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How LeBron James' 2nd Ring Changes G.O.A.T. Debate

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How LeBron James' 2nd Ring Changes G.O.A.T. Debate
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What a difference a game makes. Forty-eight little minutes...

I think that's how it goes.

For LeBron James—or, rather, for the latest historical Polaroid of LeBron James—those minutes meant everything.

A loss, and James is likely derided as a goat, a gifted player with "just" one championship in four career trips to the NBA Finals. A win, and James is possibly lauded as the G.O.A.T.

Greatest Of All Time, for those of you who were hitherto unfamiliar with the acronym.

To be sure, LeBron's legacy hinges on much more than a single outcome over which he doesn't have complete control. Rather, it counts on a collection of moments and performances, makes and misses, brilliant plays and critical mistakes, accumulated over time.

But in reality, LeBron's legacy, like that of any other, is the product of perception.

In the creation of basketball's Mount Rushmore, we want to know which kinds of rocks and minerals constitute the foundation of each section.

The player provides the raw material at which we chisel away to form a more familiar picture, which we can then, in theory, set against those of other all-time greats in pursuit of some impossible debate.

To date, James has provided plenty of slab for those who would attempt to carve his spitting image in stone. LeBron now stands alongside Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Isiah Thomas, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon, George Mikan and (of course) Dwyane Wade as the most prominent players to lead at least one successful title defense.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

This (probably) should mean plenty, considering how difficult it is to win back-to-back championships. The Miami Heat proved as much once again with their slog through the final two rounds of the 2013 postseason.

Only a handful of those Hall of Fame names can claim to have been the MVP of back-to-back finals. Michael was the first to do it. Hakeem won two of his own while MJ was away playing baseball. Shaq had his run, then Kobe had his, and now LeBron has a pair of his own.

Bill Russell would probably have more than any of them if not for the fact that the award wasn't instituted until the 1968-69 season—his last as a pro.

That year, Jerry West became the first and still only player from the losing side to be named NBA Finals MVP.

Of course, Russell doesn't need multiple such trophies to validate his own dominance. The award has borne Russell's name since 2009 out of respect for the game's most prolific champion. In all likelihood, Russell would have himself an impressive stash of finals MVP trophies had they existed during his heyday.

The discussion narrows even further when factoring in the sport's next-most coveted award: the regular-season MVP. As a result of the Heat's 95-88 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7, James can claim a second consecutive crown to go along with his second straight regular-season MVP.

The rest of that club's membership? Bill, Michael...and that's it.

Does all of this constitute argument enough for LeBron as the NBA's next G.O.A.T.?

No.

He may possess the most impressive combination of physical blessings, mental fortitude and tireless work ethic that the game has ever seen. If his career were to come to a close today, LeBron might still be remembered as the most unique (and uniquely awe-inspiring) talent to ever set foot on the hardwood.

Greatness, though, is measured not by what you have, not by the raw materials at your disposal, but rather by what you do with what you have, by what you carve into and spin out of said materials.

Wilt Chamberlain was a prodigious talent, but his place in history has been marred by movement in his prime and a spotty track record in big games. Shaq might've been the most imposing physical force who's ever held a basketball, but poor conditioning and a feud with Kobe appeared to derail O'Neal's journey to the top of basketball history.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

LeBron, it would seem, is well on his way to maximizing the precious provisions bestowed upon him by the basketball gods. That's what we ask—nay, DEMAND—of those who win life's lottery: to use the prize wisely, to squeeze the most out of every penny.

It took LeBron the better part of a decade to complete the journey from teenage "Chosen One" to full-grown champion, but he's here now, probably to stay.

Whether you like it or not.

It's one thing to be "in the conversation" as, perhaps, the greatest of all time. It's another entirely to really be a part of the discussion, to challenge the supremacy of those long established in the pantheon.

In that regard, LeBron still has quite a bit left to accomplish before he's proven himself. He'd probably admit as much if you asked him to reflect on his place in history.

A second straight treble (championship, MVP and finals MVP in the same year) places James in some rather elite company. But to ensure that his inclusion in this amorphous, imaginary conversation isn't as the one thing that's not like the others, he'll have to rack up more accolades, more milestones and more shiny objects before he's finished his song.  

How many is a matter of an even more insufferable debate.

Does he need four more championships to "match" Michael? Or "must" his fingers be more bejeweled than those of His Airness for James to truly be the all-time King of the NBA?

And what about Russell? Do his 11 rings not matter as much because he played in an entirely different era? Should we "dock" him for competing in a smaller league against less gifted opponents within the constraints of a game that didn't even feature a three-point line, among myriad other features that are new to modern basketball?

Is LeBron James the G.O.A.T.?

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In truth, this debate will never end because it's ultimately a matter of subjectivity, of individual perception. The same facts become the bases of so many disparate conclusions.

That's what makes frivolous discussions such as these so fun and, in turn, so ubiquitous throughout time.

What makes LeBron's inclusion such cause for controversy is that there's so much of his story that's yet to be written. Like the budding dynasty of which he's an integral part, James will have his work cut out for him in the years to come as he looks to extend his run of excellence in the face of basketball's countervailing forces.

He'll have to battle younger, fresher, hungrier opponents. He'll have to fend off waves of older players whose respective paths to the top he's blocked.

He'll have to tangle with his own demons—chiefly mental and physical fatigue—while keeping his teammates focused on the task at hand and motivated to complete it.

Indeed, what makes LeBron such a fascinating figure of any kind are the endless possibilities that lay before him, the potential still untapped.

He won't turn 29 until December and has yet to suffer a major injury as a pro (knock on wood!). He's currently surrounded by two superstars (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), another Hall of Famer (Ray Allen) and a perfectly plucked supporting cast. He plays for a coach in Erik Spoelstra who understands and appreciates James' abilities better than anyone ever has.

And his future is in the hands of a living legend in Pat Riley, who knows a thing or two about playing the role of puppet master.

The future is bright for LeBron, perhaps even bright enough to eventually outshine the gaseous giants that Russell, Jordan and their ilk left behind.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

No, not those gaseous giants, LeBron!

There's no way to know now whether James will reach that point of saturation unless someone's holding out on a crystal ball, but the foundation for a fantastic, all-time resume is already in place.

What happens next, after those memorable 48 minutes in Game 7, may well come to define LeBron's legacy and the extent to which we perceive him as the G.O.A.T.

 

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