What Would Third NBA Finals Loss Do to LeBron James' Legacy?

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What Would Third NBA Finals Loss Do to LeBron James' Legacy?
USA TODAY Sports

Win or lose, the 2014 NBA Finals won't define LeBron James' lasting legacy. There's too much already on the table and too many roads ahead for the 29-year-old.

But the series could serve as the climax to his legendary story, the turning point that decides how exclusive his historical company should be.

Win, and James would experience a championship bliss unseen since the days of "Mr. Rings" Bill Russell. James' Miami Heat had booked their fourth consecutive NBA Finals berth, something Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls and Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers never did. The Heat are also vying for a three-peat, an accomplishment that never made the resumes of Magic Johnson's "Showtime" Lakers or Larry Bird's Boston Celtics.

To make that type of history, though, the Heat would first need to pull off an unprecedented feat. After the San Antonio Spurs rolled to a 107-86 Game 4 win, Miami has fallen into a hole no NBA finalist has escaped from:

The Spurs aren't simply defeating the Heat; they're destroying them. Miami has a two-point win to show for the first three games of this series. San Antonio has victories of 15, 19 and 21 points, the last two of which were secured in South Beach.

"It's not just that the Spurs won two games by 40 points combined on the Heat's home floor," Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick wrote. "...It's that the truth became undeniably evident: This is no longer about the Heat playing better. It's about the Spurs being better."

That's the narrative now, but it will start to shift once this series moves from the hardwood to the history books.

James hasn't been playing against Tony Parker's dribble penetration game, Tim Duncan's low-post bullying, Kawhi Leonard's rising star or Gregg Popovich's savvy. No, James has been fighting the ghosts of basketball's past: Jordan and his 6-0 NBA Finals record, Magic and his handful of rings, even Bird and his three titles.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

For James to approach that level of reverence, this is the time of year for the loudest arguments to be made.

Rings, in this sport more than others, define greatness. They probably shouldn't be the measuring stick we view them as, but they are. We know who has them, how many they have and how many they let slip away.

That last part is perhaps the biggest stain on James' historically significant track record. This is his fifth trip to the big dance, with the previous four trips having yielded a pair of world titles. The pro-Jordan crowd has requested I remind you again of his unblemished mark in the championship round.

Still, it's hard to knock James too much for those past Finals flops.

It was him against the world-beating Spurs in 2007, as the Cleveland Cavaliers surrounded the King with nothing better than forgettable support pieces like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes. San Antonio cruised to a predictable four-game sweep.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Heat had yet to learn their roles when they matched wits with the Dallas Mavericks during the first year of the Big Three era. Miami hadn't settled on a team leader, and a 2-1 series lead fell apart thanks in part to that confusion, plus the efforts of Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki and super-sub Jason Terry.

Those challenges no longer face the Heat. James is unquestionably the face of the franchise, and the two-time defending champs sit as close to dynasty status as any team has in recent history.

Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, whose team has suffered three consecutive postseason defeats against Miami, dubbed James "the Michael Jordan of our era," in his post-Game 6 press conference, and the Heat "the Chicago Bulls of our era."

Miami's talented trio has more wear and tear than before. The supporting cast has never been the same since Mike Miller was amnestied and never really replaced.

Yet this is an elite team with elite-level talents. The Heat "disappointed" during the regular season, but they still won 54 games and owned the league's fourth-highest net rating (plus-6.1 points per 100 possessions), via NBA.com.

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The Spurs are supremely talented, but the Heat have the best player on the planet, and he's in his prime. San Antonio might win the series, but from a legacy standpoint, it would go down as a James' loss.

A potentially crushing one at that, as Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver explained:

Jordan won six titles between the ages of 27 and 34, and he never needed a Game 7 to do it. James, should the Heat fall to the Spurs, would have Finals losses at age 26 and 29, making it difficult to argue that he was more dominant during his peak years than Jordan. When debating the 'Greatest Of All Time' mantle, parsing the details down to this level is a necessity.

James knows how important this series is to his historical stock, although he won't publicly admit as much:

"I don't get involved in what people say about me and my legacy," James said, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, "I think it's actually kind of stupid."

We know that isn't the case.

James cannot dismiss the importance of his legacy. Not when he's reminding the basketball world to keep a spot open for him on the NBA's Mount Rushmore.

He's studied the game long enough to know what's expected of an all-time great. No one has to dig very deep to realize the emphasis hoop heads place on titles.

Is it fair? Absolutely not. James has had a remarkable series (27.5 points on .600/.611/.750 shooting, 7.3 rebounds), but he's not getting close to the kind of help he needs. Not with the Spurs keeping the scoreboard moving at ludicrous speed119.2 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com.

But history doesn't like to read between the lines.

We don't remember Charles Barkley posting 27.3 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the 1993 NBA Finals. We only know that his Phoenix Suns lost that series to the Chicago Bulls. 

We remember Jordan as the Finals MVP in 1996, 1997 and 1998, not the guy who shot 43.4 percent from the field in those three series.

CHARLES BENNETT/Associated Press

History remembers results, not the processes that led to them.

That's how this potential Finals loss—which really should be viewed as a possible Spurs win—could deal a crushing blow to LeBron's legacy.

At the least, it would be a lost opportunity at making history. Apart from the sustained team success, James had a shot at joining Jordan and O'Neal as the only players to win three consecutive Finals MVP awards.

Items carrying that type of significance weigh heavily in those subjective greatest-ever debates.

A series loss won't pull James out of that discussion, but it could drop him down a few rungs.

He has time to close the distance, but there are no guarantees of getting back to this stage. Failing to seize such a special opportunity for the third time in his career would hurt. Badly.

James' standing as an all-time great isn't in jeopardy. But with the chance to eliminate some of the names surrounding him, a third Finals loss would only add to the historical hurdles in front of him.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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