Not two. Not three. Not four. Not five. Not six. Not seven.
That's the enduring memory stemming from the immediate aftermath of LeBron James' infamous choice to take his talents from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat. No one is going to forget either that celebratory introduction or the ESPN special in which he sat down with Jim Gray and made his announcement.
It came to be known simply as The Decision, and the image of him sitting in that checkered shirt is as firmly ingrained in the minds of NBA fans as him holding up his first Larry O'Brien Trophy and saying, "It's about damn time."
As soon as it became clear that LeBron was leaving his hometown Cavs behind—and some might view it more as abandonment than a simple departure—the pressure was turned up like never before. He was under scrutiny in Cleveland, but it paled in comparison to what he faced when he suddenly became a villain.
And the fury of that vitriolic—and nonsensical—narrative meant that the celebration at AmericanAirlines Arena was actually going to be taken at face value.
Was LeBron seriously guaranteeing that the newly assembled Big Three would actually win eight rings? Of course not.
That would be unbelievably foolish. It was meant in purely hyperbolic sense, playing off the frenetic energy of the assembled masses in the Heat's home arena. LeBron was giving the crowd what it wanted to hear, serving as an entertainer, not a prognosticator.
Nonetheless, the pressure, which was already at an unprecedented level after The Decision, rose even higher.
And he's still managed to extinguish any concerns about whether he's justified his career-defining choice.
Rarity of Making 4 Consecutive Finals Appearances
The NBA has been around for a long time.
It transformed from the BAA into the current three-letter abbreviation prior to the start of the 1949-50 season, which means that we've had well over six decades of opportunities for an organization to advance to four consecutive NBA Finals.
But despite the wealth of opportunity, only four times has the feat ever been accomplished.
First, we had Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s, a team that managed to advance to the final series of the year a ridiculous 10 consecutive seasons, though it only took seven wins to advance that far back then. From 1957 until 1966, they were a Finals mainstay.
And even more impressively, they managed to win nine of the 10 titles, losing only to the St. Louis Hawks in 1958 when Bob Pettit's heroics and an injury to Russell were too much to handle.
The club would remain devoid of any other occupants until the 1980s.
Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games during the 1982 NBA Finals, then fell during each of the next two final series. They couldn't get by the Sixers in 1983, failing to win even a single game, and one year later, they dropped a seven-game classic to the Celtics.
They'd get off the schneid—I bet tons of franchises would love to be on that type of schneid—by getting revenge against the C's with a 4-2 series victory in 1985. And speaking of Boston, the franchise rejoined the club during the '80s.
We've already established that the Larry Bird-era Celtics made the Finals in back-to-back years, but their run wouldn't end then. Buoyed by the presence of Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, this generation of Boston basketball went to the last round each of the next two seasons, beating the Houston Rockets in 1986 and losing to the Lakers in 1987.
Since then, no one has been quite so successful. A handful of teams have gone to the Finals in three straight seasons, but the Heat are only now expanding the membership of this exclusive club to four teams.
This is not a feat to take lightly. And the Heat aren't.
"We will not take this for granted, at all," James told ESPN's Doris Burke after the game on Friday night (h/t Bleacher Report's Josh Martin).
But does it matter without another title?
3-Peat is Icing on Top
Think back to those Showtime Lakers and the Celtics that Bird led.
Neither of them managed a three-peat while stringing together four Finals appearances. In fact, neither of them even managed to win consecutive titles, as the Lakers sandwiched a pair of losses with two championships, while Boston couldn't achieve the same result twice in a row.
Yes, that means that Miami's accomplishment is even more historic than most have realized.
Not since Russell was dominating the league has a team made four Finals in a row and won back-to-back titles. Other teams have managed a three-peat, but they weren't able to make the Finals before or after their string of successful campaigns. There have been teams that have made the Finals four times in a row, but they haven't been able to follow up one championship with another.
LeBron's Heat and Russell's Celtics stand alone.
Isn't that already enough to justify his decision to come to Miami? Isn't it enough for the detractors to stop, well, detracting?
It should be.
By coming to Miami, LeBron was risking his legacy to team up with a pair of superstars. However, it shouldn't be held against him that it was necessary to do so, seeing as all legends who have won titles with their original teams were granted the luxury of already having a stellar roster.
Just think about those other teams we've been discussing.
Russell had the fortune of playing with John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Frank Ramsey, Bill Sharman and so many other quality players during his run of excellence. Magic had the opportunity to thrive alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Bird needed help from McHale and Parish, among others.
Would they have won titles without their superstar teammates? Would they have left their original locations in search of more help if they actually needed to do so?
We have no idea. Guessing whether these players would have chosen a different path is a foolish endeavor, as it's a purely hypothetical with no way to evaluate the question quantitatively.
LeBron was forced to, seeing as how his best teammates were guys like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, Delonte West, the corpse of Shaquille O'Neal, Anderson Varejao, Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes. Not exactly a bunch of players on the same level as the aforementioned legends.
So leave he did.
However, that adjustment wasn't as easy as many believe. He had to sacrifice his previous role as the unquestioned alpha dog, and he had to grow as a basketball player, a leader and a man. I'd highly recommend reading Martin's fantastic piece on that subject, as it has too many great quotes for me to pull just one:
He's a father and a husband, a champion for his team and his family. He took a risk when he left home, throwing his public image at the mercy of the angry mob and his basketball future at the foot of Pat Riley. In going to Miami, James sacrificed not only a slice of his paycheck, but his singular hold on the spotlight.
For that, he's been rewarded—with greater fortune and fame, with on-court success he could've hardly dreamed of in Cleveland, with a stronger understanding of who he is, where he came from and where he's going.
Perhaps more impressive than the player James has become is the person into whom he's evolved since he left Cleveland. Gone is the villain who fed off the hatred of his detractors, a persona wiped away by defeat in the 2011 Finals opposite the Dallas Mavericks. Gone is the brash kid who used to taunt opposing teams with elaborate pregame bits, replaced by a man who indulges his emotions without rubbing them in the faces of his foes.
Would the old LeBron have brushed off Lance Stephenson's antics as easily as the new LeBron did? Would the old LeBron have gone so seamlessly about his business in the face of the Pacers' hard fouls and harder attempts to get under his skin?
Would the old LeBron have bounced back so brilliantly from his forgettable Game 5, in which he accumulated just seven points in a measly 24 minutes?
Quite simply, this is no longer the same LeBron.
That's as much justification for deciding to leave behind his hometown team as any.
Even by reaching the pinnacle of the NBA twice and coming oh so close on another occasion, he's already justified his choice to leave Cleveland. Winning a third title would just be further validation, the icing atop an already delicious cake.
But will he think this way? Absolutely not, as holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy for a third time is about to become the singular focus of the best player in the NBA.
There Will Always Be Pressure
There's a huge difference between doing away with any residual pressure when it comes to validating The Decision and playing with absolutely no pressure whatsoever.
When you're the best player in the NBA and chasing the all-time greats, there's always a vice clamping down on you. You're never going to avoid criticism when you come up short, and you're never going to be able to escape the infliction of incessant discussions about your place in history.
LeBron is LeBron. Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan.
They don't have to be the same player, but that doesn't mean the world is going to stop comparing them at any point. Ultimately, LeBron is competing for the right to be considered the No. 1 standout in the history of basketball, a status he still has a chance to attain.
Has he gotten there? Absolutely not. If he retired today, he'd come nowhere near MJ's legacy. But he may be on pace, especially if he continues improving and keeps winning championships.
This isn't a media-created narrative, either.
"I want to be the best of all time," he told The Associated Press before the start of the 2012-13 season, via ESPN.com news services. "It's that simple."
Then there was this just prior to the beginning of the 2013-14 campaign:
And when LeBron was asked about his place in history during the interview with NBATV that prompted the endless Mount Rushmore discussions, he left little doubt that he wants to be great, even if he didn't come out and say he wants to be the greatest. Via ESPN.com news services:
I'm going to be one of the top four that's ever played this game, for sure. And if they don't want me to have one of those top four spots, they'd better find another spot on that mountain. Somebody's gotta get bumped, but that's not for me to decide. That's for the architects.
The comparisons between Jordan and LeBron are inevitable. So, too, are the debates that center around the four-time MVP and the rest of the sport's primary legends.
If he wins the 2014 title, you'll surely hear about how he's matched Larry Bird's ring total, for example.
The pressure just never goes away when you're at the top of the sport.
For LeBron, it never will. There's never a moment with higher stakes than the series right ahead of him, as each year apparently defines his legacy more than the one that came before it.
So these 2014 NBA Finals? They offer him a pressure-packed opportunity to three-peat, pressure-packed in spite of the argument that he's already validated The Decision. As a result, they carry a weight unsurpassed by anything that has stood in LeBron's way over the last few years.
It's the most pressure he's ever faced.
Until next year, of course.
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