The 2019-20 NBA season was supposed to be LeBron James’ return to glory.
He was on his way to leading the Los Angeles Lakers back to the postseason and a possible return to the Finals when the league went on hiatus last March amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
But with league officials reportedly optimistic that the NBA will resume operations to finish out the season, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the legacy of the Lakers superstar will once again be put under the spotlight.
A championship this season would most assuredly add to James’ legacy, but a Finals loss would likely damage it beyond repair.
James’ Elite Status Questioned After Last Season
James played in only 55 games last season, the least number of games he has ever played in a season.
A groin injury suffered during the Lakers’ Christmas Day game in 2018 was the main culprit, but the damage to his reputation as an elite player extended beyond missing games during his first season in the purple and gold.
When he returned, James tried, but failed to carry the franchise back to the playoffs as the Lakers missed the postseason for a seventh straight season.
Though injuries to other key players kept the team from getting in a rhythm, in the eyes of some fans and members of the media, the blame rested mostly on the four-time MVP’s shoulders.
He was fortunate enough to land on the All-NBA Third Team, but this was the first time since the 2006-07 season that James wasn’t on the First Team. Last season was also his first time missing the playoffs since his second year in the league.
His inability to elevate his team’s play after returning from the aforementioned groin injury put a dent in his reputation. There were those who wondered if they were witnessing the beginning of a steep decline in James’ skills after more than a decade of dominance on the court.
This season, James has sought to reclaim his throne as the league’s best player.
The King’s Infamous Finals Record
There are basketball pundits and fans who believe that James’ 3-6 win-loss record in the Finals disqualifies him from consideration as the greatest of all time or G.O.A.T., a title used widely in discussions by fans and the media alike.
James’ place in history is highly influenced by the simple yet incomplete story that his Finals record tells, regardless of the level of competition that he has faced.
Nevermind that he has almost always been the best player on either Finals team with the title up for grabs. The fact that his teams failed to bag the title often enough is at the forefront of the evidence presented by those who engage in discussions involving James’ G.O.A.T. status.
Some have suggested that it would have been better if some of James’ Cleveland Cavaliers or Miami Heat teams had not made it to the title round because the resulting losses blemished his Finals record.
Unfortunately, there is some validity to the suggestion regardless of how absurd it may seem.
Take Michael Jordan, for example. Regarded by many as the greatest player ever, Jordan’s 6-0 Finals card makes it seem as though he has an unblemished postseason record, though everyone knows that it only covers six seasons of his 15-year career.
Rarely do his six years of playoff failures prior to the championship years get brought up when debating his status as arguably the greatest ever. It’s as if they either never existed or aren’t relevant in the discussion, though they ought to be.
That is why, if the NBA finishes out the season and the Lakers make it past the 2020 Western Conference Finals, it is imperative that James’ squad takes home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Otherwise, the four-time MVP would own a more embarrassing 3-7 Finals record.
Moreover, another Finals failure would add fuel to the fire that James isn’t as great as Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the two players who have been compared to him the most.
LeBron vs. All-Time Greats
Some may contend that there is nothing wrong with James’ record while arguing that his nine trips to the Finals should be seen as accomplishments rather than failures.
That is true to an extent, but no one brings up Finals appearances when talking about the top players in the game, only championship rings.
When looking deeper into the details, it’s not surprising that James has a 3-6 Finals card. FiveThirtyEight.com explained how James has often brought not-so-talented teammates on the cusp of a championship ring, and their statistical analysis shows that he has not had as much of a chance in the Finals as other all-time great players had.
The problem is, most critics won’t look at advanced stats to justify a player’s standing in the league’s pantheon of legends. They would rather bring up the simple and easily explainable facts that any layman would be able understand outright.
By putting together a list of the NBA’s best players in history along with James’ contemporaries and their Finals records, it’s easy to see where these people are coming from.
Player Win-Loss (Finals) Winning Percentage
- Michael Jordan 6-0 1.000
- Bill Russell 11-1 0.917
- Tim Duncan 5-1 0.833
- Kobe Bryant 5-2 0.714
- Hakeem Olajuwon 2-1 0.667
- Kawhi Leonard 2-1 0.667
- Shaquille O’Neal 4-2 0.667
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 6-4 0.600
- Larry Bird 3-2 0.600
- Stephen Curry 3-2 0.600
- Magic Johnson 5-4 0.556
- Kevin Durant 2-2 0.500
- Oscar Robertson 1-1 0.500
- LeBron James 3-6 0.333
- Wilt Chamberlain 2-4 0.333
- Jerry West 1-8 0.111
- Elgin Baylor 0-7 0.000
*current players in bold
James’ win-loss mark in the Finals does not help his case to hold the title of the greatest basketball player of all time.
Regardless of the strength of the competition in front of him, he has had to try to defy the odds every time he stepped on the court with the title up for grabs.
At 35 years old and his best years now behind him, he has almost no choice but to appear in the Finals as often as he can and to not lose from here on out.
If the league returns to action and the Lakers reach the Finals, a 3-7 mark will only diminish his legacy, no matter how unfair that may seem. That’s the price he has to pay in order to have a stronger case for the G.O.A.T. title.
A 4th Ring to the Resume
On the contrary, if James succeeds in winning his fourth ring this season, it will do wonders for his legacy. He won’t leapfrog over any of the other greats on the list above, but he would be a step closer to winning 50 percent of his appearances in the Finals.
4-6 looks better on his resume than 3-6, and another title would put him on the short list of all-time great players to win at least four championships.
Here are some of the great players in league annals with four titles or more:
Player No. of Titles
- Bill Russell 11
- Sam Jones 10
- John Havlicek 8
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 6
- Bob Cousy 6
- Michael Jordan 6
- Scottie Pippen 6
- Kobe Bryant 5
- Tim Duncan 5
- Magic Johnson 5
- George Mikan 5
- Dennis Rodman 5
- Shaquille O’Neal 4
- Bill Sharman 4
A fourth championship ring gives James one more than Larry Bird, Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry, Kevin McHale and James Worthy, to name a few.
Bird, more than any other great player with three rings, is a significant one, given that there are many who don’t believe that James is better than him despite the Akron native’s superior accomplishments.
One can only imagine what a 6-6 record before he retires will do for the three-time Finals MVP, but it all starts with winning a title this year should the league finish out the season.
In fact, even if he somehow doesn’t reach the Finals during his next two Lakers campaigns for whatever reason, he will have just one less championship than Bryant and two less than Jordan.
What If Anthony Davis Wins Finals MVP?
Speaking of Bryant, his legacy should bolster the G.O.A.T. case for James.
With a possible Finals appearance this year, James need not concern himself with winning the series MVP.
Bryant won three of his rings with Shaquille O’Neal as the alpha dog. The two titles in 2009 and 2010 represent the only times Bryant led the Lakers to the mountaintop, winning two Finals MVPs along the way.
But very few consider O’Neal’s humongous shadow when looking at Bryant’s first three titles.
All that matters in most people’s eyes is whether he earned a ring at the end of the Finals or not. Bryant has five of them, even though he wasn’t always the best player on his team, and that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
Anthony Davis, who might be the best player James has ever played with, could be the alpha dog in a Finals series this season, and it shouldn’t be an issue.
James would still earn a notch in the win column. Though he is held to a higher standard than those of his peers, not winning Finals MVP is acceptable and won’t be as damning as a loss.
A High Probability
The 2019-20 season offered hope for James when the Lakers landed one of the best players in the league last summer with the acquisition of Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans.
James’ second season with the Lakers has presented him with an excellent opportunity to redeem himself by returning to the playoffs with a shot at the title.
This year’s Lakers squad (49-14 record) is probably one of the best teams he has ever been a part of. He could go to the Finals against any of the Eastern Conference’s best teams and would not have the odds stacked against him.
Rarely has he entered the Finals with a team that’s as good defensively as the current Lakers (third in defensive rating this season). Even with a number of good teams in the Western Conference, the Lakers have a legitimate shot to go all the way to the championship round.
This means, however, that James has no excuse but to come away victorious with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in hand even if the Lakers were to face the Milwaukee Bucks, who own the league’s best record at the moment, in the Finals.
The Impending 2020-21 Offseason
There’s no telling what Davis will do this summer. Although the Lakers are his priority, anything can happen between now and this year’s free agency.
What if Davis leaves for the Chicago Bulls this offseason? There’s no guarantee that the Lakers will still be dominant next season especially with some of their key players going into the summer as free agents as well.
And what if Davis stays but gets seriously injured next season? It would hamper his ability to play at an elite level. James would have to carry a team on his back once again just like he did with Cavaliers this past decade.
If the NBA decides to finish out this season as expected, James has to take advantage of this small window of opportunity to add to his legacy with a fourth championship.
A ringless season is not an option for the Lakers superstar especially with his contemporaries, such as Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, seeking to stake their claim as the best in the game.
James tweeted recently that he and his team are ready for the season to continue.
Saw some reports about execs and agents wanting to cancel season??? That’s absolutely not true. Nobody I know saying anything like that. As soon as it’s safe we would like to finish our season. I’m ready and our team is ready. Nobody should be canceling anything. 👑
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 30, 2020
“I believe once [the pandemic is] under control and they allow us to resume some type of activity, I would love to get the season back going,” James told a group of reporters during a video conference call a few weeks ago. “I feel like we’re in a position where we can get back and start to compete for a championship, get back to doing what we love to do, making our Laker faithful proud of us, of being back on the floor.”
When the curtains are hopefully lifted and the show starts again, he has no other option but to be ready to grab his own legacy by the horns.