The legacy of LeBron James should not be under question. This defeat to Golden State in five games should not have any negative consequences on where James stands in the pantheon of the greatest players to ever. He has done all there is to do. This loss, and everything that comes after, is superfluous to his legend.
What this Finals loss speaks to is the incredible assemblage of players needed to overcome him.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently revealed that after the Warriors lost Game 7 last year, Draymond Green went to the parking lot and called Kevin Durant. Durant has since denied the story but it was an open secret during the summer that Green, as well as the rest of the Warriors, actively wooed the then-free agent.
After Durant scored 31 points in Game 3, Green revealed the sole reason his team went after Durant so hard:
“It’s funny ‘cause I tol him earlier in the year, I said, ‘It’s cool that you’re here, but we really don’t need you for the regular season. We kinda gonna need you for these Finals.’ And he stepped up big and made plays for us.”
The Warriors went after Durant because they needed him to beat James. That is one of, if not the greatest testament to the ability and career of James.
Yet, even after Green’s admission, James still came under fire from questions that should have been relegated to 2011. After that Game 3, in which James finished with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists, a reporter asked him why he passed the ball to Kyle Korver on a critical drive at the end of the game, suggesting that he should have taken the shot with the game on the line.
James indulged him. He explained in great detail why he passed the ball and then stood by the decision. If given the chance, he said, he would make that same play again.
James isn’t infallible. He still makes his share of mistakes, and Game 3 ended with him being stripped of the ball. Yet, it’s downright silly that these questions about his will to win are still being asked, even after four MVPs, three championships, and eight total Finals appearances.
If this defeat to the greatest collection of talent within a team that the NBA has ever seen prompts the old, pretentious arguments about his mentality or his greatness, then it’s further proof of the perpetual dullness of basketball discourse.
At the beginning of this month, James said that he was past the point of having to prove himself anymore. He no longer cares about the nonsensical criticism: “I stopped caring a long time ago, so it doesn’t even bother me at all.” The player is past these boring conversations, and the audience around him should be as well.
This Golden State team is unlike anything the world has seen before. It is the basketball Hydra. Whenever Cleveland feels like they’ve stopped one player, two others come forward to add to their misery. The task of overcoming them is damn near impossible.
Their presence changes what these next few years of James’ career should be. Going into his 30s, after winning a championship for his hometown, he should have been able to play out the rest of his career in peace. His objectives should have been to break the records that are within his reach, to mentor the next generation, and to try to bring even more glory to a town that has rarely known it.
Instead, James has the most monumental task of his career before him: beating the greatest team of our generation. There’s a great chance that he tries as hard as he can, and comes up short in the effort. Whether he upgrades Cleveland, leaves for new pastures, or creates a new superteam, there’s no guarantee that he can overcome Golden State. He won’t bow to these new usurpers, but he could very well end his career with the same number of rings that he now.
But even if he ultimately fails, James has done enough to cement his legacy. He has averaged a near-triple double for this series. He had monster game after monster game, almost beating the Warriors in Game 3, giving them their only loss of the playoffs in Game 4, and pushing them as far as his body and mind would allow in Game 5.
Exhausted, James still blew past Durant at the beginning of the fourth quarter to bring Cleveland within three points. He was the only Cavaliers player to score for a five-minute span towards the end of the fourth quarter. The Warriors assembled the superteam of superteams, and still he would not go away. The Warriors destroyed traditional basketball, they distorted reality to overcome James, and still he persisted. He was still the best player in the series.
Back in 2015, when fans and writers alike were asking Roger Federer to retire in order to preserve his legacy, Brian Phillips wrote about why it is silly to think that the future could diminish what Federer had achieved:
He likes doing this; that’s the point. Being on tour, being competitive, being celebrated: This stuff feels more satisfying to him than the lonely relishing of some legacy in which he had a better head-to-head record against (Novak) Djokovic. So why not keep it going as long as he can? And not to get too dogmatic about what’s basically the story of a person liking his job, but isn’t that the model of grown-up maturity that we should want from an elite athlete?
This applies to James as well. There are bigger powers than him now, powers that have knocked him off — at least for this year. But he can continue to strive for another title in peace because whatever he does from now on until his career is over can only add to his legend. Nothing can hurt his past. Going from the best player in the world to one of the best should not hamper what he has done.
This loss will hurt. After all, it’s the NBA Finals and he’s as competitive as anybody in the world. But the loss is a blip in his career, a blip that was only possible by taking basketball to the extreme. That’s what it takes to beat LeBron James. That’s how amazing he is.