In the NBA, superstars are judged primarily on their ability to do what is expected of them. It’s a defensible criteria, considering just how often the best teams seem to win it all. The most talented athlete in the league is given a golden ticket to June along with a perverse ultimatum: Tread water, or drown. How, then, does that athlete ever find the time to “swim?” This is the quandary that faces all established NBA stars. In a world where everything goes according to plan, being truly remembered requires monumental aberration.
There are moments in a player’s career when their own success becomes that which is unexpected. Lebron James is no stranger to this moment. The home-grown Cleveland hero famously fled to Miami in 2010 to avoid it. Rather than slay the dragon that is NBA convention, James joined Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to become that convention and win his two championships.
One by one, the scrutinized James toppled demons that had stalked him since his first foray into the playoffs. He solved the puzzle of the final two minutes and allegations of inadequacy in all forms fell by the wayside. Now, Cleveland’s prodigal son has returned to the Cavaliers as a grizzled veteran with the tools he hopes can finish the job he started once upon a time.
The Golden State Warriors are one of the most prolific offensive juggernauts in NBA history. Incredibly, the team also led the league in defensive efficiency. They are a running, shooting, fire-breathing favorite to win the NBA Finals. For Lebron James they are the final frontier.
The Cleveland Cavaliers that won 12 consecutive games in January are ancient history. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love nursing injuries, a skeleton crew remains. J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and Matthew “Deli” Dellavedova hardly constitute an imposing foursome. Even if Irving and Love can return in a limited capacity for their clash with Golden State, the Eastern Conference will have its most shallow representative since Iverson’s 76ers.
A.I. wasn’t nearly the generational talent that Lebron James is. However, at the age of 26, Iverson had accrued far fewer grueling postseason minutes and even he couldn’t triumph in the face of the Kobe-Shaq L.A. Lakers. Make no mistake, the present-day Warriors stand to be every bit as historically dominant as those Lakers. League MVP Steph Curry is averaging over 28 points per game in the playoffs. Scoring like that in the NBA Finals would rank among the series’ all-time greatest performances.
At 30 years of age, Lebron James faces both the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity of his professional life. Rarely does a superstar like James come up against a seemingly unbeatable foe. If the self-proclaimed “king” can overcome incredibly long odds and win his third championship in four seasons, his career will become part of a new and very exclusive .discussion. It seems strange that a 4-time league MVP with two championship rings and an Olympic Gold Medal could possibly have more to prove, but those are the stakes.
What is implied when people talk about the “great” ones in the NBA? Is it simply a game of counting rings that determines greatness? More accurately, those mathematical hurdles serve as a baseline. What matters more is a star’s claim. In other words, how and why is he remembered?
Crafting that legacy is more difficult than it sounds. So many factors are out of a player’s control. Level of competition, timing, team mates, coaching and even social issues all play a role.
Lebron’s career has, at the very least, been unique, but not always for the reasons he’d like it to be. In a way, the injuries to Irving and Love might be blessings in disguise. By finding a way to overcome those setbacks and win four of the next seven games, he can rewrite his own history. James can be remembered not as a mercenary, but a hero who did what could not be done; Whose greatest moment came in Cleveland, not Miami.
The Golden State Warriors should win this series with relative ease. They have the deeper, younger, healthier roster by far. Still, if any player is capable of such a massive upset, it’s Lebron James. At least, if he does, it will make a wonderful story.