In the NBA, it’s completely normal for stars to fade eventually. Father Time is undefeated, after all. The wear and tear on their bodies take a major toll on their performances, and at a certain point they just become regular players again. Some of these players eventually become serviceable role players, but most players are unable to sustain their peak level of performance for long and eventually have to leave the game.
But LeBron James is built different.
The man has been the epitome of inevitability for the last decade or so: dread it, run from it, Playoff LeBron arrives all the same. After their close-out game against Denver, the King has led his team to nine different Finals appearances in the last ten years, with a streak of eight straight Finals from 2011 – 2018. He’s been an All-NBA performer for nearly his entire career, only missing out on an All-NBA team selection in 2004 when he was a rookie. And this year, he was the runner-up MVP, almost joining the ranks of Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Karl Malone as winners of the MVP after the age of 30.
We’ve seen former stars have long careers, but their level of play usually tapered off towards the end. We’ve seen one-hit wonders have one good season but then suddenly fall off a cliff and never become relevant again. But James’ combination of dominance and longevity is simply out-of-this-world. His near-inhuman body has withstood the toll of playing almost non-stop professional ball for eight years, and he still plays at a high level that people genuinely think he might still be able to play and start games with his son! His son, who’s projected to enter the draft in 2023 or 2024! He’s been that good.
But with this excellence comes a bunch of hate. Many, many people have tried to discredit James’ achievements, citing multiple reasons as to why he shouldn’t be in the GOAT conversation. Some of these are… far-fetched and twisted. Most of them, though, revolve around two numbers.
Three and six.
LeBron James’ career Finals win-loss record currently stands at 3-6. For a supposed to be all-time great, a 3-6 Finals record doesn’t look too hot, especially when contrasted with Jordan’s immaculate 6-0 Finals record. You can’t claim to be the greatest of all-time if you can’t win it all on the biggest stage. As Shaq would so eloquently put it, you need to have “ringz, Ernie”.
But there’s something that needs to be said about LeBron’s team-elevating abilities. Despite his Finals track record, it’s still insane that he brought his teams to the Finals nine times and made nearly all of them competitive. The Miami teams, of course, were built to be competitive: they had three future first-ballot Hall of Fame candidates. But a lot of James’ Finals teams in Cleveland had no business being THAT competitive in the Finals.
The 2007 Cleveland team might have been James’ worst supporting cast of all-time in the playoffs. His best teammates were Zydrunas Ilgaukas, Anderson Varejao, and Larry Hughes. But somehow, some way, LeBron willed that team to the Finals. He averaged 44 minutes in the playoffs and posted averages of 25 points, along with eight assists and eight rebounds per game. They ultimately lost to a San Antonio team who was smack in the middle of their prime.
In 2015, LeBron’s first year back in Cleveland, it seemed like the basketball gods wanted some retribution for his sudden and messy departure from Ohio. Cleveland lost Kevin Love early in the first round to a torn shoulder. Kyrie Irving missed time here and there until he eventually sat out the Finals after fracturing his kneecap in Game 1. It was 2007 all over again for James, except this time, he had Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov. But the King refused to bow down, putting his team on his wide shoulders and carrying them. He averaged an insane 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. He was, quite frankly, the only reason why Golden State didn’t sweep that series.
And in 2018, Cleveland was at the worst possible spot. Irving left the Cavs for Boston. The Cavs ranked dead last in offensive efficiency. After Love, virtually no one could take the reigns of the offense. Isaiah Thomas’s hip was never the same. Again, it shouldn’t have been possible. Everyone said that this was it for LeBron’s Finals streak. Surely he can’t carry a team that has George Hill as their third option. But he did, and he did so in style at times.
I’m not here to argue that LeBron is the greatest of all time. That’s an extremely nuanced topic, one that would likely need a series of articles to understand every single point. The point of all this is to simply appreciate LeBron’s generational talent for what it is: a player who can take nearly any team, elevate them to their peaks and find success. That’s a rare breed of talent, one that we may never see again.