The Cleveland Cavaliers faced an uphill battle to beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals even before Kyrie Irving suffered a season-ending knee injury in Golden State’s 108-100 Game 1 victory.
Now, it is extremely unlikely that the Cavaliers will prevail.
How will this series affect LeBron James’ legacy? If the Cavaliers lose, James will drop to 2-4 in the NBA Finals, a far cry from the Finals records posted by Bill Russell (11-1), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6-4), Magic Johnson (5-4), Michael Jordan (6-0), Tim Duncan (5-1) and Kobe Bryant (5-2).
NBA Finals records do not mean everything. They are affected by the quality of one’s teammates, the quality of the opposition, injuries and other factors beyond the control of any one player.
NBA Finals records should not be completely dismissed, either. A great player is defined by winning championships or, at the very least, performing well in championship level play. Jerry West ‘only’ won one championship but he performed at a high level in the NBA Finals for teams that just were not good enough to beat Russell’s Celtics in the 1960s and the New York Knicks in the early 1970s.
Some people think that West would be considered a loser and not ‘Mr Clutch’ if he played in the current era but I hope that in any era most people would have enough sense to realise that the Lakers’ losses were not West’s fault. West is still the only player from the losing squad to win the Finals MVP (1969).
Some great players never played for a team that was good enough to win a championship. It would not be fair to define their careers solely by the absence of a championship ring on their resumes.
That said, none of the players who failed to win a championship are typically mentioned in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Are they not in that conversation because they never won or did they not win because, at least in part, they were not quite good enough to belong in that conversation?
That is a question for another day. James owns two rings and he is in the greatest player of all-time conversation. It is fair to consider his Finals record but that record should be placed in context and no one particular game, series or playoff run should be given disproportionate weight.
A few years ago, a writer asserted that one particular upcoming playoff game would be the defining moment of Kobe Bryant’s career. Bryant had already won three championships by that time. Bryant’s Lakers won that particular game convincingly and went on to win two more championships.
After Bryant’s Lakers won that game, the writer dismissed the game as unimportant.
Let us not make that same mistake with James now. One game, series or season should not be hyped up out of proportion to fit some preconceived storyline, only to be diminished or magnified after the fact depending on whether or not the outcome suits the commentator’s biases.
If the Cavaliers beat the Warriors, that will not automatically make James the greatest player of all-time. If the Warriors beat the Cavaliers, that will not preclude James from being considered for that mythical title.
During his first five finals appearances, we have seen James have dominant performances in championship runs (2012 and 2013), we have seen teams exploit James’ passivity (2007, 2011) and we have seen James play reasonably well in defeat but yet not assert himself as the best player on the court (2014).
Whatever happens in the 2015 Finals will be one more chapter in that ongoing saga. It may not even be the final chapter and it will not necessarily be the defining chapter.
However, I disagree with the notion that LeBron James is playing with “house money” just because his team has suffered injuries. He has some talented teammates and any team that is good enough to make it to the Finals should not just be happy to be there. James is the best player on the court and he has the ability to elevate his team so that each game is at least competitive.
If the Cavaliers win and James plays well, clearly this adds to James’ already impressive legacy. If the Cavaliers lose and James plays well, this does not hurt James’ legacy but it also does not necessarily move him up in the rankings, either.
The only way that this series should hurt James’ legacy is if he plays poorly and/or without requisite effort.