LeBron James' legacy can only withstand so many blows.
Seven years with the Cleveland Cavaliers left him ring-less, one nationally broadcast decision in 2010 left him hated and a second NBA Finals loss in 2011 to the Dallas Mavericks pushed him to the brink of failure.
One title in four tries wouldn't be enough to put him on the same championship level as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant. A player like LeBron needs to have more, to win more—something he is already aware of.
People love him (again) for what he can do on the basketball court. Those that still loathe him do so for the same reason: because of what he is capable of on the hardwood.
Because he can win.
Winning his first championship did indeed change things—just not permanently.
Not a playoff game goes by that his legacy isn't picked apart. Lost on no one is what's at stake for him and the Heat whenever they reach the NBA Finals.
Individual performances are blown out of proportion. Insufficient efforts are used as a means to raze his future, while single-game heroics are romanticized and used as proof that another championship is imminent.
When LeBron went 15-of-25 from the field in Game 4 against the San Antonio Spurs, he was a savior. The Heat wouldn't lose again; he wouldn't let them. Then came Game 5, which saw him drop 25 points on 8-of-22 shooting. The world was over; the Heat were done.
Overreactions are part of LeBron's territory. Win or lose, the repercussions will always be skewed in one direction. Whether it's right or wrong doesn't matter; that's just how it is.
Ingrained in every exaggerated storyline is a shred of accuracy, though. A second straight championship won't give LeBron and the Heat their dynasty, but they'll be awfully close. Losing won't ruin LeBron's career either, though it will tarnish his legacy beyond repair...in Miami.
That first championship should have freed LeBron from his prison. It did. Had he not dreamed of something bigger and still been in Cleveland, there wouldn't have been another isolated cell waiting for him on the other end. But in Miami, there was.
LeBron never would have been held to his current standard in Cleveland. Lofty expectations would have still been the norm, but assuming that he would win championships year in and year out given the supporting cast he played with wouldn't be considered realistic.
Joining the Heat in search of something better stripped LeBron of his ability to be both imperfect and revered. Superstars don't attach themselves at the hip to contend; they play together to win.
Voicing the potential of a LeBron-led Heat back in 2010 wasn't necessary, nor is it now. The mere cosmetic makeup of this team suggested multiple championships were inevitable. Anything less wouldn't be acceptable.
Success, then, can't be obtained in South Beach if LeBron loses in the NBA Finals yet again, even if he goes on to win next year. This version of the Heat will be measured against their ability to build a dynasty.
To become an absolute power, the Heat need to beat the Spurs. Lose, and the Heat and LeBron will have failed to do what it is they set out to accomplish, making this their last chance.
Miami's Big Three isn't immune to the natural regression that comes with time. Wade isn't going to play forever and is already showing signs of slowing, and Bosh's standing as a superstar is predicated on the Heat's ability to win. He doesn't appear as super if the Heat can't come out on top with him as their third option.
Then there's the summer of 2014 to consider, when each member of the Big Three is eligible to enter free agency. Assuming Miami is willing to foot an exorbitant luxury-tax bill, the Heat can remain intact, but that doesn't mean they'll still be built to win.
No one knows how Bosh and Wade will be playing one year from now or how the Heat will begin to assemble a viable supporting cast around them.
No one knows where LeBron's head will be either. He'll once again have his pick of where to play. He's changed uniforms once; he could do it again.
Should he and the Heat fall to the Spurs, he may have to.
As long as he's in Miami, he can't escape the pressure his potential creates. The Heat will still be victims of their own ambition, fighting toward what will become an unattainable goal. LeBron himself will be 1-3 on the NBA Finals stage, including a 1-2 record on a team supposed to supersede what the Spurs have been able to achieve over the last decade or so.
Will LeBron James' legacy be able to recover from another finals defeat?
That's failure, collectively and singularly. For most it would be considered the pinnacle: One championship and a trio of successive finals appearances is enough for anyone.
But LeBron isn't just anyone; he never has been.
Moving to Miami in the manner he did tainted his reputation as a player. So long as he is in South Beach, the only way to recover from and justify his decision is to win multiple championships en route to forming a dynasty.
That out goes away if he fails this year. Realistically, there won't be enough time for him to win enough to redeem himself. Not in Miami. And so, he must win both now and later or eventually seek a more forgiving atmosphere that allows him to recover from what has the potential to be a crushing blow.