The standards we use to evaluate LeBron James are unfair. In the eyes of many, any season that ends without a championship for his team constitutes a failure on his part. Fortunately, he's well aware of the significance of Thursday's decisive Game 7 tilt against the San Antonio Spurs.
LeBron on expectations for him in Game 7: "I understand the moment for me."— Eye on Basketball (@EyeOnBasketball) June 19, 2013
James knows that his legacy is largely at stake. He has already fallen short in the NBA Finals twice—in 2007 against these Spurs, and then in 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks—so a third defeat in the league's championship round could do some real damage to his place in NBA lore.
Again, that's not fair.
James could retire today and he'd likely be regarded as one of the greatest players to ever suit up. The fact that he's made the finals four times already hardly registers as an accomplishment because his talent has led to the perennial expectation that that's what he's supposed to do.
But that's how the NBA, and to a larger extent, professional sports, work: Championship rings have a disproportionate amount of influence.
And if you think any of that analysis is hyperbolic, consider the talk after the Heat improbably avoided defeat in Game 6.
LeBron had 32 pts, 11 asts and 10 rebs in an elimination game. That's protecting your legacy.— chris palmer (@ESPNChrisPalmer) June 19, 2013
Even when LBJ is largely responsible for the fact that his team survived an incredibly close game (his 18 points in the fourth quarter and overtime helped erase San Antonio's double-digit lead after the third quarter), there's still a sense that with his talent, the game never should have been so close.
A legacy saving, season saving moment for LeBron and the Miami Heat...thanks to Ray Allen. http://t.co/1YPAPuc5dC— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) June 19, 2013
Nobody views James as just another good basketball player. Tony Parker was 6-of-23 in Game 6, but nobody said a word about the negative effect on his legacy. Some small part of that probably has to do with the fact that Parker has already won a few titles and a finals MVP.
But the bigger reason is that Parker is merely a very good NBA player. Because James has been so transcendent in most of his decade-long reign, "very good" simply doesn't cut it. He's measured against the all-time greats, not his contemporaries.
So if James scores 40 points in a loss on Thursday, he'll still be viewed as having failed.
That's not the case with any other player.
When James says he understands the moment, he's saying he understands that the deck is stacked against him, that there's really no way for him to exceed anyone's expectations. All he can do is try to live up to the inflated ones he helped create.
Fair or not, James understands what's hanging in the balance in Game 7.