Finally Looking up at LeBron James

I’ve been a proud, card-carrying member of the LeBron James Haters Club for a long time. I scoffed at LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland for golden pastures in South Florida. I sighed when he won two titles and cheered when he lost two more with the Heat. I rolled my eyes when he returned to Cleveland and promised to bring a championship to “his” city. The seemingly never-ending national sports media coverage of LeBron James has been, at times, like the well-cooked Thanksgiving meal that never seems to end. You know it’s good, but you wish someone would take it off the table.

Now, after a 4-3 series victory over a 73-regular-season-win Golden State Warriors team, everyone is proclaiming that LeBron James had one of the greatest seasons and the greatest NBA Finals series ever. And I’m still not buying it.

The Cavs came back from down three games to one to win the NBA championship, the first time that’s ever happened in the Finals. LeBron James played a solid series, with 40-point games and triple-double stat sheet lines. He brought the city of Cleveland its first title in any professional sport in 52 years. But one of the best seasons and Finals efforts ever? I don’t think so.

This was a dramatic series that offered great entertainment, stellar storylines and occasionally satisfying competition. The individual performances were strong. The tension was palpable in Game 7. We had a comeback and a victory from a team you could deem a valid underdog. But this was not one of the best series ever, and LeBron did not have an NBA Finals individually that completely eclipsed almost everything else in NBA history.

True students of professional basketball would point to the NBA Finals matchups of the 80s between the Celtics and the Lakers. Those series offered us Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale versus James Worthy and Robert Parrish versus Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

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Or maybe you are more a fan of the 1990s when the Chicago Bulls finally reached the pinnacle six times after climbing the mountain and falling off for several years in the previous decade. Michael Jordan’s efforts in back-to-back NBA Finals wins over the Utah Jazz in the late 1990s (just check out “the flu game“) were really the stuff of legend.

This year’s Cavaliers weren’t supposed to beat the Warriors. No one was. The Cavs were supposed to win the weak Eastern Conference and try their luck in the Finals against a strong Western Conference team. They got their shot against the Warriors, fell behind 3-1 and came back to make history as the first team to ever rebound from such a deficit in the NBA’s championship round. What they did was historic, and what they did was incredible for title-starved northeast Ohio. But what made it the best ever? The Warriors barely reached the Finals themselves, and they were supposed to be a contender to surpass the 1995-96 Bulls as the best team in the league’s history.

As much as I am demeaning the Cavs’ impressive but not-best-ever-quality title, what we have seen from LeBron James during the past six seasons is, indeed, a legendary individual effort. James is the first non-1960s Boston Celtic to reach six straight NBA Finals or more. Bill Russell and his comrades made eight straight championship series in that decade, and they won all eight of those battles. 8-0 at the top of the professional basketball world. That’s the best ever, no matter what era and no matter what competition level.

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Second place? LeBron James’ six straight NBA Finals appearances streak that continues into next season. He’s the first player to do it in more than half a century since those Celtics teams. And he’s won half of his opportunities during that stretch.

As much as I’ve knocked LeBron James for going 3-4 in the NBA Finals and said that doesn’t stand up to Jordan’s 6-0, Kobe Bryant’s 5-2 or even Magic Johnson’s 5-4, I’m now here to also tell you that I’ve been wrong. LeBron has taken his lumps along the way, getting swept by the Spurs in his first Finals, falling to the Mavs in his first attempt with the Heat and getting blasted by the Spurs a year after winning his second title over San Antonio’s own dynasty. But those lumps are what other players have had to overcome, too.

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Jordan and Kobe had to experience difficult losing lessons before even reaching the Finals to have a shot at a ring. MJ first took beatings at the hands of Eastern Conference foe Detroit in the late 80s. Kobe, Shaq and the still-young Lakers had to battle the Spurs and a slew of other contenders in the late 90s Western Conference playoffs before reaching the Finals. The difference between those guys and LeBron? King James often reached the Finals before dealing with his adversity. He made it a whole other round before falling short. For that, you could say LeBron’s run as an individual player has been more impressive than all the others immediately before.

I’m still not a LeBron James fan, but he has reached a level that hasn’t been seen in my lifetime. He has a losing overall record in the championship round. He has a cocky attitude that doesn’t win over some of us fans. (But Jordan and Kobe had that same cocky attitude in their eras and they were hated by as many as they were loved.) Still, James has made rare history in his six straight Finals trips. And he still has one more thing going for him that MJ, Kobe and even Bill Russell do not. He’s still playing basketball with more potential Finals trips on the table.

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