Is LeBron James the NBA's greatest loser?
LeBron James is one of the greatest NBA players ever. He has also lost four of the six NBA Finals he's played in, and may be on the verge of pushing his career Finals record to an abysmal 2-5.
The 2016 NBA Finals — a rematch of last year's — tip off tonight in Oakland, and James' Cavs are heavy underdogs to the Golden State Warriors, who, after, finishing the regular season with a record 73 wins, and scoring a near-miraculous comeback from a 3-1 deficit in their best-of-seven Western Conference Finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, are four wins away from cementing their case as the greatest NBA team of all time.
If the Cavaliers fall for the second year in a row to the Warriors, it'll surely be disappointing to the snake-bitten sports fans of Cleveland (last professional championship title: 1964). But there would hardly be any shame in losing to the Warriors. After all, Cleveland lost an average of 53 games per season from 2010 to 2014. Theirs is a story of rebirth, of exceeding expectations ahead of schedule, of dominating the Eastern Conference for the past two seasons.
But the story of the man most responsible for that rebirth — the same man most responsible for their overnight tumble from contenders to basement-dwellers when he infamously took his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010 — is more complicated.
LeBron James was eastern Ohio's favorite son, a native of Akron who was, ahem, miraculously drafted in 2003 by the professional team whose backyard he grew up in. He took the Cavs to the Finals in just his fourth season, then won two MVPs with the team. He was the present and the future.
But when a weird convergence of superstar free agencies appeared in 2010, James and several other players freely admitted to conducting a "free agent summit," which resulted in him bolting Cleveland for the Miami Heat. There, James and then-Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh joined the already-championship-ringed perennial all-star Dwayne Wade, unapologetically declaring their intent to create a Big 3 built to win right now and for the forseeable future.
In an excruciatingly ill-advised ESPN special titled "The Decision," James dragged out the announcement that he'd be dumping his moribund hometown for the celebrity-soaked promenades of Miami. Then, he arrogantly promised he'd win at least seven titles there. The beloved and respected young superstar became basketball's most despised villain overnight.
But life has a way of maturing a man.
In the four years James spent with the Heat, they made the Finals all four times but only won two titles, one against an upstart but overmatched young Thunder team and one against the dynastic San Antonio Spurs. But the fact that they only went 2-2 in the Finals during James' time there will always be seen as a failing — LeBron's failing.
When James shocked the world by returning "home" in the summer of 2014, he did it with an inverse amount of pomp and circumstance than he exhibited with "The Decision," which he admits was a mistake, as was his decision to not inform Cavs owner Dan Gilbert of his intent to leave before announcing it on national TV.
The humility he displayed in an essay announcing his return to Cleveland helped him shed the villain tag he'd worn during his Miami run, and his self-deprecating comedic star turn in Amy Schumer's film Trainwreck also aided with his image rehabilitation.
When he staged a protest against a grand jury's decision to not indict the NYPD officer who used a banned chokehold on the late Eric Garner by wearing a shirt reading "I Can't Breathe" during pre-game warm-ups, James earned the respect of many by doing what Michael Jordan always refused to do: risk alienating the sneaker-buying public by taking a political stand.
Now 31, James has been in the league for more than a decade, but still plays like he's in his prime. Still, Golden State's Steph Curry, the two-time reigning MVP, has legitimately challenged James for the unofficial title of best player in the game. And if Curry beats James in the Finals again, he'll have already equaled James' championship total, while James would be nursing his fifth Finals defeat (and third in a row).
James has already avoided the fate of poor Elgin Baylor, an all-time great who had the beguiling bad luck to play for one of the all-time great franchises, the Lakers (winners of 16 championships), during a period from the late 1950s to the early 1970s when they lost eight NBA Finals and won none. Baylor will likely always be the biggest loser when it comes to a Hall of Fame player failing repeatedly to carry his team to the promised land. But the money and media saturation, plus the expectations James has put on himself through his own calculations and past hubris, make his team's failures stick harder to his legacy than Baylor's.
When James came back to the Cavs in 2014, the combination of young talent like Kyrie Irving plus some upcoming draft picks was expected to make the team competitive right away, but not a contender for a few years. Instead, James helped them become the only team that has truly mattered in the Eastern Conference for both of the previous two seasons.
James is — and has always been — a respected teammate, a leader, and a basketball genius. But whether the perception is fair or not, championship rings, not individual accomplishments, are the mark of all-time greatness in sports.
Winning a ring in Cleveland, without the help of the superstars he had in Miami, would allow James the luxury of playing however many years he has left unconcerned about his legacy as an all-time winner. If he continues to fall short, however, his legacy will be closer to Wilt Chamberlain's than Bill Russell's, one of tremendous personal accomplishment, but not one of winning.