Long live the King: Examining LeBron James' legacy
The late Kobe Bryant must be smirking.
“You could have sealed it in Game 5, but on the final play, you passed the ball!" I imagine he would say, if he could still speak to LeBron James. “I would have never passed it,” Kobe would utter with stone-cold seriousness. Then he'd crack his illuminating smile at James, whose Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday.
Just one game prior, James — who joined the Lakers in 2018 — had the opportunity to clinch his fourth NBA championship and end a grueling 2019-20 season marred by the most difficult of circumstances.
With less than 17 seconds remaining and Los Angeles down by one point, James drove to the basket, drew three defenders, then dished the ball out to Danny Green, who missed an open three-pointer.
LeBron’s decision quickly drew criticism, as any LeBron mistake does. His choice to pass with the game on the line overshadowed all the good he had done leading up to that play. In 42 minutes of action, James scored 40 points on 71.4% shooting, hit six of his nine three-point tries, and tallied 13 rebounds, 11 assists, and three steals in the Game 5 loss.
LeBron made history with Game 6 win against Miami
In Game 6, James made sure not to give the Heat any chance to extend the series further. In a 106-93 decision, James registered 28 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists for his 11th triple-double in a Finals series, the most by any player in NBA history.
He also earned his fourth NBA Finals MVP. Only Michael Jordan has more, with six.
Nonetheless, somewhere Jordan is chuckling.
“OK, you got your fourth ring and Finals MVP. But you still have six Finals series losses. That’s six more than me,” I imagine Jordan might say the next time he sees James.
As the argument often goes, LeBron is inferior to Jordan, because unlike LeBron, Jordan never lost a Finals series. He is a perfect 6-0, with six Finals MVP trophies to match each ring, and the only player to accomplish two three-peats.
LeBron's legacy complicated by Finals failures
James has not one, not two, not three three-peats. In eight consecutive Finals appearances from 2011-2018, he won back-to-back titles once, with the Heat.
In 2014, the quest for a three-peat came up short, when LeBron’s Heat fell 4-1 in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs.
From 2015-2018, James reached four straight NBA Finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In each of those series, LeBron faced the Golden State Warriors and defeated them just once (2016), in a series that went seven games.
LeBron has also been swept in the Finals twice — in his first championship series in 2007, as a Cav, and his last championship series with Cleveland in 2018. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were twice swept with the Lakers, too, in 1983 and 1989.
Those failures in the playoffs continue to cloud LeBron’s legacy, but here is what James has done differently, compared to Jordan.
Who do you consider the greatest basketball player of all time?
Where LeBron is superior to Jordan
LeBron is the only player to win the Finals MVP with three different teams. With his fourth Finals MVP, he broke a tie he held with Magic, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O’Neal.
LeBron set another record Sunday, with his 260th playoff game.
Before Game 6, he was in a tie with Derek Fisher for most postseason games played. Game 6 also marked the 55th NBA Finals game of James’ career, which linked him with Jerry West for the fourth most. Only Bill Russell (70), Sam Jones (64), and Abdul-Jabbar (56) have played in more.
“I’ve never missed a playoff game in my career. The best thing you can do for your teammates is be available.”— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 12, 2020
LeBron has played in 51 of the last 57 #NBAFinals games! 55 total!
He has also played in a record 260 Playoff games, the equivalent to 3.2 regular NBA seasons. pic.twitter.com/dixPOFOmZf
James’ 7,491 points in the playoffs are the most by any player in NBA history. Jordan is second, with 5,987. Kareem is third, with 5,762.
James’ minutes played (10,811) in the postseason also rank first, as do his 445 playoff steals, while his 1,871 postseason assists rank second to Magic’s 2,346.
Lakers win 17th title under unprecedented circumstances
Another thing James did that Jordan didn’t — he won a championship in an unorthodox environment no player had experienced before the 2019-2020 season.
In the midst of a pandemic, the NBA halted play March 11, after Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. In order to resume the season and name a champion, the NBA relocated to Orlando and isolated from the outside world, including players' families, in July.
Bubble life was mentally taxing enough, but then the world became swept up in civil unrest over the summer. Protests over George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake competed with the coronavirus for the nation's focus. James felt a personal responsibility to speak out about the turmoil, in an effort to promote change, while many fans and political personalities condemned the star for using his voice.
The ability to concentrate solely on basketball only grew more difficult, all while Laker Nation’s heart remained heavy from the unexpected death of Bryant in January.
Jeanie Buss: “Kobe always liked to win every game, every opportunity. I think that’s what inspired this team and will continue to inspire Laker Nation for all time.”— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) October 12, 2020
But James never let up. He pressed forward with a mission to return the Lakers to the Promised Land and fulfilled that goal in just his second season with the franchise.
Before Sunday, it had been more than a decade since Los Angeles hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The last time that happened, in 2010, Bryant won his fifth and final championship with L.A.
Now James has ushered in a new era with the Lakers, and he may finally acquire something he’s been demanding for quite some time.
“The organization wants their respect, Laker Nation wants their respect,” James said, as the Lakers celebrated Sunday. “And I want my damn respect, too."
So, let’s give it to LeBron. For once, let’s stop comparing him to Jordan or Kobe.
If we learned anything in January, with Bryant’s death, it’s that we should appreciate the NBA’s legendary players while we still have them, instead of constantly pitting them against one another via statistical analysis, anecdotes, and “what-if” scenarios.
Let’s stop asking who the greatest was and start asking what each player was greatest at.
LeBron doesn’t have “the shot” like MJ, or Kobe’s 81-point game, but at age 35, he has demonstrated an unparalleled mix of consistency and stamina.
Back when Jordan was 35, he was finishing up his 12th full season and declaring his second retirement from basketball. James just wrapped up his 17th year in the NBA and 10th NBA Finals series, and it doesn’t appear he will slow down anytime soon.
You can argue all you want about who is better, but let’s stop focusing on players of the past. Right here and right now, James is the King of the court, and we should give him his respect.