Don’t blame LeBron for the Cavs’ loss. Kevin Durant and company were simply too much, as the Warriors pulled away in Game 5 to cap off a marvelous season with their second title in three years.
So what does this Finals defeat–the fifth in LeBron’s career–do to his legacy? Well, it partly depends on how you viewed his career before this series began, which I’ll discuss later. My take, however, is that this loss does not diminish his legacy.
James was unstoppable once again versus these mighty Warriors. He averaged 33-12-10 on 56% shooting, becoming the first player since…ever…to average a triple-double in the Finals. And strictly from a statistical standpoint, this was actually the best Finals performance of LeBron’s career. Sure, that might be hard to imagine considering that he’s won three Finals MVP’s. But his 33.6 points per game were the second most he’s averaged in a Finals. Yet in the 2014 Finals, when he averaged 35.8 per game, he did so on only 40% shooting. Moreover, his 10 assists and 56% field goal percentage are new Finals-highs for the King, and his 12 rebounds were the second most he’s averaged in a Finals (after 2014).
The most revealing stats, though, are LeBron’s on/off court splits. In the regular season, there was “merely” a 17-point swing in the Cavs’ offensive rating when James was on the floor. In the playoffs, it was a staggering 34.5 point difference. And entering Game 5 of this year’s Finals…Cleveland’s net offensive rating was a horrific -45.4. Keep in mind that James was also hardly on the bench in this series: entering Game 5, the Cavs’ +/- was minus-31 in only 26 minutes! Remarkably, these splits were enough for some, like ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, to claim that LeBron should even be the Finals MVP.
But let’s be realistic. LeBron didn’t deserve Finals MVP, and his legacy has not been enhanced by a five-game Finals loss, either. Sure, the Warriors are deeper and more talented than Cleveland. That doesn’t mean LeBron and the Cavs were not well-equipped, however, to take this series beyond five games. After all, Kyrie Irving is a former number one pick. Kevin Love was a top five pick, as well (though he didn’t play like one). And the likes of J.R. Smith and Tristian Thompson are very capable role players. Again, Golden State is better. But it’s not like it was inconceivable that LeBron could have guided the Cavs to, say, a seventh game.
So where does this now leave LeBron in relation to Jordan? As mentioned earlier, it depends where you stood on this topic before this series began. Many were still in the Jordan camp. Yet there were some, like FS1’s Nick Wright, that were firmly on LeBron’s side, while others were willing to at least engage in a discussion. Personally, I thought James was getting close to Jordan, but there’s a difference between approaching someone and overtaking them. So I thought a serious G.O.A.T. debate was premature.
Now, though, it will be a struggle for James to ever surpass Jordan. And the reason is simple: the G.O.A.T. can’t have an under .500 record when it matters most. Think about some of the other G.O.A.T’s in sports. Usain Bolt is the greatest track star ever because he has the most gold medals. He also hardly ever lost when it really mattered. Same goes for Michael Phelps. As for Tom Brady, he’s got a 5-2 record in Super Bowls. Roger Federer: he’s 18-10 in major finals. In short, all have been successful on the biggest stage far more often than they have come up short.
Ideally, LeBron now needs to win three more titles, for a total of six, without losing another in order to surpass M.J. It will be tough for James to accomplish, particularly after this latest loss. However, I still don’t view this series as a setback for LeBron, because a) as mentioned, he was so dominant en route to averaging the first triple-double in Finals history and b) I thought it was an uphill battle for him to catch Jordan regardless of this series’ outcome.
But if you do believe that this fifth Finals loss is a setback for Lebron, well, that’s just a testament to his greatness. The man just averaged the first triple-double in Finals history, and his Cavs were a disaster every time he stepped off the floor. Sure, eclipsing Jordan may be further out of reach. Yet if only being one of the greatest basketball players to have ever lived is considered a disappointment, you have some pretty harsh standards.
LeBron photo courtesy of Fansided