Why LeBron James' NBA Finals Legacy Is Officially on the Line

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 17, 2013

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 13:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts before taking on the San Antonio Spurs in Game Four of the 2013 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 13, 2013 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

LeBron James is currently playing for more than a second NBA championship.

Beyond the Miami Heat's season-defining Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs and a possible title-deciding Game 7, there is LeBron's Finals legacy.

One more championship won't designate LeBron a success. A dynasty was supposed to be built in South Beach upon his arrival—anything less than that isn't enough to impel instant success. One more loss, however, is more than enough to desecrate his reputation as a potential winner.

Winning championships hasn't come easily for LeBron. It's hardly come at all. His teams are already 1-2 when they reach the Finals and another series loss gives him a 25-percent success rate.

When pitted against all-time greats LeBron himself would like to mimic, cashing in on 1-of-4 isn't enough to spark an organic conversation.

Michael Jordan was 6-0 in the NBA Finals, Magic Jonson was 5-4 (2-2 through his first four appearances) and Kobe Bryant is 5-2 (3-1 in his first four). Hell, Dwyane Wade himself will still be 2-2 in the championship round if the Heat lose to the Spurs.

Then there would be LeBron, sitting at 1-3, staring blankly at the dregs of a vision that would no longer be possible in Miami.

Fair or not, players are mostly judged by their hardware. Winners become exempt from various types of scrutiny. Their methods and ideals are not so easily dismissed and their abilities cannot be impugned.

Winning is divine.

Kobe would not be so effortlessly perceived as one of the greatest players to ever play the game if he didn't have his five championships. Volume-shooting theatrics such as his are despised in various circles. Sans that handful of rings, he'd be a slimmer version of Carmelo Anthony in purple and gold.

But he's not. Five championship banners have made sure of it; a winning record when a title is on the line won't allow it. 

Championship accolades define players. Tribulations are immortalized just as much as triumphs. Win and you're a winner. Lose and you don't measure up.

At least that's the case with LeBron.

Failure to force a Game 7 and subsequently win it won't put LeBron in the same boat or even ocean as, say, Chris Paul or any other superstar yet to bring home a title. He has a ring, he's been to the Finals and he knows what it takes to win—just not as much as he should.

That's what people will say. The greatest player on the planet, perhaps the most gifted to ever play the game, can't be 1-3 in the NBA Finals...because he just can't. Otherworldly talents and winners in general don't lose in excess.

Blessed with so much God-given talent and clad with a work ethic that steamrolls that of the competition, LeBron can't have just one ring in four tries. It's illogical.

Not when three of those attempts will have come alongside two other superstars in Wade and Chris Bosh. Not when this mutual coexistence he helped orchestrate promised more.

That it happened under his watch, when he put forth a Game 3 and Game 5 to forget, makes it even worse.

Underwhelming performances were supposed to be a thing of his past, an intrinsically based flaw buried in 2011. Stars step up, thrive on the league's biggest stage. Losing now only reminds us LeBron hasn't.

Look at his per-game-production totals in the NBA Finals to date:

Spurs (2007) 8.0 22.5 35.6 20.0 22.0 7.0 6.8 1.0 0.5
Mavericks (2011) 7.2 15.0 47.8 32.1 17.8 7.2 6.8 1.7 0.5
Thunder (2012) 10.2 21.6 47.2 18.8 28.6 10.2 7.4 1.6 0.4
Spurs (2013) 8.8 20.2 43.6 31.6 21.6 10.8 6.8 2.2 1.0
Overall 8.5 19.5 43.7 26.5 22.3 8.8 7.0 1.7 0.6

Posting 22.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and seven assists per Finals contest for his career hardly implies a failure to show up, but his 43.7-percent clip is not flattering next to the 49 percent he's shooting for his career or the 56.5 percent he shot this past season.

More was expected—especially now.

We're already wondering how he, Wade, Bosh and the Heat let it get this far. San Antonio is a worthy opponent, an adversary deserving of winning another championship, but Miami is supposed to be better. LeBron is supposed to be better.

Worse still is where it's happened. This wouldn't be the LeBron James solo act coming up short. It's Olympus crumbling beneath its own potential. 

Once again, the Spurs aren't the inferior opponents. Overthrowing the reigning NBA champs won't be as unexpected a feat as it may be made out to be. It would be an upset only because the Heat are the Heat and LeBron is LeBron.

For Miami's part, it will have failed. These Heat weren't created to submit to the better opponent. There wasn't supposed to be a better opponent, only them playing at a level that was the envy of everyone else.

Not merely the Eastern Conference and a fistful of teams in the Western Conference, but everyone.

Losing now negates those ambitions, leaving LeBron immersed in the same emptiness he wallowed in with Cleveland. He remembers that feeling of inadequacy vividly and so do we. It's why he fled Cleveland and now calls South Beach home. 

Only his fortress isn't as impenetrable as intended. Memories of failures past are beginning to surface once again—the ones he thought he had left behind.

But it hasn't been that easy, nor is it ever. LeBron is still attempting to distance himself from the almost-winner that he was and establish himself as the profound victor he's supposed to be.

"I guess it's a gift and a curse," LeBron told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today of his ability to remember everything.

Just once, I'm sure LeBron would like to forget. To forget that his Heat are down 3-2 to the Spurs, that every tepid performance becomes something bigger, that his legacy is on the line with each and every season he plays. That he will be defined by either championships he's won or the ones he hasn't.

Just once, I'm sure he'd like to forget all that.

Only he can't because the rest of the world won't, leaving him to scrap and claw his way toward a second title—the absence of which would inflict far more harm than its attainment would bring good.


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