LeBron James’ legacy has become one of the “hot take” storylines of the NBA Finals, which finally tip off Thursday night. And how you spin it says as much about what you think of LeBron as it does his actual legacy.
When LeBron steps onto the court Thursday night, he will be playing in his fifth straight NBA Finals. Michael Jordan never did that. Nor did Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, or Kobe Bryant. Nobody since Bill Russell and those 60s Celtics have pulled that off. It’s an impressive feat.
But getting to the Finals and winning are different things — and Jordan’s army of defenders (does he need defenders?) will be more than happy to point that out. MJ never lost in the Finals. Should the Warriors win these Finals (and they are the favorites), LeBron will be 2-4 on the NBA’s biggest stage.
Those, however, are just the simple answers, the easy ones for our “thumbs up or thumbs down” society.
The reality is LeBron’s legacy is more complex than that.
And ultimately LeBron’s legacy will not be defined by these Finals alone.
Rings do matter when discussing a superstar’s NBA legacy. Karl Malone and John Stockton had the misfortune of being at their peak in the Jordan era, and that lack of a title is part of how we see them now. Same with Charles Barkley. Or, on the other side, the ultimate legacies of players such as Kobe Bryant or Larry Bird are in part defined by their rings and winning.
LeBron’s legacy will in part be defined by how many rings he has — and if he can deliver one to title-starved Cleveland (this year or in future ones).
That said. LeBron has a couple rings already, he’s earned his championship stripes.
I personally never could stand the “look at the ringzzzzz” argument. It lacks nuance.
Consider at the teams LeBron has led to the Finals — they often have not been impressive squads. In 2007 he dragged a team not worthy of the Finals — the second and third leading scorers on the Cavs that season where Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden — to the game’s biggest stage. It was an amazing feat just to get a team that far. Do you want to ding LeBron’s legacy because he couldn’t lead that ragtag bunch past Duncan’s deep Spurs?
The same could be said of last season’s Heat team — was that team with a hobbled Dwyane Wade and no bench to speak of a serious threat to the best Spurs team we had seen in years? Is that loss really on LeBron alone? No.
The only time LeBron has made it to the Finals and didn’t win when it seemed like he could was 2011, when the Dallas Mavericks were on a roll and the Heat were just not ready yet.
LeBron very well may not win this time around. If he does he will have won the title three out of four years and brought one home a title to Cleveland— but if he doesn’t do it this year, he likely will in the next couple years. Very possibly more than one title. In five years we may look back with amazement he was able to get this banged-up roster of Cavaliers to the Finals in the first place and see it as the start of a run.
Which is why these Finals will not define LeBron’s legacy for all time. Whatever happens will be part of the conversation, as will his incredible physical gifts, his passing, his dunks and game winners. But it remains too early to define LeBron’s legacy. He’s still at the peak of his powers. We do not know now what we will think of him in 10 years.
But that doesn’t make for good copy, it doesn’t get clicks and viewers. So hot takes on LeBron’s legacy will remain the order of the day.