People truly delineate their greatness by performing at a high-level against the most adverse opponents they’ve ever faced, but they can’t just perform — they must seal the deal, they must win.
For example, Michael Jordan’s clutch basket over Bryon Russell late versus the Utah Jazz in game sixof the NBA finals, leading to his sixth and final championship; Magic Johnson virtually playing every position in game six of the finals, tallying 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the point-center, leading the Lakers to a title over Julius Erving’s Sixers; or Bob Pettit dropping 50 points in the 1958 finals over the defending champion Celtics, winning the Hawks’ first and only championship.
All of these moments were legacy-engraving moments, but if LeBron James leads his Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship over the reigning defending champion Golden State Warriors, he will go down as the greatest of all time.
This isn’t a narrowly researched claim. This has been thoroughly weighed, primarily against the man that Sports Illustrated called the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan.
Obviously, Jordan’s resume makes him qualified for the ranking. Six-for-six in the finals, five-time regular season MVP, 10-time All-NBA First Team selection, Defensive Player of the Year — I could keep going with the long laundry list of accolades, but I could do the same with LeBron.
Every barbershop debate seems strikingly even when discussing who is most gifted NBA player, 6-foot-6 Michael Jordan or 6-foot-9 LeBron James, but everything seems to tilt towards “His Airness” when it comes to his unblemished finals record.
Two rings versus six rings shouldn’t just end the debate. Bill Russell won 11 championships and John Havlicek won eight titles, but they aren’t considered the greatest of all time. So then it must come down the difficulty of winning four games out of seven in the finals that defines the greatness attached to your last name.
LeBron James is facing a 73-win Warriors team that is arguably the greatest team of alltime — Jordan did not. LeBron has to battle versus a team with three of the league’s top-10 players in the NBA, including the back-to-back MVP and the first unanimous MVP, Stephen Curry — Jordan did not. And most importantly, LeBron is facing the daunting task of handing his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, its first championship since 1964, when Hall of Fame NFL runningback Jim Brown led the Browns to a championship — Jordan did not.
The gravity of this one ring would be immense for LeBron’s legacy. In fact, the Golden State Warriors usurped the 1995-96 Jordan-led Bulls record of 72 wins this season, finishing as the only team in NBA history with single digits in the loss column at 73-9, a record no one thought was possible to even sniff. So, if LeBron leads his troops past this historic team, then it has to tip the scale his way.
But it’s Sunday, and the LeBron led Cleveland Cavaliers have lost their second straight game on the road to start the NBA finals after a 110-77 beatdown. Trailing 0-2 to the Warriors can only make for an even greater comeback story, but it all hinges upon the leaderships and greatness that the King is capable of.
But the flipside is also true. If Michael Jordan never stole the ball from Karl Malone in the post in-game six with 18.9 seconds remaining, resulting in one of the most clutch, legacy-defining moments in Jordan’s career, then his most impressive six-for-six record in the finals would have a flaw, and he’d only have five rings, taking the icing off of his legacy. But Jordan delivered.
If LeBron loses his fifth title and his second consecutive versus the same team, he can no longer be called King James, because kings defend their throne. When greatness is called on, it’s required, it’s demanded to be delivered. For LeBron, the series and his legacy is on the line.
Christopher Davis is a digital producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter @ChristopherDTV or email him at ChristopherD@CentralFloridaFuture.com
Originally published 8:15 p.m. EDT June 8, 2016