LeBron James never promised Cleveland a championship. He delivered one anyway. This is what the true geniuses do: They find a way to shock an audience that is ready for anything.
He averaged 30-11-9 during the NBA Finals, sparking a comeback from a 3-1 deficit against a team that won 73 games. James produced a signature chasedown block in the closing minutes of a tied Game 7. He hit the free throw that all but clinched the championship. In that final minute, he almost smashed Draymond Green through the floor with what would have been a world-stopping dunk. (Maybe he needed to save something for the encore.)
James never promised Cleveland a championship because he knew how far the Cavaliers had to go to compete for a title. He returned to a Cavalier team in 2014 that had won three draft lotteries, and hadn’t won more than 33 games since he left. In the Cavaliers’ 44-year history, the team had only competed in the finals once before, and that was fully on his back in 2007.
James never promised a championship because he learned an essential truth in Miami where he captured two titles. Nothing about winning is easy. Even with two Hall of Fame co-stars and even at the peak of his individual powers, James needed a Ray Allen miracle to win a second ring in Miami.
The roster he found when he returned to Cleveland was a strange mix of promise and disappointment. There was a coach new to the NBA and all its trappings, a feuding backcourt duo, and an imported All-Star who’d never even been to the playoffs, let alone the finals. Of course, he never promised Cleveland a championship. But he wanted one badly.
When James collapsed on the hardwood, head in his hands, after the buzzer sounded on the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, this is why. When he beamed with joy during the on-court interview, the trophy presentation, the press conference, the after-party, and the championship parade, this is why.
He wanted this more than anything, and it happened largely because of one man’s singular greatness. It happened because one man picked up everyone around him and taught them how to win. He taught them how to take the hits and stay standing.
All because one man, LeBron James, capped off an extraordinary decade with an even more extraordinary flourish, sealing his legacy as one of the greatest players of all-time. Every question we had about him has been answered. All the critiques of his playing style, his leadership style, his decisions — those are all gone. He did something no one in his era and only a couple other players ever could do.
So … now what?
Watching James now makes the course of his career feel inevitable, but his path was anything but smooth. Dubbed King James before even seeing an NBA court and viewed as an epochal star, he came into the league as the most hyped rookie ever. Hype is fleeting, and doubts shadowed James all along the way.
James’ Cavaliers missed the playoffs in his first two seasons, while his rival and friend Carmelo Anthony took the Nuggets to the postseason both years. At times it looked like James, for all his obvious promise, needed much more help than he had at his disposal.
That thought began to fade away in 2006 as he finished No. 2 in MVP voting and hit two game-winners against the Wizards in his first playoff series. His incredible Game 5 the next year against the Pistons — where he scored 29 of the Cavaliers’ final 30 points, including the clinching deuce on a layup — was a seemingly fatal blow to the James doubt industry.
The 2007 finals ended in a sweep at the hands of the Spurs. The next three seasons saw James’ individual power grow, culminating with back-to-back league MVPs in 2009 and ‘10. He became a marketing powerhouse, a global icon in his own crew’s parlance, who pushed products with the best of them. Ubiquity breeds hype, and hype lures derision.
This period also coincided with the heyday of the Boston Celtics, an anti-glamour, hard-nosed collection of Prima Donna killers. The Cs ejected James and the Cavaliers from the playoffs in both ‘08 and ‘10 (the ascendant Magic did the honors in ‘09). For the gall of having lost, Bostonians led the charge in calling him a fraud. Haters everywhere picked it up. Even reasonable fans and analysts began to question James. In just another two months, Clevelanders would join the chorus.
The Decision and its aftermath are well-worn territory. The two-time defending MVP, having just been punked out of the playoffs by a crew of blue collar stars led by tough guy Paul Pierce, chose to join his superstar friends in glamorous Miami. The public revolted. Cleveland burned him in effigy. James’ Q rating went through the floor.
In Miami, James’ numbers were extraordinary, though distaste from his free agency prevented him from claiming a third straight MVP. In the playoffs, he finally beat Boston, taking the Heat all the way to the finals where they met the Dallas Mavericks as favorites. This could have been the moment that reversed the burning jerseys, the heckling crowd, the hectoring TV and radio voices. If LeBron won a title in 2011, he could put all that noise in a little box and drop it into Biscayne Bay.
Instead, he had one of the most bizarre series ever, looking timid and overmatched, even scared. The Heat blew a 2-1 lead and lost in six. Doubt screamed louder than ever, and LeBron’s humiliation was its fuel. His marketing status, his choice of sparkly South Beach over rusty Cleveland, his rock star introduction to Miami, his claim he’d win uncountable championships — all of it, just grist for the mill. If James had ever forgotten, 2011 ensured he kept that lesson with him forever.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the tide turned for him again. It wasn’t in 2012, when the Heat finished the job and won James his first title. That year had all the markings of the Year of LeBron. He won another NBA MVP, an NBA Finals MVP, a title, and an Olympic gold medal (his second). But to many, there remained something cheap about winning with superstar friends of his choosing. To many, there remained something distant and glossy about King James. Almost like he wasn’t real.
Perhaps the key turning point in the national conversation about James came in Jan. 2013. A Heat fan hit a halfcourt shot to win $75,000 during a break in the action. Overcome with joy, he ran up and tackled the guy in a bear hug, celebrating as if the fan had won a playoff game for Miami.
The video clip has more than 35 million views on YouTube and became a commercial. It also showed, perhaps for the first time, James connecting with the common fan. This also happened to come amid LeBron’s most perfect season as a player — 27-8-7 per game for a 66-win team, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. Who but the least tethered to reality could hate on that?
The Heat later outdueled the Spurs in an epic seven-gamer to win another title, and James was again named both the regular season and Finals MVP. The icy national view melted the critiques that he’d never win a title, and that he was incapable of performing well when everything was on the line. His Q rating recovered to pre-Decision levels.
The thaw wasn’t universal. When a malfunctioning air conditioning system in San Antonio caused James to suffer cramps in the 2014 finals, LeBron’s haters had knives at the ready. When the Heat lost that series badly, the anti-James brigade paraded a new line of attack — that he’d never match Jordan or even Kobe. He might have two rings and four MVPs, but to many, that still didn’t add up to an all-time great. The fount of this skepticism was his inability to win in Cleveland, and his refusal in 2010 to continue to even try. When faced with difficulty, the skeptics felt that James took the easy road out.
James took up the hard road again in 2014. Ten years — 10 long, eventful years — after first making the NBA Finals, he put the perfect stamp on a decade he owned by delivering a championship to Cleveland. Suddenly, his dominance was not only accepted, but crystal clear.
He’s appeared in seven NBA Finals series (including each of the last six), winning three championships, and all three came with the Finals MVP trophy. He was a couple of votes shy of claiming Finals MVP in one of the series he lost.
James won four league MVPs and finished in the top five in balloting every single year. He made nine straight All-NBA First Teams, and six All-Defense teams. The league handed out 58 Eastern Conference Player of the Month awards over the past decade. He won 34 of them.
There’s more. James finished in the top five in per-game scoring every year during the past decade, and won the scoring title in ‘08. He finished in the top 10 in assists per game six times as a forward. Among all NBA players over the past 10 years, he ranks first in minutes and points, third in steals, fifth in assists, 15th in rebounds, and 37th in blocks. In 186 playoff games during the past decade, he averaged 27.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 6.8 assists. In those games, his team has won two-thirds of them, 124-62.
The hype, as it turns out, didn’t lie.
James’ legacy is baked, and everything else is icing. He’s proven his singular greatness and justified his place among the gods of the sport. Perhaps he won’t match Kareem’s six MVPs or Michael’s six rings. Perhaps his career will end with a 3-4 record in the finals, or 3-5 or 3-6. We can’t know how he measures up amid the greatest ever until his run is done. But we can declare he’s in that realm already. His record is unimpeachable now.
So, what now? When James fell to Golden State in 2015, he got a little more serious, a little more deranged in pushing his teammates. When Golden State fell to James in 2016, they got Kevin Durant. But he has little reason to sweat. After all, he’s beaten Durant in the finals before, just as he’s beaten Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. The hard part is done and now it’s time to have some fun.
James is at his zenith, so let’s enjoy every second we have left as his career glides to a close. Just don’t be surprised if he turns this decade into something more. As the decade of LeBron has shown us, his ability to amaze knows no bounds.