Does LeBron James Have to Win the NBA Championship this Season to Cement Legacy?
May 5, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts after a call during game three of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

No matter the result of the 2017 NBA Finals against the high-powered Dubs, LeBron James’ legacy is already cemented. 

No player has entered the NBA with as much hype and fanfare as the Chosen One, LeBron James. We have witnessed for the past 13 years his dominance over the league. At age 32, James is coming off one his best overall seasons in averaging 26.4 ppg 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field and 36 percent from distance. 

It’s important that we not only understand what we are witnessing while it’s happening, but that we fully embrace it as well. 

James, who entered the league at 18, was viewed as a man-child. He single-handed raised the Cavaliers franchise from the dead, carrying the team to the playoffs from 2006-10. In 2007, just four years into his career, James dragged a sub-par roster with the likes of Daniel Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic and Drew Gooden to the finals against a dynastic Spurs team. While many point to the fact that the Cavs got swept in this series, a deeper look at the putrid roster shows that this feat should be celebrated as the beginning of LeBron’s reign. 

The detractors make mention of the Eastern Conference being weaker as explanation for his stronghold. But the reality is James has stifled many on his path to perennial dominance.

Let us not forget he ended the Detroit Pistons brief reign over the East. He ensured that MVP Derrick Rose, before the injuries, did not make it passed the Eastern Conference Finals while with the Chicago Bulls. James put Paul George’s hot assent to super stardom on ice. He took down the first super team of this era, the Boston Celtics led by future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and ended their hopes of a dynasty.

The super team formed in Miami, composed of fellow 2003 draftees Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was a direct response to that great Celtics team, as well as Dan Gilbert’s unwillingness to build a championship roster in Cleveland.

Since leaving Cleveland in 2010, James has made it to seven straight NBA championships. Yes, his record to date is 3-4 in those series, two of which were an impossible task to overcome. Let’s be completely honest, there was no chance that the Cavs beat the Spurs in 2007. In 2014, LeBron returned to rescue the Cavaliers from the depths of despair yet again, with the sole mission of bringing a championship home.

Let’s also keep the narrative accurate that he did everything possible to will the Cavs to victory after losing stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injury during that finals run. Unfortunately, his supporting cast was not good enough to overcome the Warriors trio. The loss against the Dallas Mavericks and second loss the Spurs are stains on his resume that he’ll have to live with.

But within the three championship victories, he has the best power forward of all time Tim Duncan, future Hall of Famers Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, as well as arguably the greatest coach of all time Greg Popovich on his list of accomplishments. He defeated a young team composed of three future MVP caliber players in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. His resume includes the best team in NBA history, the 73-9 Golden State Warriors led by the first unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, with all stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Not only did he lead the Cavaliers to defeating them, but did so after being down 3-1 in the series. That feat belongs solely to LeBron James, as no team had ever done that prior.

What separates his decision to leave Cleveland and Miami from Kevin Durant’s decision to leave OKC is he did not join a team that was already dominant. The Warriors posted the best regular season record in NBA history 73-9. Their main core grew up together to form a super team of their own with two time MVP Stephen Curry as the focal point. The Warriors made it to back to back finals, overcame a 3-1 deficit to Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder before succumbing to King James in the finals after squandering their own 3-1 lead.

For the record, Golden State’s management made the right play in acquiring the best talent available. They constructed the greatest super team from a talent perspective that we’ve seen probably since the show time Lakers. When discussing legacies, remember the extent that the best regular season team in NBA history took to overcome LeBron James.

Will he ever match Michael Jordan’s status? Simply put no. The mystique of Jordan’s legacy is rooted in his six championship appearances all ending in victories. It’s important that this is put in perspective as well. Often omitted from the record is Jordan’s early playoff struggles prior to Scottie Pippen’s arrival. Once the ball did get rolling, Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were the dominant team of their era, comparable to Golden State. They were never the underdogs in the finals.

Are the comparisons between these two players completely far-fetched? From purely a statistical and individual era of dominance perspective, not so much. Although many attempt to discredit LeBron James, he is the most dominant basketball player since Jordan. Taking two separate franchises to the finals for seven straight seasons is not a task that should be swept under the rug. He will continue to surpass Jordan and other greats in various statistical categories while carving his own path to basketball’s Mount Rushmore.

From a playing style perspective though, it’s unfair to compare James to Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Jordan and Bryant’s greatness is rooted in their “killer instinct” with the game on the line. They took and made many big shots throughout their careers. While James has done so as well, his greatness is rooted in his high basketball IQ, ability to see the floor and willingness to make the often-criticized right basketball play. LeBron James is a superior hybrid of Magic Johnson and Scottie Pippen. These were players with the ability to dominant the game in all aspects. Despite being the best player on the court, James’ trust for his team mates and ability to make players around him better are unmatched.

Currently in an all too familiar bind, down 3-1 in the finals against the league’s best team, James has already reached basketball immortality. Last year, he led everyone in points, rebounding and assists on road to an improbable finals victory. This year, he’s only improved on those numbers to average a triple double. He’s putting up 31.8 ppg, 11.8 rebounds, and 10.5 assists, with a slash line of 54/39/70. Those are video game stats reminiscent of NBA 2k MyPlayer with a max rating.

Losing this series can do no harm to his legacy as the Cavaliers came in as serious underdogs to a super talented Warriors team. But his legacy will be undebatable if he is able to overcome this year’s challenge of being down 3-0 against a two-time MVP in Stephen Curry, former MVP and scoring champion Kevin Durant, arguably the best two-way guard Klay Thompson and all defensive forward Draymond Green. Has his career been perfect, no. But neither was Michael Jordan’s or Kobe Bryant’s the two he’s most often compared to.

Finally, what’s not highlighted here is his transcendental approach to the business of the NBA, empowering other players to take control of their careers. Also unnoted is his role as a leader within the community off the basketball court, a story deserving of a full feature in itself.