As LeBron James prepares for the 2014 NBA Finals, know this: If the Miami Heat topple the San Antonio Spurs in the best-of-seven series, all the intense criticism and scrutiny this 29-year-old from Akron, Ohio has been subjected to for much of the past decade will disappear and never come back.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that it would take the monumental feat of a three-peat for LBJ to become bulletproof, as the bar has always been set 100 stories higher for LeBron than any other superstar in the NBA.
Just look at how we treat some of LeBron's friends.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's woes are largely put on Russell Westbrook's shoulders and not Kevin Durant's. Furthermore, the most notable time Durant received harsh criticism for struggling in the playoffs, as The Oklahoman referred to him as Mr. Unreliable (h/t SI.com), the backlash against the newspaper's headline was so severe that its sports editor issued an apology.
LeBron has never been afforded such a luxury.
Whether it's because the expectation for him to become "the next Michael Jordan," after he was dubbed "The Chosen One" by Sports Illustrated when he was 17, or because he actually did have some mystifyingly bad performances in a few important situations (Game 5 in the conference semifinals versus Boston in 2010, the entire 2011 NBA Finals) or because he "predicted" eight championships for the Big Three in Miami, fans and media alike have long been eager to crush LeBron any time he doesn't excel in a crucial moment.
Even after an NBA Finals win in 2011, LeBron was asked about shrinking late by CBS' Gregg Doyel.
The noise around LeBron has been a bit quieter recently, and there's an easy explanation for that. It's not because the desire to tear James down has gone away, it's because, by winning two titles, he hasn't given his dissenters many opportunities to pick him apart.
However, LBJ's critics have been there to pounce in the aftermath of the few times he has slipped up recently.
Go back to Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Miami entered the fourth quarter down 10 points and needed a victory to save its season. LeBron willed the Heat right back in the game, attacking the basket relentlessly to the tune of 16 fourth-quarter points.
But LBJ had two turnovers towards the end of regulation, and if Ray Allen had missed the game-tying corner three-pointer with 5.2 seconds left in the game, LeBron's failures would have been the story. In fact, they still kind of were.
In an ESPN Sportsnation poll following the game, 76 percent of participants said Allen saved James' reputation.
LeBron scored 37 points in Game 7 to help the Heat repeat as world champions. But that still hasn't made him above being attacked, as evidenced by the fallout from Miami's Game 5 loss in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals.
James has shown over time that he's not going to simply force up a bad shot because he's the best player if one of his teammates is open in a late-game situation.
Those decisions made LeBron the subject of a significant deal of criticism early in his career, with many believing James was afraid and lacked some sort of clutch gene.
One would think two straight titles would show the world that LeBron's obviously not scared of the moment. Nope.
When Chris Bosh missed a corner three coming after a LeBron pass in the final seconds of Game 5, the LeBron-is-scared-to-shoot-late-in-games conversation returned.
The argument for LeBron passing is one of logic and deductive reasoning. The argument for James sooting is basically basketball dogma.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 29, 2014
Fair or not, a parade down Biscayne Boulevard later this June is the only way these conversations stop taking place.
A three-peat, something only five teams in league history have accomplished, would make LeBron James immortal.
Beating the Spurs would mean LeBron led a team that won three straight titles in scoring, rebounding and assists in each of the three championship-winning seasons.
Beating the Spurs would mean LeBron took an aging team that entered this season with unbelievable wear and tear (Miami played 297 games combined in the prior three seasons) through another season that lasted 100-plus games and exited it with a ring.
Beating the Spurs would mean (in all likelihood) another Finals MVP for LeBron, giving him three (only Michael Jordan has more) and making him just the third player in league history to win three straight Finals MVP awards.
Beating the Spurs would mean LeBron took down Greg Popovich (the best coach in the NBA), Tim Duncan (the best power forward ever) and a franchise that was 4-0 in the finals prior to last season in back-to-back seasons.
Beating the Spurs means LeBron will have achieved ultimate glory three straight times when failure even once would result in ridicule from many fans and media members.
What would be left for anyone to condemn him about going forward?
The turnovers late in Game 6 against San Antonio and not shooting late in Game 5 against the Pacers (which was the right decision, for what it's worth) don't even matter if in each of those seasons, and the one prior, he brought Miami a title.
We set the bar absurdly high for LeBron, but hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy three consecutive years would be him reaching it.
With four regular season MVPs and a three-peat under his belt, LeBron would essentially lock up his place as the greatest small forward of all-time (sorry, Larry Bird), and a spot among the top-five greatest players of all time.
By appearing in four straight finals, LeBron has already clearly validated his choice to leave Cleveland for Miami back in 2010 and rid himself of much of the vitriol that was spewed his way following the decision.
But this is his chance to slam the door shut once and for all, to make it impossible for even the biggest of LeBron haters to come after him again.
After the Heat repeated last year, LeBron told ESPN's Doris Burke that he "can't worry about what (critics) say about me."
If he beats the Spurs, there shouldn't be any of them left.
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