LeBron James is to today’s NBA what Michael Jordan was to the NBA I was born into back in October of 1990. Jordan fell short in 1991 to the Detroit Pistons, James couldn’t get past the Celtics. Jordan broke through in 1992 with his first tile, leapfrogging the Pistons and cruising past the NBA’s living legend, Magic Johnson, to his first title. James made the leap by playing two of the best games we’ve ever seen to get past the Celtics and cruised to his first title by taking down the NBA’s other best player, Kevin Durant.
The parallels are there already. But it is what happens next is what will ultimately give Jordan supporters all of the ammo they need to put down any more comparisons, and James supporters everything they need to feel vindicated.
If James and the Heat can beat the Spurs in Game 7 tonight, he will have firmly planted another foot in the path blazed by Jordan. Back-to-back titles, back-to-back Finals MVPs and a chance to mirror Jordan’s journey by taking down the NBA’s current living legend, Tim Duncan, are enough to make any NBA historian salivate at the possibilities of what could lay further down the road.
Note: Jordan’s second title came against Charles Barkley’s Suns, arguably the second-best player in the league at the time. (James:Durant/Duncan :: Jordan: Barkley/Johnson)
But if LeBron falters, like he almost did with two turnovers at the end of Game 6, he will have removed himself from any conversation about the “greatest player of all time” and planted himself at the top of every “most talented player of all time” list. Winning at the highest level is the definition of greatness. Magic did it. Larry did it. Jordan did it. Bill Russell did it more than anyone else.
With a loss, James sheds the company of Bird, Johnson and Jordan and joins an altogether different group with Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. All players that left an impact on the game, all players with innumerable accolades and records, all players with losing records in the NBA Finals.
The talk all week has been about LeBron’s legacy and that is exactly what is at stake. A win makes him a mortal lock for a top-five spot on the NBA’s all-time list with Jordan, Russell, Magic and Bird; a loss drops him to 1-2 in the NBA Finals and a top-10 spot with an uphill climb towards that summit for the rest of his career.
There will always be a tomorrow. But in the case of LeBron James, what lies on the other side of tonight may not be quite as bright.