I know, this headline seems absolutely ridiculous, absurd, horrendous or whatever host of words you want to use to describe it to whomever you talk to about sports. I can just see people now, “hey man, this Shooting the Sports Ish site had the most ridiculous article today and the headline was just stupid.” Sure, I get that, but I have an explanation for this.
Lebron James, one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, has left an impressive mark on the NBA, but there is still some debate about what his legacy will mean once he hangs up his sneakers for the final time. For many, like myself, he’s the greatest basketball player of all time. For some, he’s one of the best, but there are multiple other players deserving of more recognition than Lebron James.
4-6. James’ NBA Finals record will be the biggest deterrent to his legacy as hoops fans discuss his career at sports bars for decades to come. Its important to remember the franchises that he faced during all of these runs.
The San Antonio Spurs
Lebron’s first ever Finals was reached by Herculean effort. Many of us that grew up watching this man dominate on the hardwood will remember his 28 straight points against the Detroit Pistons ultimately leading to a sweep against the San Antonio Spurs. Not many NBA conversations give enough credit to just how dominant Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker were during their time together as a Big 3. Often times, we think of Big 3 trios as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen or Lebron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, but the San Antonio Big 3 is one of the most incredible Big 3’s of all time and they were coached by, for my money, the best NBA coach to ever walk the sidelines. Gregg Popovich has ultimate respect amongst players, coaches and fans of the NBA. You can never, ever count out a San Antonio team while he is calling the shots. This man helped lead a fantastic Big 3 of Hall of Famers to 4 championships including 2 against our star, Lebron James. During his career, Lebron would go 1-2 in series against Gregg Popovich and his star-studded trio. There is absolutely zero shame in those defeats and his lone victory demanded an incredible Game 7 Performance to bring home his 2nd NBA Title.
The Golden State Warriors
More famously, Lebron struggled mightily against Stephen Curry and his friends over in Golden State. The first year the legend faced the star-studded lineup, Lebron was without either of his star teammates as Kyrie Irving was hurt in Game 1 and Kevin Love was hurt earlier in the playoffs against a WWE-like takedown from former Boston Celtic, Kelly Olynyk. During this run, Lebron would lose 4-2 while averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. For the first time ever, a player would lead his team in points, assists and rebounds. Despite having zero help, Lebron carried the load admirably leading his team to 2 victories while heavily, heavily outmatched.
During the rematch, the Cavaliers would fall down 3 games to 1 and we all know what happened after that. Lebron would lead his team, with help from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, to a shocking comeback and victory for his home city of Cleveland. He averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game during this series while chipping in 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game. This series will likely be known as Lebron’s Mona Lisa of playoff performances.
Over the next two seasons, Lebron would be forced to face-off against a Golden State team that added Kevin Durant and would win back-to-back championships beating the Cavaliers a combined 8-1. The Golden State Warriors handed Lebron 3 of his Finals Losses and will be known as one of the most dominant franchises in NBA history.
The First Title
Lebron captured his first NBA Championship in his 2nd Season with the Miami Heat. After a disappointing Finals appearance in 2011 which we will cover shortly, Lebron erased those memories for himself with a fantastic run average 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game. The Oklahoma City Thunder were thought to be one of the most exciting and promising young rosters in the league featuring future Hall of Famers Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden each of whom would develop to be 3 of today’s most dominant scorers in the league. Despite this, Lebron and the Heat would win 4 games to 1.
Naturally, no Lebron conversation can be complete without discussing the true disappointing appearance in the Finals; 2011. Lebron and the Heat were presumed favorites going into this series as they had an extremely talented team facing off with a Dallas Mavericks team that not many were convinced of. Lebron and the Heat were absolutely disappointing and Lebron, in particular, was disappointing in this series. He average just 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. All of these were incredibly disappointing and unacceptable numbers for one of the games best players ever in his athletic prime. Those that do not want to consider Lebron as the Greatest of All Time or even a top 5 player often look back at this series as the best example of his disappointment. This one loss, admittedly, is equal to about double the magnitude of his other 5 Finals Losses.
The Return to the Top of the Mountaintop
After leaving Cleveland for a second time and heading to Los Angeles and the historic Lakers franchise, many assumed Lebron did not care to win another title. In fact, many believed he would never win another title during the remainder of his career. After an one year hiatus from the NBA Finals average appearing in every NBA Finals since 2011, Lebron would return to the Finals bringing a chip on his shoulder, a memorial mission and for the first time ever, the best Big Man in the NBA. His performance did not disappoint.
Despite two of the absolute best performances from Jimmy Butler who accumulated 2 Triple Doubles in the NBA Finals (a feat rarely accomplished), Lebron and Anthony Davis would lead the Lakers and Lebron back to championship glory. James averaged 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game in this series amounting to one of his absolute best NBA Finals performances at the ripe age of 35! Age appeared to both affect him and escape him during this season, but the end does not appear to be soon for one of the game’s greatest players.
The Statistical Accomplishments
Naturally, Lebron’s list of accomplishments are lengthy and impressive.
- 4x NBA Champion
- 4x Finals MVP
- 4x Regular Season MVP
- 16x NBA All Star
- 3x NBA All-Star Game MVP
- 13x All-NBA First Team
- 2x All-NBA Second Team
- All-NBA Third Team
- 5x NBA All-Defensive First Team
- NBA All-Defensive Second Team
- NBA Rookie of the Year
- NBA Scoring Champion
- NBA Assist Leader
- J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award
- 3x AP Athlete of the Year
- 2x Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year
- USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year
- 2x Mr. Basketball
- Naismith Prep Player of the Year
- McDonald’s All-American Game MVP
- 2x Gatorade Player of the Year
- 2x First-team Parade All-American
- 3x Ohio Mr. Basketball
- 2x Olympic Gold Medalist
- Olympic Bronze MEdalist
- FIBA Bronze Medalist
- FIBA Americas Gold Medalist
In addition to all of these accomplishments, he is currently sitting in 3rd for All-time Scoring behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, 8th in All Time Assists behind a host of the best Point Guards of All-Time, 18th in defensive rebounds, and currently sits in 1st for playoff points, steals and games played while trailing only Magic Johnson in playoff assists. The man has amassed nearly every statistical accomplishment a Number 1 Overall Pick could even dream of, yet he continues to get disrespect.
While this is an incredibly long article already, I’m just reaching the meat of my support in choosing this headline. The act of dubbing players the “Greatest of All-Time” in sports is an incredibly subjective act, but Lebron’s legacy will benefit from that once he hangs it up at the conclusion of his career. Michael Jordan was absolutely a generational talent, the greatest winner of all-time and had more influence on the NBA’s popularity than any other player in its history. Jordan was to the NBA what Hulk Hogan was to the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Jordan was “cool,” incredible to watch and was capable of physics-defying acts of athleticism that were unbelievable to see. During the late 80’s and the entirety of the 1990’s, nobody was able to do the things Michael Jordan was able to do on the court and the tickets he drew showed that.
We remember Jordan fondly based on nostalgia from growing up watching his career unfold and due to the variety of highlight reels available at our disposal. Even further, the documentary, “The Last Dance,” only added fuel to that nostalgia fire “proving” to some that Jordan is the greatest of All-time. And he is, he’s the greatest of HIS time, but for me, Lebron James is everything that Jordan was to the talking heads on ESPN that either played against him or watched him dominate during their own adult prime.
I grew up a Lebron James fan. The very first clip of basketball I can remember is from 2003 during the “masked Lebron” era as I fondly call it. I remember thinking, “this is the fastest, most impressive human I have ever seen in my life.” At that time, I was a surfer and skateboarder with little to no athletic interest or ability. I played basketball in Middle School, but quit pretty quickly. I played football during Middle School, as well, but I was incredible uninterested in the sport by time 8th Grade came around. My family didn’t grow up watching sports together as many American families did, you see, so my exposure to greatness was Lebron James.
I closely followed his career and he became both a hero and a role-model for me. I saw him fail for years to get to the playoffs, but suddenly he made it to face the Washington Wizards who were heavily-favored at the time. He crab-walked his way to a series victory. I watched hopefully with friends as Lebron faced off against the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons were awesome and had championship pedigree. I wanted so badly for my hero to beat these Pistons and show he belonged in the conversation for championships. He beat the Pistons and was swept by the Spurs. Disappointment after disappointment followed as he lost to the Celtics and the Orlando Magic before exiting Cleveland. While many were upset that the NBA’s good-guy was turning his back on his hometown, I was excited because my favorite athlete finally had a team around him that was worthy of his ability and could help him win a title.
He disappointed again against the Dallas Mavericks who at the time I was not a fan of. (I currently am, though, because Luka Doncic is freaking amazing and Mark Cuban rules)
The Oklahoma City Thunder entered and he beat this young, promising team many thought would upset the Heat.
Ray Allen helped push the Heat to a Game 7 against the most dominant franchise of my early adult life, the San Antonio Spurs, and I remember watching with friends in the local Irish Pub as Lebron dominated san-headband during the closing game bringing home a 2nd title. The Spurs would exact their revenge and I thought his championship run was over.
Finally, the greatest series of my life happened and Lebron would comeback from being down 3-1 and win a title for his hometown. The Cinderella Story finally happened, Cleveland got their title and I felt it was justified that he was the greatest ever. Seriously, bringing a title to Cleveland should establish that for any athlete. Another title came this year as Lebron won a title in memory of the late, great Kobe and GiGi Bryant.
I cannot re-tell Michael Jordan’s career this way nor would I attempt to. I wouldn’t look at his career as a kid to young-adult who would age with this player, I’d look at his career as a historian which doesn’t do justice to any athlete’s career. However, as a High School teacher, I already see how fondly those kids look at Lebron and his greatness. To them, Lebron is the greatest that ever played the game.
Why? Recency bias.
The greatest athlete of all time is the most recent athlete to play because that is what the generation right before today’s kids will remember the best. I was born in 1989, so from 0-10 years old I have few memories of that time. Hell, I don’t even remember Washington Wizards Jordan! However, I could re-tell my son ever fond memory of Lebron’s career just as I have here. I can list statistics to tell you why he’s the greatest, just like the generation before me can do with Michael Jordan. As we grow older and Lebron’s career both ends and settles, my generation will be responsible for re-telling his legacy and that will influence how history remembers it. Right now, there are many Lebron haters just as there were many Jordan haters in the 90’s. Once Lebron is done, we’ll all miss his presence on the court, his thunderous dunks and we’ll try to re-live those memories through time spent with our children and their discovery of the greatest athlete of the 2000’s and, to me, the Greatest Basketball Player of All-Time.
It won’t be until he’s done that we can let his career settle and start handing down our stories of his career.