For a player as accomplished and successful as forward LeBron James, it seems odd to claim that his seventh NBA Finals appearance will have the most impact on his legacy. James is already regarded as one of the best to ever play the game, and after 13 seasons under his belt, one would think James has etched his legacy in stone.
However, James has crafted a unique narrative, which — combined with his 2-4 Finals’ record — leaves his legacy as volatile as ever, a conversation that finds its way to every media outlet imaginable.
James is 31 years old, and now is his time to win. While he is over the peak of his career and has slowly begun his descent towards retirement, he is still the best player in the world. Realistically, he has three to four more purely dominant seasons left, and while he can still be an integral piece of a championship team, he will eventually lose his ability to take over games in the not-so-distant future.
Normally, a proven star with an abundance of accolades would not face enormous expectations and pressure in the wake of decline. However, James has yet to win a title for the Cleveland Cavaliers, something he promised to do after his return from the Miami Heat in the summer of 2014.
Cavaliers fans watched in disgust as James promised and delivered championships to another city after failing to do so during his first stint in Cleveland. They have waited patiently and supported their antihero, all in hope of erasing the city’s 52-year championship drought.
No one worth listening to will argue against the opinion that James is a top-10 player of all time. If anyone did, I would point out the game six against the Boston Celtics in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, when James exploded for 45 points on 73 percent shooting with 15 rebounds to boot.
However, his rank among the coveted top five is debatable, and the outcome of the 2016 Finals will help push him either above or below the threshold.
In my opinion, the top-five players of all time must possess a blend of statistics and success. Michael Jordan, who is widely considered the best and greatest player of all-time, has a resume that epitomizes the necessary qualifications. For his career, Jordan posted per game averages of 30.1 points, 5.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds, in addition to boasting a perfect 6-0 Finals record.
James, who has per game averages of 27.2 points, 6.9 assists and 7.2 rebounds for his career, certainly has the stats to justify a place in the top five, but his 2-4 Finals record is less than impressive.
With his background in mind, James and his Cavaliers currently find themselves tied 3-3 with the Golden State Warriors after back-to-back 41-point performances from James. The onslaughts came against a team without forward Draymond Green, who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, in game five, and center Andrew Bogut, who will not be available for the rest of the series, in game six.
If the Cavaliers lose the series, James’ record in the Finals will drop to 2-5. While his losses in 2007 and 2015 were excusable due to an ineffective supporting cast and injuries, respectively, James has no excuse this year. The roster he advocated for, including trading guard Andrew Wiggins for forward Kevin Love, is fully healthy and led by Tyronn Lue, the coach James wanted over former coach David Blatt. This is James’ and the Cavaliers’ best shot at Golden State, and if they ultimately fall short, James will deservingly lose another finals.
If this happens to be the case, I do not see how James deserves, or has earned, a spot in my — and many people’s — top five of Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell and Larry Bird. Each player in my top five has an NBA Finals record above .500, something James will likely never be able to boast.
However, if the Cavaliers somehow manage to make the 3-1 comeback against the greatest regular season team ever, I think James would cement his legacy as the third best player ever, behind Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar. This, of course, assumes that James leads them there and continues to at least meet his per-game season averages of 25.3 points, 6.8 assists and 7.4 rebounds.
While he would still hold a record of 3-4 in the finals, managing to upset this Warriors team, especially after being down 3-1, would be the greatest NBA Finals victory ever. Barring a 2011-esque blunder, I think James would be regarded as a top-three player in the game’s history.
With Love slumping and Irving inevitably regressing to his mean after a scorching 17-of-24 shooting performance in game five, it is up to James to carry this team. The outcome of his seventh and most important NBA Finals appearance will play a significant role in deciding his rank amongst the other all-time greats, and whether or not he should be considered a top-five player to ever play the game.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.