LeBron James is four wins away from leveling his Finals record at 4-4 and perhaps cementing his status as the best player ever to pick up a basketball.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) trades high-five’s with Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) during the first half of Game 5 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, on Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
It’s a difficult thought for those who consider Michael Jordan the alpha and omega when it comes to anything basketball-related. For more than three decades, Jordan has been the benchmark of greatness for the Association—but James’ influence on the hardwood doesn’t take a backseat. Jordan gave the game so many trends that endure today, but James has taken those same trends and created his own empire.
From the televising of his high school games on ESPN to “The Decision,” James has used his basketball talents to manipulate the mainstream media and generate millions of dollars for himself. He’s capitalized on his fame, while slowly accumulating the accolades he needs to justify the attention and the hype. His championship in Cleveland last season was something out of a storybook, but critics suggest he still needs more if he wants to overtake Jordan. I don’t agree. Back-to-back championships in Miami helped fill James’ mantle. But what he’s doing in Cleveland right now is perhaps even more defining.
Coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to shock the best regular season team in NBA history last year was impressive enough. That he did it for the forever downtrodden Cleveland Cavaliers made it a tear-jerker. Now he faces Golden State for a third time; the Warriors added 2014 MVP Kevin Durant to their roster, and even Jordan’s Bulls would have trouble corralling this loaded Golden State squad. But James has already done so in epic fashion.
If he’s able to do it again, it might be time to pack up Jordan’s trophies and move him down a notch on the list of the all-time best. The Warriors would be juggernauts in any era, whether they faced Jordan’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers or even Russell’s Celtics. But James has given them fits. In the 2015 Finals, James was missing his complimentary pieces of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but Cleveland still managed to build a 2-1 series lead before succumbing in six games. Many gave James a mulligan for losing that Finals without his sidekicks, and he repaid it with a championship the very next year.
Even Jordan never contended with the gauntlet of competition coming out of the Western Conference that James has faced in his 14-year career. He’s stared down the San Antonio Spurs dynasty three times, the Warriors’ dynasty-in-waiting three times, and the 2010 Dallas Mavericks headlined by future Hall of Famers Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd. And let’s not forget the 2011 Finals, when James helped school a young Oklahoma City team packed with future MVP candidates Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Durant.
Durant needs a Finals win to boost his stat-filled but trophy-absent career. But while Durant may need this Finals to jumpstart his own legacy, a championship for James could finally cement him as the greatest of all time