Magic Johnson made a lot of friends around the Internet when he smacked around LeBron James the other day. Charles Oakley joined in. Cracking on LeBron as not all he could be has become a national past time. Saying he is not clutch because he doesn’t have a ring has somehow become accepted truth for people, the heart of LeBron’s legacy.
Except, maybe we should wait until LeBron finishes playing until we decide what his legacy will be.
I will give you four reasons why.
1) LeBron is 26 years old. He has nearly a decade of basketball ahead of him (well, assuming the lockout ends in our lifetime). He is just entering his prime. While the whole “not five, not six…” thing was arrogant, it would be foolish to assume he will never have a ring or a few rings. And if you don’t think those are redemptive of a reputation, ask Dirk Nowitzki.
2) Magic Johnson was not seen as clutch or a winner for a while. This seems ridiculous on the surface — Magic had an NCAA title and an NBA ring by the time he was 25 — but as Rohan Cruyff reminds us at SBN in 1894 Magic was seen as a guy out for stats and flashy play who didn’t care about winning.
Make no mistake: until the Lakers’ 1985 breakthrough against Boston, Magic’s failures were no less extensively highlighted than LeBron’s. In ’84, the Los Angeles Times published a story entitled, “Earvin, What Happened to Magic?” The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, not to be outdone, referred to Johnson as the “tarnished superstar” and “the goat of the series.” Public opinion has swung as quickly and forcefully against the 26-year-old James, who like Magic in ’84, has a ways to go before his “legacy” or all-time standing can seriously be considered.
I grew up in Los Angeles, and this is spot on. We know now how off that perception of Magic was, but at the time it was accepted truth.
3) At age 26, Michael Jordan had no rings and was considered a failure. Up until his first ring, many people considered Jordan a selfish gunner who would never win, as Tom Haberstroh reminds us at ESPN. Again, that perception was off, but in our society you are not clutch until suddenly you are. It took time for Jordan to win rings and cement his legend as one of the greatest ever to lace up sneakers. If you defined MJ at age 26, you’d get a guy a lot like LeBron.
By the way, if you’re going to throw Kobe Bryant out there, let me ask you this — if LeBron came into the league on a team with Shaquille O’Neal in his prime and veterans like Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Glen Rice, Brian Shaw and many others on it, how many ring would LeBron have? If you just said zero, you’re wrong.
4) LeBron James is more clutch than he gets credit for. I am not going to argue about the last two games of the finals against Dallas in 2011. Or Game 5 against Boston in 2010. LeBron is not perfect in the clutch and has work to do. But that is only half of the story, as Zach Lowe broke down at Sports Illustrated.
But to label James as ”un-clutch” or fearful of big moments based on the second half of the 2011 Finals and Game 5 against Boston in 2010 conveniently ignores the rest of his résumé, including the two series that immediately preceded the last season’s Finals — series in which LeBron destroyed Boston and then Chicago in crunch time. It ignores the 2009 conference finals against Orlando, in which James averaged an insane 39-8-8 line and won Game 2 with a legendary buzzer-beater. It ignores his 25 consecutive points against the Pistons in 2007 and that in 2008 he almost single-handedly defeated the Celtics, the eventual champions, in a seven-game series the Cavaliers had no place winning.
The point is that things are not black and white with LeBron, they are shades of gray. He is not a disaster in the clutch, he has good and bad games. And at age 26 it is far too early to define his legacy. Rings are a magic balm in our society, they changes our perception of players. We don’t know how we’ll perceive LeBron in a decade.
That doesn’t sit well with those who hate LeBron, because it requires patience and nuance. But it is the truth. They key parts of LeBron’s legacy have yet to be written.