By Travis Hale
Perhaps, someday, his greatest legacy will simply be the herculean efforts required from others to beat him. For now though, expect the debate regarding his place in history to only grow louder. LeBron James’ record in the NBA Finals is now 3-5 and Michael Jordan has still never lost.
But make no mistake: the championships won by Golden State and San Antonio—and even to a degree the Dallas Mavericks—are every bit as much about the man who lost in those series as they are about the team that ultimately lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy high above their heads.
And it is interesting that the arc of LeBron’s narrative; the ways in which he’s been beaten are often storybook endings for the victors—but all too familiar endings for James. First, it is necessary for LeBron (or as was the case of the Mavericks, his future team) to rip the still-beating heart out of a franchise and fan base, then to devour it before the body hits the floor.
Then second is the revenge.
For those aggrieved, there are many paths to vengeance. In the case of the Mavericks, it was a slow-burn: a five-year gap between a devastating loss to the Miami Heat in 2006 and Dirk’s revenge in 2011. The Mavericks shocked LeBron and the newly formed Heatles in that year’s Finals.
And after falling in heartbreaking fashion in 2013, the San Antonio Spurs chose a simpler, quicker path. For them it was a steely, stubborn resolution—to take essentially the same team back to face LeBron in the 2014 Finals with the same game plan; the same sets; the same mentality. The only tweak was to execute their style of play better than they ever had before. The Spurs did just that, defeating the Heat in five games and effectively ending LeBron’s time in South Beach.
So it was with that history of scaling the castle walls to take the king’s flag, only to have it ripped back away from his hands by those hell-bent on vengeance that LeBron entered this year’s Finals match-up against the Golden State Warriors—a team that chose an altogether different path than either the Mavericks or Spurs before them.
Dallas’ was a slow-burn led by an alpha-male German and a mad-scientist posing as head coach. The Spurs circled a band of rickety wagons and willed them into an unnatural precision. But what Golden State did was none of those things. What Golden State did was other-worldly.
It was as if the Hatfields and McCoys chose to take up arms again, except this time the Hatfields brought shiny new shotguns to the battle while the McCoys showed up in fighter jets. If the Spurs circled the wagons in 2014, then the Warriors brought in a new wagon this year; complete with razor wheels and sub-woofers, driven by a grizzly bear sitting comfortably atop a great white shark.
Personally, I have no issues with Kevin Durant’s decision to join Golden State. And who could blame the Warriors for pursuing Durant? Both parties did what they thought was best, and the experiment worked, beautifully. But the legacy of LeBron looms large over both Durant and Golden State and over the entire NBA. Speaking to ESPN’s Doris Burke after wrapping up the title last night, Kevin Durant said of LeBron, “I told him we tied up now and we’re going to try to do this thing again.”
In a team sport it seems a bit of an odd statement. But it speaks to the mindset that pervades the NBA. It’s as much about beating LeBron as it is about winning a championship. Durant doesn’t see James as 3-5 in the Finals, he sees it tied at one apiece. For Durant, it’s not necessarily about the team he’s playing for—it’s about taking the flag back from the LeBron, taking the flag back from the king.
As for the rest of the Warriors, they got their collective revenge, too. They successfully scaled the castle walls and took back what LeBron had so inconceivably snatched from them last June. So if there is any emptiness in their victory, I’m sure that void is filled simply knowing that vengeance against LeBron has once again been exacted.
LeBron played 46 minutes in the Game 5 loss. He averaged a triple-double in the series. But it wasn’t enough. He seemed resigned to his fate early in the series when he said,” “I think it’s just part of my calling to just go against teams in the midst of a dynasty.”
James is sometimes criticized for having a worldview that is a bit too self-centered. He tends to see events as binary: how events, no matter how big or small, impact him or, conversely, how he impacts them. But given how 6 of the 8 Finals he’s been a part of have played out, who could blame him? No matter who wins or loses, the prevailing story, the narrative arc, is always about LeBron James. When it’s over, is he standing atop the castle wall, triumphantly holding the flag?
Or he’s standing atop the castle wall, surveying scorched land, planning how he’ll get the flag back.