LeBron James's latest NBA Finals heartbreak shouldn't define his legacy
CLEVELAND—The best basketball player in the world was a picture of misery: towel on his head, hands on the towel, wraps on his knees, feet in an ice bucket, none of it moving. LeBron James had given every second he could, from every blood vessel he had, and his team had lost in the NBA Finals. Again.
Yet even in a 105–97 Game 6 defeat Tuesday night, even exhausted in the corner of the locker room, James was the star of the scene. His agent, Rich Paul, huddled with him. Teammate Iman Shumpert addressed a media pack, then went to hug LeBron. Teammate J.R. Smith said he “absolutely, absolutely” wanted to be back in Cleveland next year, then hugged LeBron. Spunky point guard Matthew Dellavedova answered a few questions, then shook LeBron’s hand.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert walked over, dressed in his everyman billionaire outfit of Cavs T-shirt and sports coat, and said goodbye to the very entourage that drove him to the brink of madness five years ago. When James returned to Cleveland last summer, everybody understood that his second Cavaliers stint would be a failure if he didn’t win a championship. This series proved what his first run in Cleveland proved: He cannot do it alone.
As the Warriors collected the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the scoreboards here read: THANK YOU FOR A MEMORABLE SEASON. Some days, that seems like enough for this town. Outside the Cavs locker room, a security guard tried to stop three young men from passing through until one of them explained: “We play for the Cleveland Browns.” That was all the guard needed to hear.
If you play pro sports in Cleveland, you are a hero. You don’t even need to win a championship … unless you are LeBron James.
His talent raises expectations, even in his own mind. He admitted that sometimes he asks: “Would I rather not make the playoffs or lose in the Finals? I don’t know.” But he added that “then I lock in,” and the joy of competition takes over.
He was the most valuable player in these Finals, but not officially the Most Valuable, which was ridiculous. He obviously meant more to his team than any other player, and it wasn’t close. There are many ways to show that James was more valuable than “Finals MVP” Andre Iguodala. You could look at James’s superior raw numbers: He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists, compared to 16.3, 5.8 and 4 for Iguodala. James’s percentages were lower, but he was playing with one of the worst supporting casts in Finals history. Even Iguodala’s defense, as good as it was, did not make him more valuable than James.
Mostly, though there is this: Iguodala said he skipped his gameday nap because he was too worried about what LeBron might do.
Do you think James lost any sleep over Iguodala?
He should have won the Finals MVP. But what would he do with it anyway? Jerry West won the Finals MVP award when his Lakers lost to the Celtics once. Do you think he looks back on it with any emotion besides searing pain?
Millions of words are used every day to describe LeBron James, yet so much is lost in the forest of opinions. We focus on what doesn’t matter. Earlier in these playoffs, he said he had an extra, personal motivation for winning this championship, which led to stories and debates about exactly what that motivation was, and you know what? Who cares?
“I really don’t know what it was,” Paul said. “I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to him about it. I mean, look: all these guys have extra motivation. Whatever it was, I hope he keeps it in his back pocket if he is going to play like that.”
Paul thinks James lost the Finals MVP between Games 5 and 6, when he said he didn’t want to win the MVP unless he won a championship: “When he made that comment I think that kind of tipped it.” Paul is probably right. We have made a sport of using James’s words against him.
James is so good that we assume everything should be easy for him, and when it isn’t, we hold that against him. In that sense, maybe losing this series will be for the best. Maybe Kyrie Irving will be healthy next spring, and even if Kevin Love leaves via free agency, maybe the Cavs will win the title. It would mean even more then, because it was hard. James knows this from experience.
After the Mavericks beat James’s Miami Heat in the 2011 Finals, James went to the Bahamas with two of his best friends, Paul and Dwyane Wade, and their significant others. Paul later said they talked "about a lot of things. It was a good conversation amongst men.” He told them: Your time will come.
There is no need for that conversation now, no need for the trip. As Paul said, “I don’t think that’s necessary.” James is much more comfortable with himself, as a basketball player and a public figure.
He has led two teams to championships. He did everything he could with this one, and he will do whatever he can with the next one. When he said, after Game 5, that he was confident because he is the best player in the world, he spoke the truth. The rest of us can yap about this nebulous concept of his “legacy.” It doesn’t seem to affect him anymore.
He has lost four of his six Finals, and if we see that as his “legacy,” the problem is with our eyes. There has never been a basketball package like him. Are we really going to pretend that Iguodala is more valuable, or more of a winner, just because Iguodala gets to play with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, while James had to play with guys the Knicks didn’t even want? How shallow are we?
[daily_cut.NBA]He was the most valuable player in the Finals, breathtaking to watch. Five years ago, he ran from the burden he was assigned; he left Cleveland for Miami and an easier path to titles.
If you hated that, you have to admire what he did this past year, and especially this spring. James said he did not think the Cavaliers would lose until they had actually lost. Paul talked to him after Game 1, when the Warriors won in overtime and Irving broke his kneecap. He embraced the challenge then, even though it seemed impossible.
“He wasn’t down,” Paul said. “His thing has just been, since guys have been in and out all playoffs, you just gotta persevere. I mean, look: I think the basketball world and the fans across the world, respect for LeBron James has grown in this series.”
It has. No doubt. And yet, this is a sign of how much James has grown, and changed: He doesn’t seem to be fighting for respect any more. He doesn’t seem so concerned with outside validation. Opinions are just opinions, and some will always tilt against him. The game is his work, and he knows he did good work.
He also knows it wasn’t enough. With every passing year, it will be harder for him to summon greatness. Going home to win a championship was a nice story, but nobody is going to give him that championship. All the respect he earned in this series is just one big opinion, and really, so is the Finals MVP award. No wonder he wasn’t that concerned about it. He wants a championship.
After his press conference, James walked deliberately toward the Quicken Loans Arena loading dock and out toward a long summer. It was the middle of the night, yet he wore sunglasses. He talked briefly on his phone, then said his goodbyes to his friends and slid into the driver’s seat of a white Mercedes. Moments later, Thompson walked from the loading dock back into the arena, still wearing his game shorts, socks and sneakers, looking like he wanted the night to last forever.