As Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare to try and dig their way out of a 1-3 series deficit (which may be a complete series loss by the time you read this article) to the Golden State Warriors Monday, there is even more at stake for the “King.” His legacy.
If the Warriors finish off Cleveland, James will have a 2-5 record in the NBA Finals. For a guy that so many of his supporters are desperate to anoint as the “greatest of all-time,” that’s a putrid record.
Another NBA Finals loss gives James’ critics more ammunition when comparing him to previous greats and how he stacks up. It’s criticism that Warriors executive Jerry West thought was absurd, stating the following last week when speaking with the media.
“They’ve been in the Finals six straight times,” West said. “How many times have they been the favorite? None. Zero, OK? Grossly unfair to him.”
West is inaccurate in claiming James’ teams were never the favorites. The 2011 Miami team were heavy favorites over Dallas and the Spurs were only slight favorites over James’ Miami teams in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals.
Still, the criticism of James wouldn’t be so harsh if it wasn’t for the constant apologists and excuses that always arise whenever a James-led team falters.
There is always an excuse. It’s either his teammates; they’re awful or they’re too old; or someone is injured; or he’s not getting the calls.
We saw it in last year’s NBA Finals when Cleveland lost in six games to the Warriors. The excuses were, “If the Cavs didn’t lose Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injury, they would have won the championship.” In this year’s regular season matchups between the two teams we saw Golden State win both games with Love and Irving playing alongside James. In fact, in their January meeting the Warriors destroyed Lebron’s Cavs by a 34-point margin.
The narrative seems to shift any time there is an inkling that James’ team might turn the corner. After the Cavs took a 2-1 series lead in the 2015 NBA Finals, the media, and his supporters crowed that it displayed James’ “greatness” to carry this team on his back. Then the excuses came after they lost the series. After a 33-point blowout loss in Game 2, James scored 32 points in a 30-point Cavs win over the Warriors. The positive stories followed before being shut down again after another loss to the Warriors in Game 4.
It’s easy to be a detractor of James, whether it’s fair or not. His history of embarrassing soccer-like flops, the appearance of getting coaches fired, his massive ego, his tendency for childish remarks, the constant crying to officials, “The Decision,” the infamous “Not two, not three, not four, not five …” remark, and the constant attempts to put him on a pedestal is what makes him one of the most disliked players in the NBA.
The excuses and the praise have grown tiresome. Yes, James is a great player that hit the genetic lottery and looks like a linebacker playing basketball. However, the criticism of him is justified and it will continue to follow him for the rest of his career.
Let’s take a look at the current string of six consecutive Eastern Conference championships a James-led team has won.
The Eastern conference has been extremely weak. During his run with Miami and Cleveland from 2011-2016, James has only beaten a 50-win team six times. For some perspective, the Western conferences have produced 29 teams who have won 50 or more games during that run. That averages out to nearly five 50-plus-win teams a season. The lack of competition has allowed James a bye to the Finals every year.
Another popular excuse for James’ failure in the NBA Finals is a lack of a supporting cast. That was a valid excuse in 2007 when his Cleveland team had the likes of Daniel Gibson, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas as his teammates. Now? Not so much.
James handpicked his Miami teams where he was a part of a three-headed monster with Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, where he did win two titles. As soon as it looked like Wade and Bosh were breaking down after losing in the finals to the Spurs in 2014 he jumped ship to a young Cleveland team.
James has a three-time NBA All-Star in point guard Kyrie Irving, who has had some stellar performances so far in this series. James also has a three-time NBA All-Star in Kevin Love. In fact, it was James who rubber-stamped the trade to get Kevin Love from Minnesota. Throw in a solid producer in Tristan Thompson and that is three top five NBA Draft picks alongside James.
The reality will start to creep in that James’ legacy is fading and fading fast. He has maybe five more years in his prime before his physical style of play and all of the games he’s recorded finally take a major toll. How many more chances can he get for more rings? How long until he’s even considered the best in the league?
If you’re “The Chosen One” you have to produce titles like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Kobe Bryant. They have all won multiple titles as “the man.” Right now, James has not even caught up with Larry Bird’s number of rings.
Maybe James just isn’t that type of guy who can bring clutch performances and carry teams over the finish line quite like the legends he’s frequently compared with. He has been the best player of his generation but history will not be kind if he drops another title. Unless something drastically changes next year, there’s no reason to believe a James-led team won’t be overmatched again by a team out west.
No team has ever come back from a 1-3 deficit in the history of the NBA Finals. Therefore, James has a chance to make history, perhaps changing the perception of his legacy. However, James has been inefficient at times, especially with turnovers. And while getting his points, he is averaging nearly six turnovers a game against the Warriors. In all three losses, the Cavs have lost by double-digits, which doesn’t bold well for Cleveland, a city that is desperate for a championship.
James is expected to be this ferocious superhero, expected to “save the day,” like Jordan. But King James is never going to be Jordan. James will always be James and Cleveland will always be Cleveland.
Joshua Caudill is a writer for CraveOnline Sports, a basketball fanatic, a pro wrestling connoisseur and an expert on all things Patrick Swayze. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaCaudill85 or “like”CraveOnline Sports on Facebook.