Here's an impossible challenge: Find someone who is ambivalent about LeBron James. Just as you can talk to anyone you meet about the incredible Stephen Curry and the indelible Golden State Warriors, there are few who don't have strong feelings of some persuasion about LeBron. Some credit him as the best player since Michael Jordan, an otherworldly amalgam of power, finesse, speed and skill. Some think he's a weak-willed choke artist who glides by on DNA and conspiracy theories. (These people are idiots.)
There's obviously plenty of room between the poles, opinions fueled by varying levels of charity and objectivity. We all have our own ideas about where on the spectrum the truth lies. But the important part is that everyone who has experienced the LeBron era has a fixed position on where he fits in the ecosystem.
That's ironic, because LeBron's record in the biggest games of his career is one big gray area, subject to endless debate dependent entirely on the priorities of those doing the debating. He'll be participating in his seventh NBA Finals series at age 31. But those have all sprung out of the East, an inferior conference during LeBron's run. No other modern star can claim to have won their conference six straight times. This feat is denigrated by many, including reasonable people, because of the competition.
The question is whether LeBron is simply beating up on inferior foes or whether his dominance is making those foes appear inferior. The answer is not clear. We don't herald the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks or Indiana Pacers of the 2011-16 period in part because they never made the Finals. But they didn't make the Finals because they couldn't beat LeBron's teams! Does the East look weak because no team can measure up to the greatness of LeBron, or does the East look weak because the East is weak? Reasonable people can disagree.
James won two titles, but lost four Finals series. This is a key mark against LeBron from fans and analysts who denigrate his achievements, and it ties back directly into the argument about the quality of the East. Is making the Finals but losing twice as often as you win once there really much of an achievement? Should we give so much credit for second place? If so, what about third and fourth place?
There is also the weight of history. Jordan never lost in the Finals. Kareem (the second-best player in history, in my estimation) was 6-4 in the championship round. Bird was 3-2.was 5-4. Bill Russell was 11-1. Duncan is 5-1. These are the players considered the best ever.
To find other legends with losing Finals records, you have to turn to players with lots of detractors. Wilt Chamberlain was 2-4 in the Finals and the gap between his championship success and that of Russell seems to be the primary source of the gap in their reputations, despite Wilt's gaudy stats. Jerry West was 1-8 in the Finals. Julius Erving was 1-3 in the Finals (although he did win a pair of ABA championships).
These are legends. LEGENDS. But they sure don't have the pristine reputations of the players like Russell, Jordan, Bird and Magic, do they? This is where LeBron fits in terms of success in the Finals. Is it fair? Are these stars really a notch below their contemporaries, and if so, are the Finals records superfluous to the discussion or integral in the debate?
Of course, LeBron's story is not yet completed, and this is where 2016 comes in. Beating the 73-9 Warriors wouldn't give LeBron a winning record in the Finals, but lord would it change the King James narrative. Winning a championship in Cleveland -- breaking the curse, setting fire to old criticisms of The Decision -- would change what LeBron means to wide swaths of the basketball-viewing public.
LeBron is often on the side of the underdog in the Finals, never more so than a year ago when the battered Cavs tried to derail a rising juggernaut. LeBron has more help this time around thanks to good fortune; unfortunately, the Warriors are stronger too. Beating Golden State would reinforce what LeBron partisans believe to already be true, that LeBron could retire tomorrow and go down as a top-10 all-time player. If he plays another five years at even a deprecated level, he'll finish top five. If he continues to blow minds as he has over the past decade, he's no worse than top three and maybe No. 2.
Beating Golden State would extend LeBron's legacy to those who believe most in the power of symbolism and narrative. There is no better answer to those who doubt LeBron's accomplishment of repeatedly making it to the Finals than to beat the greatest regular season team ever. Pulling this off would be LeBron's greatest feat, and would instantly zap the most rampant critiques of his career.