Jay Asser explains why LeBron James is in a tier of his own with his ability to get as close to winning it all as possible, regardless of what's around him.
Greatness can be defined in many ways. When it comes to LeBron James, his greatness lies in making the extraordinary look ordinary, the remarkable look routine and the unprecedented look customary.
We can do the whole LeBron vs Michael Jordan debate to death, but with James preparing to play in his eighth straight NBA Finals, it’s more interesting to examine what makes him so exceptional in his own unique way.
The only other players in NBA history to have reached eight straight Finals were part of the Boston Celtics teams of the 1950s and 60s. No disrespect to Bill Russell, who is the greatest winner the sport has ever seen with 11 rings and 10 consecutive Finals appearances, but the game and league now are incomparable to that time period.
In the modern day, no one has done what LeBron has. You can wave his 3-5 record in the Finals around all you want in an attempt to diminish him or make another all-time great look better in comparison, but ultimately it won’t be James’ ceiling that will be the primary reason he goes down as arguably the GOAT (greatest of all-time), but rather his baseline.
By beating the Celtics 87-79 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, LeBron solidified something we had already theorised but never had definitive proof of: that he can take any team to the Finals, regardless of circumstances.
There is no Kyrie Irving anymore to be the Robin to James’ Batman and help carry the load. Kevin Love, the only other All-Star on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ roster, played all of five minutes in Game 6 before suffering a concussion that kept him out of the decider. And even he has struggled to play that sidekick role. LeBron’s chief support in Game 7? Jeff Green.
Cleveland started the season with one roster and are going to the Finals with another. What remained after a slew of deadline deals was a veteran cast with championship experience, but role players nonetheless who’ve wildly fluctuated in the playoffs.
The one true constant has been James and he has somehow managed to drag this incredibly flawed and top-heavy team to the Finals, proving he can get as close as possible to winning it all by himself, no matter who’s around him.
Simply reaching the Finals, of course, is not the ultimate goal for anyone, let alone for a deity like LeBron. Winning the title is always the mission and it’s likely James is going to fall short of that again in what may well be another lopsided Finals.
But there’s a wide gap between competing for a title and actually winning one, which is why practically every team that has ever hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy did so with multiple All-Stars or future Hall-of-Famers. It’s really damn hard to reach the top of the summit in the NBA and no one can do it on their own.
No one was supposed to come this close to doing it on their own either. Yet here we are, with LeBron having broken that barrier. He’s exceeded our wildest imaginations for how much impact one single player can have on a basketball court.
You might be saying, “What has James really accomplished? Everyone expected him to get back to the Finals and his competition wasn’t anything great, especially compared to the West.”
It’s true the Cavaliers may have already been eliminated by now if they were in the West bracket and that they needed seven games to dispatch an undermanned Celtics team missing two All-Stars to injury. It’s also true that LeBron has mostly met expectations at this point as he was always the favourite to return to the Finals.
Those expectations, however, weren’t based on the capabilities of the Cavaliers as a whole. They were the result of blind faith in James. And even though that faith was tested more than it ever has been, LeBron still rewarded it in the end.
If that’s not greatness personified, what is?