LeBron James is the greatest player to ever play in the NBA.
Before you immediately shout “Michael Jordan 6-0 in the finals” please let me explain the rationale behind my “hot take.”
First I have a few qualifiers. I am 25 years old. I didn’t start watching the NBA with any real understanding of what the game is until I was 13 or 14 years old, long after Michael Jordan was playing in his prime. Also during these impressionable years, LeBron James was covered and considered by the media as the second coming of the basketball Christ that is Michael Jordan. I acknowledge the recency bias and it is common for me to think everything done today is harder than it was last generation.
I have also admired the greatness of the current NBA that has accepted analytics, small ball, and the mathematical power of the 3 point shot. Stephen Curry has mastered a shot that is worth 3 points instead of 2. His efficiency of making 3 pointers changed how the game is played. He won two straight league MVPs and was the driving force on a record breaking 73 win season. After the all-time great regular season game between the Warriors and the Thunder on a cold Saturday in late February, I expressed my love for Steph Curry.
In between the status updates in which I expose my laziness for shoveling snow and my arrogant knowledge for obscure gaming consoles I exclaimed “Steph Curry is the best basketball player I have ever watched.” At the time I believed it. Up until last night, I still believed it. Curry isn’t the typical NBA great, he fine-tuned a skill that was unexploited for years. In the 12 comments below that status you can read my friend and I arguing over the greatness of Curry. I still believe those things that I stated, Curry isn’t the best all-around player, but he is so over powering at one skill that results in more points, it outweighs all of his other weaknesses. He is the most valuable player, no question.
With all of that said, LeBron is the greatest of all time.
LeBron has a NBA finals record of 3-4. To any logically minded person, this is a statistic that should reveal how unbelievable LeBron James is. He has advanced to 7 finals (2007 and 2011-2016). Unfortunately most of the sports media and fandom use this statistic as evidence that LeBron isn’t as good as Michael Jordan who went undefeated in 6 NBA finals.
That is bullshit.
LeBron doesn’t have as many championships as the forever worshiped MJ and probably never will. But he has already gone to more championships and he is only 31 years old. The fact that he lost four finals shouldn’t be a stain on his career, it should be highlighted as an amazing accomplishment.
LeBron plays in an era of the NBA in which defense is played differently. Hand checking and tackling people isn’t allowed anymore but defense is played with an intensity and sophistication in today’s game that was not seen in the 80’s or 90’s. LeBron doesn’t have to deal with the Bad Boys of the Pistons knocking him to the ground, but MJ didn’t have to overcome the elegance of switching defensive schemes that LeBron does.
MJ also didn’t have to deal with all of the off the court drama that follows LeBron and other current NBA superstars. LeBron has somehow avoided scandal (minus a few passive aggressive millennial acts that people over 40 can’t understand so they therefore hate) in a social media world where no secrets are kept. In an era with more journalistic integrity and privacy, MJ still had gambling and sexual affair scandals. MJ would be eaten alive in today’s environment.
With that out of the way, lets discuss the 2016 NBA finals.
The Warriors broke the 1996-1997 Bulls regular season record (72-10) with the 73rd win coming in the final game of the regular season. Steph Curry won the first ever unanimous MVP making over 400 three pointers. The team struggled in the playoffs but came back from a 3-1 deficit in the western conference finals to a OKC team that has two generational great players. They were widely predicted to crush LeBron and the Cavaliers who had a much easier trip to the Finals coming out of the weak eastern conference. After the first two games in which the Warriors bludgeoned the Cavs, media pundits began predicting a sweep.
The Cavs won game 3 at home in a blowout (all of these games in the Finals, except game 7 were blowouts) and then got curb stomped in game four. The Warriors were up 3-1 in the finals. Only 3 teams have ever forced a game 7 after being down 3-1 in the finals all of which lost game 7.
There is where LeBron takes it to another level of insane play.
The Cavs won game 5 with a score of 112-97 (Draymond Green did not play for the Warriors due to being suspended). LeBron put up the incredible stat line of 41 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 assists on 16-30 shooting. His teammate Kyrie Irving helped with a similarly great game. The Cavs then won game 6 with a score of 115-101 (Draymond Green was back but Andrew Bogut was out for the rest of the series for the Warriors). In this game LeBron put up another stat line of 41 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists on 16-27 shooting.
Last night, in game 7, LeBron had another legendary performance. He had a triple double (27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) and made the three championship winning plays in the last two minutes of the game.
After several minutes of scoreless basketball (and uncharacteristically great defense by Kevin Love) the game was tied at 89 with 1:55 left in the fourth quarter. The Cavs turned the ball over and the Warriors sped down the court trying to score before the Cavs defense could get established. Andre Iguodala sprinted down the court, passed the ball to Curry who then passed it back to Iguodala for an open layup. As Iguodala dodged J.R. Smith and put up the easy shot, LeBron soared through the paint and blocked the ball against the back board.
The almost legacy defining dunk.
With less than a minute left in the game, the Cavs were leading 92-89 after Irving made a heavily contested 3 pointer. The Cavs were driving on offense, Irving drove to the hoop which opened up the lane for LeBron. He passed back to LeBron who jumped for a powerful championship sealing dunk over Draymond Green. Instead of completing the most memorable dunk in NBA history, Green made a smart defensive play and fouled LeBron hard and prevented the game winning dunk. If completed, the poster of this dunk over Green would hang alongside the pictures of Ali standing over Liston and MJ dunking from the free throw line.
The free throws.
LeBron has missed some crucial free throws through out his career that have resulted in games lost. This is one of many pieces of unfounded evidence used against him in the never ending debate over his greatness. The Cavs were only up by 3 points vs. the best 3 point shooting team in history. If he missed both of the free throws the Warriors had a great chance of evening up the score. LeBron needed to make at least one free throw to prevent an endless flood of criticism. He missed the first one.
As I watched this I felt so much empathy for LeBron. He is the self-described by his back tattoo as the “chosen one.” The only player ever considered to rival the legacy of MJ. He came back to Cleveland to bring a championship to the city that hasn’t won a professional championship in any sport in 52 years. He grew up in Ohio, the local born legend who promised a title to the city. LeBron believed that he could win in Cleveland with Irving and Love and would probably have won last year too but the record breaking Warriors team came out of nowhere. The best 3 point shooting team ruined his plan. But after 2 remarkable games to force a game 7, LeBron was about to do the impossible. He was about to beat the Warriors, the best regular season team of all time, the far superior opponent after being down 3-1 in the series, something that has never been done. All he had to do was make the second free throw. That fucking pressure.
He made it.
The Cavs then played great defense on the other end and prevented the Warriors from scoring. The Cavs won. LeBron immediately fell to the ground in tears.
The way he took control of the game in the last few minutes is something only one other person has been able to do. No one has ever been under more pressure in the last two minutes of the last game of the Finals. Under that pressure LeBron accomplished the goal he publicly stated in his return to Cleveland two years earlier.
LeBron James is the greatest player to ever play in the NBA.