CLEVELAND — LeBron James overachieved in the 2015-season, a position that he had rarely been in while chasing sports’ loftiest expectations. The King was an underdog for one of the few times in his professional career.
And yet, when the NBA Finals ended at the hands of the Warriors, his fourth such setback in six tries, the emotions and the impact overwhelmed the Cavaliers’ star the same as they had ever done.
“You lose in the Finals, they’re all disappointing,” James said after the Warriors took Game 6 and the NBA championship at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. “It doesn’t matter if I’m playing in Miami or playing in Cleveland or playing on Mars.”
With the NBA’s best overall team defeating its best overall player for the title, James’ legacy was being bandied about anew in the aftermath. Keeping it simple — crediting him for his six trips to the Finals in the last nine years, good for back-to-back rings with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013 and a pair of Finals MVP awards to go with his four regular-season MVP awards — would seem to have James in a good spot.
Based on sheer talent — from his preternatural combination of speed and strength, to his 6-foot-8 size and versatility to play and defend all five positions — James already qualifies as a top 10, arguably top 5 player of all time. He went so far during the Finals to describe himself as “the best player in the world.”
But there’s more to it than that, as we were reminded one day after the series clincher, when a national story revealed that James had repeatedly undermined David Blatt, his head coach. James often refused to look at Blatt, it was reported, frequently huddled with assistant coach Tyronn Lue instead. In one case, he shook his head “vociferously in protest after one play Blatt drew up in the third quarter of Game 5, amounting to the loudest non-verbal scolding you could imagine.”
Then Blatt wiped his board clean in front of the other Cavaliers and drew up another play.
So in squaring that with James’ legacy, it seems to keep him more in the category of Wilt Chamberlain than Michael Jordan. Chamberlain, like James, was a formidable physical specimen. Like James, he won two rings. And like James, he chafed with or at least was considered high maintenance by his head coaches.
Jordan, the man to whom James most often rates the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) comparison, did better on both fronts: He went 6-for-6 in Finals appearances and teamed up with Phil Jackson at the start of Jackson’s storied coaching career. Bill Russell, who set the standard for winning with 11 rings in 13 seasons in Boston, had Red Auerbach as coach for the first nine titles and himself as player/coach for two.
James has been working in his Finals without a coaching legend. He’ll turn 31 next season, with years actually less of a concern than the miles he has logged since arriving in the NBA at age 18 in 2003. He fell short again in his pursuit of a third ring that would bolster his case with the win-or-go-home set.
Yet for a lot of critics, what James did this spring with Cleveland was more valiant and impressive than anything he and his talents achieved with the Heat in south Florida. Plowing ahead after injuries snuffed the postseasons of All-Star sidekicks Kevin Love (early) and Kyrie Irving (late), James dragged a crew of role players and reserves through four playoff rounds. He sold newbies and journeymen alike — Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith — on themselves, and when he led, he somehow got them to follow six games deep into the Finals.
James did the heavy lifting, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists to earn serious consideration as Finals MVP from the losing team. As it was, his performances (three 40-point games, two triple-doubles) helped earn bonus points for the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala, who did what he could to defend James en route to winning that MVP trophy himself.
James’ work over the past two months, and particularly the past two weeks, polished rather than tarnished his legacy. His demeanor toward Blatt changed that somewhat. Now the most polarizing figure in the game was at risk of losing some of the admirers that he had gained with his remarkable Finals performance.
It’s been that way with LeBron James from the start — love him or hate him — and it looks as if it will stay that way for the time being.