The Cleveland Cavaliers had lost the first two games of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors, despite James' Herculean efforts. There were calls for James to push harder still—shoot more, score more—to compensate for his lackluster supporting cast.
After all, it was LeBron's reputation on the line.
As one legend to another, Bryant would have advised the opposite.
"I would say he's working too much," Bryant told B/R prior to Game 3. "He should be doing less, actually."
If James was to engineer a grand comeback, he'd need to empower his teammates.
It didn't unfold that way, of course. On Friday, the Warriors completed a four-game sweep. As brilliant as James was, his teammates never could rise to the challenge.
Yet it was James who bore the greatest burden, as his Finals record slipped to 3-6. Critics and Michael Jordan loyalists howled—another dent in the LeBron legacy.
But an NBA legacy is not so easily defined.
Bleacher Report queried several former players on the topic, including four Finals MVPs, during the course of the series, as it became apparent the Cavs would lose. (Their discussion follows below.)
Bryant, a five-time champion, took the hardest line—that legacies are built on titles, period, with no allowances for how or why James' teams lost. Others, including Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups, urged a broader consideration of James' career.
While many analysts blamed a poor supporting cast for the Cavs' defeat, Bryant stressed that James needed to take ownership for his teammates' performance. It's a concept Bryant himself struggled to embrace early in his career, despite repeated pleas from coach Phil Jackson.
"Phil used to say this thing to me a lot, when I was doing a lot on the court," said Bryant, whose ESPN+ show Detail explores the technical aspects of the game. "He'd say, 'You have to do less.' And I'd say, 'Well, my teammates got to step up more.' Phil would say, 'Well, it's your responsibility to thrust the game upon them.'"
But is it really James' fault that Jeff Green and Rodney Hood couldn't shoot? Or that Kyle Korver disappeared?
This is the problem with "legacy"—a small word with big, sweeping implications. It considers only results and raw numbers—titles won, titles lost—and obscures all the critical details.
It registers James' latest Finals loss as a personal defeat—ignoring JR Smith's Game 1 gaffe, Jordan Clarkson's ineptitude and, well, the sheer, overwhelming talent of the Warriors.
And it omits everything else in the LeBron canon: the eight straight Finals, the superhuman stats, the fact that he was able to drag this sad-sack roster to the Finals at all.
Shouldn't that all matter, too? Should James be defined only by a distilled won-lost record in the championship round, or by everything else? Can he supplant Jordan as the GOAT? Has he already?
There are no definitive truths here. Legacy is in the eye of the beholder.
What follows is a virtual panel discussion with nine former players, based on separate interviews and woven together here. Some responses were edited and condensed for clarity.
Bryant, five-time champion and two-time Finals MVP.
Thomas, two-time champion, 1990 Finals MVP and NBA TV analyst.
Billups, 2004 Finals MVP and ESPN analyst.
Paul Pierce, 2008 Finals MVP and ESPN analyst.
Grant Hill, seven-time All-Star and NBA TV analyst.
Vince Carter, eight-time All-Star and ESPN analyst.
Jalen Rose, ESPN analyst.
Dennis Scott, NBA TV analyst.
Jon Barry, ESPN analyst.
B/R: LeBron has three rings. He's been to more Finals than any player in modern times. But he's 3-6 after this series. Does that matter to his legacy?
Paul Pierce: When you're talking about being the greatest, yes. You're already in the top five. But we're talking about being at the top of the throne, the top of the mountain; yes, that number does matter when you're talking that.
Isiah Thomas: I think it all matters. You also have to take into account again the teams that he's lost to. He's been to nine Finals, and in seven of the Finals his team has been the underdog.
Chauncey Billups: I'm not charging LeBron for some of those losses in the Finals. He wasn't the favorite every time. He's rarely the favorite in the Finals. So how can you expect him to really win? It's the NBA Finals. It's the two best teams in the world.
Dennis Scott: The 3-6 [record], I don't buy into it, because Jerry West is the logo. And he was 1-8 in the Finals. And we still revere him as Mr. Clutch, right? I want to let LeBron finish doing what he's doing.
Jon Barry: I think it's very unfair to put it solely on LeBron James, six Finals losses. In 2011, I think he had a lot to do with that [loss]. But all the other ones, he got a lot of inferior teams to the NBA Finals. It's not his fault that the Eastern Conference was as weak as it was.
Vince Carter: At the end of the day, he's given himself an opportunity to win nine times. Everybody can't say that. I salute him. That's an unbelievable feat.
Kobe Bryant: All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That’s all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine.
If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out.
B/R: How should we weigh a star's supporting cast? Does LeBron get credit for carrying Jordan Clarkson and JR Smith this far, or penalized for losing with them? We saw how the role players blew Game 1 of the series.
Carter: That's the unfortunate situations and arguments that go against him. He got teams there that...they shouldn't be here. And they are.
Pierce: Kevin Love is supposed to be a second All-Star, hasn't really played like an All-Star in the playoffs. He has spot games here and there. But then after that, it's like, 'Who can you depend on?'
Barry: He can't be penalized for having a team overachieve and then playing as great as he's playing.
Pierce: When you're aiming for greatness, there's gonna be some nitpicking going on.
Bryant: Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: 'You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship.' Going into the 2010 series, I said, 'Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked.' That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, 'Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative.' And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now. …
It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them? … Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
B/R: Is legacy only about rings? LeBron has been to eight straight Finals—no one has done that since the 1960s Celtics. Doesn't that mean something?
Carter: When he starts training camp, guess what he says? My season is going to the middle of June, every year. For eight years. I can't knock somebody like that when I, who's standing before you today, have not been there one time. I think it's amazing.
Barry: That's an accomplishment in itself, regardless of whatever [outcome].
Billups: That means a ton. Absolutely. Just the level of excellence and commitment and dedication, every single year.
Thomas: He's been able to dominate this era, going to the Finals for nine of the 15 years. In my lifetime, I've never seen this. And I've played against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played against Michael Jordan. I don't think any of us have ever seen anything like what we're witnessing.
Pierce: I mean, yeah, it puts him up there. But not there.
Bryant: You've known me long enough to know what my answer is.
B/R: LeBron is the only player in history with 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists. He could pass Michael Jordan in career scoring next season. He's made more Finals. But the ring count is 6-3. So how does this all impact the GOAT discussion? (And if it's just about titles, shouldn't we start with Bill Russell and his 11?)
Scott: LeBron is more like Magic than Michael. Michael or Kobe never came into the league being a facilitator. They never came into the league being a walking triple-double. So how can you compare? Mike was an assassin. That's the glaring difference. Who's the better all-around player? LeBron, hands down.
Jalen Rose: I just think that out of respect to both players, Michael Jordan is just in another stratosphere from everybody else. If it was about counting rings, then we'll say Bill Russell should be the GOAT.
Barry: I think [LeBron's] cemented as one of the top five players to ever play. I think he's the greatest athlete that ever played; I think he's the best all-around player that's ever played. But Michael to me is the greatest competitor, athlete, that's ever played any sport. The mentality of Michael Jordan just separates him from the rest.
Hill: [LeBron] has already put himself on that Mount Rushmore. He's proven to be the greatest player of this generation. I don't like getting into comparisons and who's the GOAT and who's the best. I think it's stupid. I think it's impossible to do. I just know that he's doing some amazing things.
Pierce: It's unavoidable. It's just something we have to talk about as fans, as students of the game. You look at the greatest, and you talk about once-in-a-generation players, he's definitely there. I mean, we've been waiting for these type of discussions.
Carter: They're great in different ways. We gotta let LeBron finish. Because he could end up with 13 appearances and have six [rings]. He could.
Billups: I don't think anybody's ever gonna be better than MJ. But this kid right here, man, is right there. Who cares if LeBron is better or Michael is better? They're both two of the greatest that have ever laced them up. But [LeBron's] definitely gotta bring home a couple more. I just think people should just enjoy it. Because we will miss him when he's gone—that's for sure.
Thanks to ESPN and Turner Sports for their assistance in setting up the interviews. Kobe Bryant's Detail series is available on ESPN+, the network's direct-to-consumer streaming service.