In the 2016 Finals, LeBron James led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He was the first player to ever do that in any series, and that was just enough to win the series in seven games, by four points. It took a historic, once in NBA history effort to get the Cavs over the hump and they needed every point, rebound, assist, steal and legendary block.
In the 2017 Finals, LeBron James became the first player to ever average a triple double in the Finals, tossing in 33 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and dishing out 10 assists per game. That was enough to net the Cavs one victory, two blowout losses, one close loss and a decisive Game 5 loss that wasn’t within 5 points for the final 11:18. He scored 12 of the Cavs final 18 points — J.R. Smith scored the other six — all on dunks or layups. It was another historic, never before seen performance from the greatest player of his generation and maybe ever and it simply was not enough.
He was outgunned, but not for lack of trying, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, the Cavs lost and the tally for this series goes in the wrong column.
The hottake era has removed nuance from analysis and logic from debate, and replaced them with blanket statements and narrative pushing. For a player as complex and all-encompasing as LeBron, this is a travesty. Too often he was relegated to simple, traditional roles, shoved into pegs his oblong shape never fit and expected to be something he never was designed to be. He has been reduced to black and white, vanilla evaluations when there were an infinite amount of hues with which to paint the picture of LeBron James’ career, legacy and all-time status.
Maybe LeBron’s greatest detriment is that Michael Jordan came before him and provided an archetype for the greatest, a prototype to which he would always be compared to and measured against. When Jordan scaled this mountain, there was no universal precedent for the greatest, there were several who held the mantle. But nobody was the consensus owner of the title. Nobody set the mold, so Jordan did it himself without a shadow hanging over his every action on the court.
LeBron wasn’t afforded that privilege and it has dogged him since he was 16 years old.
But James has always been so much more than a simple comparison to the ghost of his past, more than could be expressed in just 140 characters or a Skip Bayless rant. He was wholly and uniquely himself. LeBron is the best player in the most fruitful era of professional basketball ever because of his complexity, because he’ll pass to Kyle Korver with a chance to bury the most talented team of all-time, not in spite of it. LeBron is not the second coming of Michael, Magic, or Bird, he’s the first of his kind and just as inimitable as those three. He is a stew of the greats before him, the idiosyncratic qualities that make him so polarizing and the era in which he was born.
That is LeBron’s paradox: he is a player born into the age of team ball trumping individual talent, yet he is judged as an individual, and chided for playing that same team ball. Yes, LeBron is 3-5 in the NBA Finals now, but no that should not be some indictment of his talent or the crutch for those arguing against his greatness. Basketball is a team sport, won by teams, not individuals. Championships are won by superstars, but they’re also won by the David Wests and Patricks McCaws of the world chipping in when it matters most.
For LeBron, it seems, he will be remembered more for his losses than his wins. His admirable loss to the Spurs in 07 is revered, his meltdown in 2011 is the darkest blemish on his resume. His herculean 2015 loss was the anthesis of his historical 2016 triumph. And now, his 2017 loss has become a signifier of his greatness. His performance is being lauded even with the lingering uncertainty about what happens next.
Oddly enough, this incarnation of the Golden State Warriors may be the greatest thing to ever happen to LeBron’s legacy.
This might be the immovable object that his irresistible force needs to meet and somehow surmount to convince his most devout detractors. If LeBron beats these guys, at this stage in his career, it will be an unmatched feat, and push the needle so far in his favor his status as at least Jordan’s equal will be undeniable.
The efforts the Warriors went to and the manipulation of their roster to combat LeBron are a testament to just how immense his eminence truly is. The story of Draymond Green calling the Warriors general manager and Kevin Durant immediately following the 2016 Finals loss adds credence to the “they had to get KD to beat LeBron” narrative, and Draymond’s statement on the championship podium backs that.
The juggernaut had to be formed to exact revenge on LeBron, never mind the fact that the Warriors would be foolish to turn down the services of Durant no matter the result of the 2016 Finals, Draymond and the Warriors felt they needed Durant to beat LeBron, in Draymond’s own words. For them, 2016 was a necessary evil to complete their Voltron of a team, for LeBron it was his prowess and reign over the NBA that demanded that formation.
So now he needs to regroup, again, and figure out how to slay the latest Goliath put in front of him, custom-built to destroy him. The Warriors present the rarest of opportunities for LeBron, a universally revered accomplishment. Michael may have slayed the Monstars in a cartoon land in the center of the earth, but James has the chance to slay the real Monstars, right here on the earth’s surface. Doing so is exactly what he needs to grab the GOAT title from Michael and make it his own. Durant, Curry, Draymond, Klay and whoever else fills out the roster is LeBron’s chance to do the impossible — again — and a reason to raise his game to unforeseen levels in order complete that challenge.
Taking one of the greatest singular talents on earth, in any field, and asking them to focus solely on one task, on beating one obstacle, is an opportunity for that talent to manifest itself into something truly special. A 30-point triple double average in the finals was the third form of that focus, and somehow that wasn’t enough.
What we get next will be the fourth form, and if there is a peak higher than where LeBron is at now he’s going to need it to beat these Warriors. Judging by the previous 14 years of LeBron’s career and all of the expectations placed upon his shoulders since he was a teenager fumbling through algebra classes and driving Hummers to school, he’s going to meet the challenge head on and exceed expectations yet again. And if he doesn’t, we’ll be glued to the effort and ready to debate it nonstop regardless.
That is the theater of LeBron James, where everything is as dramatic as a daytime soap opera and the devotees are just as rabid. LeBron’s legacy and standing amongst the greats before him is the overlying narrative hanging over every single game he ever plays. Kevin Durant was special in the Finals, but it was LeBron’s legacy that demanded discussion.
The Warriors are a dynasty in its infancy, but LeBron is a one-man dynasty in the middle of his reign, fighting the greatest war of his era and hoping the 2017 Finals isn’t the beginning of the end, but just a random battle in a seven-year war that he’ll somehow figure out how to emerge victorious from.
Each series, season, game, shot, dribble and minute decision matters. Every single moment has the potential to be a legacy defying triumph. Every single accomplishment or failure is held against the bald-headed, black and red swathed standard. That is the truest testament to LeBron’s greatness, the fact that it’s at all entertained that he could reach that peak, and that it’s expected that he surpasses it and if he doesn’t, it’s a failure. For the Warriors, each season they tout a roster this talented, it is championship or bust for them, but for LeBron, each time he laces up the finest Nike sneakers, it’s Jordan or bust and there is no margin for error.
When time goes on, the rough edges and warts on the legend of LeBron will be sanded down and forgotten. LeBron’s three misses in the final four minutes of Game 7 last year are long forgotten now, and The Block is what lives on, and it hasn’t even been 365 whole days since then. This is how it works.
At some point, LeBron will truly be appreciated for what he is, what he was and his true standing in history. He is the rare generational talent to not be truly and universally treasured in real time. He’s an era-specific anomaly, which is fitting since he’s always been an anomaly from the day he stepped on an NBA floor.
Next year he’ll be right back to square one, with the formidable Warriors constantly lingering and the ghost of Michael Jordan hanging over each night at the area, like a storm cloud ready to rain on his parade. But exorcising those demons is all within reach for LeBron, all that remains to be seen is if he actually does it, makes a few heads spin and claims his throne atop the NBA mountain for good.
But the best part about it all? Even if he does, that just evens up the series and sets the stage for the fifth time around. And we’ll get to argue about it the way we’ve argued about everything LeBron James has done for well over a decade.