Russell Wilson threw 34 touchdown passes against 11 picks, while running for 586 yards and three more scores, is a minor miracle. The Seahawks QB didn't have an offensive line -- he had a turnstile row. The fact that he accounted for 4,569 of the Seahawks' 5,608 scrimmage yards -- a whopping 81.5 percent -- is beyond miraculous. It's otherworldly. It's LeBron-esque.
This kind of individual brilliance -- in this ultimate team sport -- is something to behold. Something you don't want to miss. But what's intriguing for the football fan can be quite daunting for the football player. One-man banding ain't easy on the gridiron. Unfortunately, it appears the 'Hawks are relying on Wilson to do just that again in 2018.
The aforementioned O-line remains a huge question mark. It's not like this offseason was spent finding the old hogs for the Washington Redskins. And Wilson's weaponry has thinned out significantly, with the free-agent departures of Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson. I do like the addition of first-round pick Rashaad Penny -- and applaud John Schneider for not caring about where the so-called draft gurus had him rated -- but he's still a rookie, running behind a suspect offensive line. Unfair to expect this newbie to be the panacea.
So, once again, Wilson will have to be a combination of LeBron James and Harry Houdini. You know he himself is capable. But this offense appears quite flawed. And the defense is a shell of its former self.
2) Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders
Mack is a bona fide star -- one of the best pass rushers and overall defenders in the game, as evidenced by his three straight Pro Bowls and 2016 Defensive Player of the Year nod. But there's a reason Oakland has been ranked in the 20s in both total defense and points allowed over each of the past three years: Mack's supporting cast is ... lacking.
I was stunned -- and disappointed for Raider Nation -- when Jon Gruden, Reggie McKenzie and Co. did not pluck a strong defender in the first round, instead overdrafting OT Kolton Miller. Hopefully, fifth-rounder Maurice Hurst's heart condition clears up, and he can provide Oakland with some first-round-quality juice up front. Honestly, though, Mack needs help at all three levels of the defense, particularly in the defensive backfield. This is an elite talent entering the arena with second-rate support. Khalil Mack knows exactly how LeBron James feels.
3) LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills
Eventually, McCoy will have Josh Allen throwing bombs and giving him running space, but it will take the cannon-armed, raw rookie quarterback time to get acclimated to the NFL. So the ultra-talented back is really on an island for now, given Buffalo's underwhelming receiving corps and makeshift offensive line.
That said, McCoy has been in this predicament before and dazzled -- specifically, the last two years in Buffalo, when he's piled up 3,209 scrimmage yards and 22 touchdowns.
4) Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore Ravens
This is not a joke. And I don't need to pen an extensive screed rationalizing Tucker's place on this list. Let me just ask you one simple question ...
5) Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
Despite notching six Pro Bowl appearances and two first-team All-Pro nods since entering the league as a fourth-round pick in 2010, Atkins never gets enough credit for being a true game wrecker. Atkins has led the Bengals in sacks during each of the past two seasons. Remember, this guy's a defensive tackle, toiling away in the muckiest areas of the line of scrimmage -- that kind of sack production is not normal. Not to mention, Atkins routinely blows up rushing lanes and racks up tackles as a premium run stuffer.
6) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Being fair, new general manager Brian Gutekunst seems like a gem. Green Bay needed a change in that seat. Because, thanks to Ted Thompson, there has never been enough talent around the single most talented quarterback in NFL history.
Rodgers covers up so many warts with his individual brilliance that you only really notice the immense flaws with the Packers' roster when he's not playing. Since 2010, Green Bay is 77-33 with Rodgers in the starting lineup ... and 6-11-1 without him.
Looking at the 2018 roster, Rodgers' pass-catching weapons aren't bad; Jimmy Graham was a needed upgrade at tight end. But the offensive line and backfield look suspect to me. And the defense still has issues. (Where's the pass rush?) Overall, the Packers don't have anything close to playoff talent, especially in this highly competitive NFC. But with Aaron Rodgers under center, the legit upside for Green Bay is to win the Super Bowl.
Back in January of 2017, I wrote a column with this as the premise: When I watch Aaron Rodgers, I keep thinking of Michael Jordan. In this case, he can be both MJ and LeBron.
7) Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Blake Bortles struggles with the forward pass. Jacksonville's receivers are young and relatively inexperienced. Yet, the Jaguars, fresh off an AFC title game appearance, are rightly thinking big again in 2018 because of two things. Yes, that ferocious defense is first and foremost. But don't overlook Fournette, whose tireless work on offense further boosts Jacksonville's more-vaunted unit.
Fournette pounds opposing defenses, even when they routinely sell out to stop the run and try to make Bortles beat them. Also, the beastly back's ability to move the chains allows Jacksonville defenders well-deserved rest. It's a lonely, LeBron-like world being the only player on the Jaguars' offense keeping defensive coordinators up at night.
8) T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Until I actually see Andrew Luck throw a football -- we are going to see it again ... right?? -- Hilton is alone as the rarest of rare birds: a fantasy-relevant Colt.
Sorry, don't mean to annoyingly view things through a cold, fantasy football lense, but you get the larger point: Hilton's really the only player in Indianapolis who routinely gets you out of your seat. Over his six NFL seasons, Hilton has averaged 1,138 yards and six touchdowns.
Of course, life is much better with Luck delivering the football. Last year, Hilton fell short of the 1,000-yard mark -- though, just short, with 966 yards -- for the first time since his rookie campaign. The days of Luck throwing the deep ball to a streaking Hilton for a touchdown, resulting in Hilton's signature T-Y celebration, feel like a lifetime ago. The NFL is a better place when Luck is healthy. Nobody knows what I'm talking about more than Hilton.
9) Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
Stafford has become quite the comeback artist, setting the NFL single-season record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks in 2016 and racking up 30 game-winning drives over the past seven years. Truthfully, in some of those late wins, it really felt like the Lions quarterback was going 1-on-11.
This offseason, Detroit did a nice job bringing in a couple of backs (LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson) and drafting a first-round offensive lineman (Frank Ragnow). But this offense still doesn't feel complete. Kind of disappointing when you have someone as gifted as Stafford, but this QB will make do.