Where LeBron James Ranks All-Time with and Without 2nd NBA Title

John Friel@@JohnFtheheatgodAnalyst IJune 18, 2013

Within the next 24 hours, we're going to find out what type of narratives are going to come into play over the next season for LeBron James.

If the Miami Heat lose: Is the 'Big Three' a complete and utter failure? Is LeBron going back to Cleveland? Is the career of Dwyane Wade over? Is Chris Bosh getting traded? Was the first championship just a fluke? LeBron James is not the world-defying, capable-of-jumping-over-buildings-in-a-single-bound champion.

But if he wins, what a resounding success the 'Big Three' is. The San Antonio Spurs are old, finished and have no chance for Game 7. LeBron James is the perennial champion we all expected him to become.

Tonight, the path that is the ongoing, historic and often-criticized legacy of LeBron begins to fork as the NBA world waits with bated breath to find out what type of player he reveals himself to be, again. Bearing just as much significance as the shots he took under pressure in last year's NBA Finals, and the one before that, this Game 6 tonight is going to redefine the career of James.

Is it really going to matter to anyone that the San Antonio Spurs had a once-in-a-lifetime series from the likes of Danny Green and Gary Neal if the Heat end up losing this? Will Dwyane Wade's poor performances in the first three games, as well as his defense on Green, take some of the attention? How about the team's overall lackadaisical and borderline imprudent play on both sides of the ball?

None of that is going to matter and the Spurs will get zero credit for stopping LeBron, because obviously it's LeBron's fault.

Even if Tim Duncan takes home his fifth NBA title, the stories for the summer are going to revolve around LeBron's legacy, not Duncan's as it should for a 37-year-old leading his team to a fifth NBA title since 1999.

Instead we'll be subject to stories about a 28-year-old, who turns 29 in late December, and how he can't get it done. How the spotlight is too bright for him, even though he's been to this stage four times in a career that's only ten years in. How he can't win with this stacked Heat team, even though he's been forced to carry his All-Star teammates and supporting cast for a majority of the postseason.

We also won't be able to realize that we'll be saying the same thing about LeBron year after year after year. He's going to be having legacy-defining games and postseasons until he can no longer be deemed as a capable primary option.

LeBron is going to be at this stage a number of times over the next few seasons, so get used to the world either constantly berating or defending him. 29-year-olds tend to have a few more years of quality basketball left in them, especially the ones that have already won four league MVP's.

It's all going to be on LeBron's shoulder no matter what, and for two reasons. One is because he's LeBron James and there's a far better narrative surrounding a moneymaker and ratings-drawer like LeBron, rather than the Heat as a whole.

Two, and most importantly, is that we are all extremely well aware that LeBron is capable of lifting entire teams on his back and carrying them to the finish line. He did it when he dropped 48 on the Detroit Pistons in 2007, as well as when he attempted to beat an entire Orlando Magic team by himself averaging nearly 40 points to along with 14 rebounds per.

But nothing rings closer to home than his Game 6 against the Boston Celtics in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. It was the most pressure-filled game of LeBron's career, considering his team was facing a closeout game in an environment they usually struggled in, and he responded with flying colors.

45 points. 15 rebounds. 5 assists. That's why people want to say this Game 6 tonight lies squarely on  LeBron's shoulders. Because they know that he can put up preposterous numbers at any point, including in the games where his team needs him most. He is averaging over 31 points per game in possible closeouts over his career.

James already responded to one possible monumental defeat with a monstrous offensive and defensive performance in an easy Game 7 victory over the Indiana Pacers. Not only did James drop a cool 32 points, getting to the line 16 times, grab eight rebounds and dish out four assists, but he also held youthful phenom Paul George to a mere seven points on 2-of-9 shooting.

George would foul out after playing only 33 minutes. That's the influence of the terrifying LeBron we have all come to either love or loathe.

But we're still waiting for LeBron's Game 6. We're all waiting for those statlines that induce tears from the eyes and cause bile to well up in the throat of every critic that has told us that LeBron James has no clutch gene, or whatever those ESPN folks call it.

We're all just patiently waiting for the next 45-15-5 because we haven't seen it yet. While he's had such performances as that Game 7 against Indiana, the hair-raising eight minutes of basketball in Game 5 against Indiana and even most recently dropping 33 points on the Spurs in a Game 4 victory, but he still doesn't have that postseason-defining performance for this year.

LeBron had appeared to figure out something in that Game 4 vs San Antonio, but the other four games against San Antonio have been relatively poor. He was held to his three lowest scoring outputs of the postseason in the first three games of the Finals and was recently held to 36 percent shooting in the Game 5 loss, which was the fourth lowest shooting-percentage of his postseason.

This entire postseason hasn't gone as smoothly as so many anticipated. With a healthy Chris Bosh in tow, LeBron brimming with confidence and so many Heat shooters having shot well in the regular season, it was a legitimate argument to have Miami possibly displaying postseason dominance to the equivalent of the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers team that went 15-1.

Those plans fizzled when Miami lost a home-opener to an injury-depleted Chicago Bulls team. The Heat proceeded to struggle with that Bulls team in two of the next four games, all Heat wins, before setting their sights on an Indiana Pacers team they had defeated in six games the previous postseason without Bosh.

It took seven games for the Heat to defeat the Pacers, nearly dropping their first two at home if not for a game-winner at the buzzer by LeBron. And, no, that game-winner by LeBron in a Game 1 at home is not the stamp you put on the letter to convince the NBA community that James has had an incredible postseason run.

Because, at the moment at least, James has yet to have the defining moment of the postseason that's going to have us in 2023 saying, "Guys, remember when LeBron did such and such in that championship run where he and Miami beat San Antonio?"

Then again, as seen before with those examples of what people won't remember if LeBron loses, it's also the same scenario if Miami wins. If LeBron gets the ample help he needs from Bosh and Wade, the Heat play defense and Danny Green wakes up from this two-week long dream, then nobody will care how he wins.

All they want to see is the hardware at the end of the season and who has it. And unless Wade ends up having back-to-back 30-point games, the Finals MVP if the Heat win is going to end up in the hands of LeBron James.

Suddenly LeBron will have just as many Finals MVP awards as Kobe Bryant and as many championships as Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the greatest player in NBA history. By the end of the week, or possibly even a few hours from now, we will find out just where LeBron could possibly rank among the league's greatest to ever play, despite only playing a decade's worth of basketball. 

He has two opportunities to prove that. Two home games. Isn't it something that the Heat are two home games away from a championship, yet we've already banished Miami and LeBron's entire career's work to the land of wind and ghosts? The knee-jerk is strong with this generation.

LeBron is going to need all the help he can get, in order to hold said hardware. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN recently put out an article openly questioning why LeBron's NBA Finals performances were so much lesser than his performances in other rounds. What we got from it was the idea of fatigue playing a factor:

"People forget because he won the title, but James' body shut down in last year's Finals."

"At the end of Game 4 against the Okalahoma City Thunder, James laid on the ground unable to get up under his own power. Midway through the fourth quarter, James had to be carried off the court because of a leg cramp, which seems minor. But it forced James to remove himself from crunch-time of an NBA Finals game."

"Many attributed James' 2011 collapse to something more psychological than physical, but here we are in the 2013 Finals and James still doesn't look like his normal, dominant self. He is missing shots in the lane that he normally hits. He is taking more jumpers than usual. His fast breaks are no longer automatic points. James is not pressuring the Spurs' defense as much as we expected, especially late in Game 5, and there are times when he's not sprinting back on defense when everyone else is."

Legitimate argument? Or an excuse? LeBron is forced to carry his teammates, playing on a constant carousel on defense as he defends everything from point guards to center and is usually the one who ends up having to facilitate on a consistent basis, in order for his team to look championship-caliber.

Haberstroh brings up an excellent point about LeBron collapsing in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, and needing the heroics of Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade to finish it off. That series also came in a shortened series where the Heat ended up playing 16 less regular season games than usual.

It also may be evident here that James is fatigued. Why else can he not work himself around the doughy Boris Diaw? Or doesn't have the lift to throw down slams on fastbreaks over guys like Danny Green? Or is having trouble against Tony Parker, even though he was a stalwart against the faster and more athletic Derrick Rose in 2011?

It's an interesting thought that will most likely be left on the cutting-room floor because, "Blah, blah, blah, narratives, LeBron can't take the pressure. It's all in his head. Should the Spurs rest their starters in a closeout game in the NBA Finals?"

This game, and the next one if it happens, are just two more legacy games to add to LeBron's always building and renovating resume. We expect nothing but perfection and out-of-this-world play in every game and when we don't get it, we're immediately left to name-calling and attempting to play scientist observing LeBron's DNA from a distance.

The problem with that, however, is this will be LeBron's third loss in four attempts, if Miami comes up short tonight, and that's going to somehow resonate during his Hall-of-Fame speech. Not the fact that he's been to the NBA Finals four times in ten years, but because he lost three of those, including one where he was on a poor Cleveland team.

We'll pick and prod his career until there's nothing left but the bones of what should be recognized as a lavish and exemplary ten-year journey being left to critics who will ask, "Why didn't this or that happen?" or state "He'll never be as good as Jordan or whomever else that had consistency from his teammates."

It's tough to rank him amongst the league's greatest because we're going to end up being in the same situation as next year. He'll either have one or two titles, there will be a career-defining game and you'll read the same redundant article with key words such as 'Legacy', 'Clutch' or 'Defining'.

I'm guilty of it. We're all guilty of it. We're all playing our own part in this wild ride of LeBron's career, whether we're outright criticizing him for not coming through and winning three consecutive championships already or we're defending him as a four-time MVP who just caught a lot of bad breaks in the Finals.

We'll find out which side we're on in a few hours.


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