It has been a decade since the Finals of 2007. LeBron James is a different player. He is not just older and he is not just smarter and he is not just more resilient and he is not just efficient but he is more cautious. He hesitates more than he used to when answering questions about his performance, even as he can be salty and put a reporter he finds annoying in his place. 10 years have given him a thirty year old face and hair missing and a lengthy education about meeting other people’s expectations that are not necessarily his own. His dream has met his reality in a perfectly constructed way. In a decade, there have been 10 NBA Champions. The Spurs twice. The Lakers twice. The Heat twice. The Celtics once. The Mavs once. The Warriors once. The Cavs once.
In 2007, when LeBron shocked the Eastern Conference and pulled the Cavaliers with him into the NBA Finals to face the Spurs, James had nothing to lose. Nothing at all. He was bright eyed, He was still a kid. That he was there in the Finals in the first place, a bright light interrupting what was a showcase for iconic veterans, was the story. Young players don’t win. LeBron was just four years in the league, refreshing, affable, talented, unselfish. It didn’t seem to matter outside of Cleveland that he and the Cavaliers were swept. Nothing about that Finals was particularly interesting save LeBron James. The Cavs were a young team.
I remember the last game in Cleveland when the Cavs had a one point lead with five minutes left. It was too much Manu Ginobli in the clutch, and the Spurs won their third title in five years. In the aftermath, the embrace of James and Tim Duncan was caught on camera. Duncan said to LeBron, loud enough for cameras to pick up, “you are going to rule this league one day. This league is going to be yours.”
Is the league LeBron James?
He clearly is its soul. Despite a nice crop of young players, Steph Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, James has no peer, no Magic-Bird rivalry, no Kobe-TMac competition. But to say the league belongs to him is to ignore how James is a mercurial figure, both loved and critiqued, praised and ridiculed, deified and compared, and this is the important part of the LeBron James story, he is rarely given the benefit of the doubt like his idol Jordan and to some extent Kobe Bryant when his performance appears peculiar. Everyone retreats to their former view of him, hanging onto their hard as stone perspective of LeBron James can’t close narrative, or LeBron is the greatest ever. Take your pick.
LeBron is a huge shadow, to say that is preaching to the choir. His talent is otherworldy. And yet a few weeks of LeBron pub as the greatest ever always reflects back to LeBron and his shortcomings. He’s been acutely deconstructed.
That first NBA Finals appeareance in which LeBron was swept, he was still naive and did not go to extraordinary lengths to win- meaning exhausting everything he had, the game being life or death, his face in a perpetual grimace or scowl. At 23, he was still too young to embrace how he was being judged, besides, he had nothing to lose. The Cavs were a surprise. They weren’t supposed to get to the Finals in the first place; they were way ahead of schedule. So LeBron could compete and then go home. When it was over, he was a young player with NBA Finals experience. He would get there many, many times.
He did. But it took four years. Then, pressure was his burden.
In 2011, he had to prove that The Decision was not in vain, that he earned the right to play for a title, that he wasn’t Judas. In 2012, he had to prove he wasn’t frozen by fear, the stage didn’t frighten him. In 2013, he had to prove he was the same as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and could repeat as a champion. In 2014, he had to prove he wasn’t bailed out by Ray Allen the year before. In 2015, he had to play every position ala Magic Johnson 1980 as injuries decimated the Cavs. In 2016, he had to prove that trailing 3-1 wasn’t a death knell.
What is there to prove in 2017? Absolutely nothing.
LeBron has sewn up just about everything. He has scored more points in the playoffs than anyone in NBA history. He is the only player to bring his team back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. He ended Cleveland’s championship drought. He won three titles and three Finals MVP’s. He has been to the NBA Finals seven years in a row, a number so unreal it feels a little cartoonish. Will winning title number four or losing title number four matter in the grand scheme of things when we know what we are seeing?
Of course, LeBron has motivation. He wants to chase Jordan down from behind. He wants to beat the Warriors for the second time in a row because that means they, the Cavs, are just flat out better; no fluke about it, no hurt Steph, no Draymond going off the island. He wants to prove he is who he says he is and crush the Warriors mystique. The Warriors, to many NBA vets way of thinking, didn’t really pay their dues. They didn’t wait their turn. They exploded. And they beat a shorthanded Cavs team in the first installment of the trilogy. That title should have an asterisk.
But wanting to beat the Warriors is different than needing to beat them. LeBron said it before. He has nothing to prove. If he wins another Finals, he is that much closer to immortality. If he loses, he will still be the icon who guts other organizations.
And so there is no going for broke on Thursday, no LeBron James burden, no pressure to prove a point. No laundry list to get through. He’s done that. He’s beaten Steph Curry in the Finals. He’s beaten Kevin Durant in the Finals. He’s done just about everything.
photo via llananba