LeBron James will be considered an all-time great no matter the outcome of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers trail the Golden State Warriors by two games heading into Game 3, and arguably the best player of his generation is closing in on his fifth title-series loss in seven tries.
It’s an all too familiar position for James in Cleveland after failing to win titles in 2007 and 2015. The Cavs entered the series as decided underdogs—James has only been favored in two finals, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and beating the San Antonio Spurs in 2013 as a member of the Miami Heat—and James is once again receiving limited assistance from his teammates.
In the two games at Oracle Arena in Oakland, James has averages of 21 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, and three steals. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have combined to average 14.5 points on 25 percent shooting, totaling just 22 rebounds and seven assists. It will take a stunning comeback of four wins in five games for James to finally deliver the City of Cleveland a title after falling short in nine total seasons with the Cavs.
The odds are stacked against the 31-year-old, as the Cavs have a better chance of getting swept than they do of beating Golden State in six or seven games. But the steep challenge also affords the superstar an opportunity to enhance his legacy.
A title in 2016 would undoubtedly be the greatest accomplishment of James’ 13-year career. The Warriors made history with a 73-win regular season, and continue to build their argument for what some believe to be the NBA's greatest team. Two more wins would give them back-to-back championships and 140 regular-season wins over the past two years.
A Cavs comeback would make for a magical first title for the organization. Only the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers and the 2006 Heat have bounced back from 0-2 series deficits to win the finals, and neither one had to go through one of the best groups of basketball players ever assembled. No NBA team has ever come back from a 0-3 series deficit.
In order for Cleveland to upset Golden State, James may need to have one of the best four or five-game stretches any star player has had in recent years. He posted exceptional numbers last year, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game as the Cavs lost to the Warriors in six games, taking a 2-1 series lead along the way.
There’s no denying James’ greatness and ability to carry a team. He’s reached the finals for a sixth straight year, a feat only shared by journeyman James Jones, a teammate of James in those seasons, and members of the dynasty Boston Celtics teams of the 1960s.
But James still has his share of detractors because of his poor finals record. The criticism has cut so deep that NBA legend Jerry West, who was denied so many time by the Celtics as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, recently came to his defense.
"That's the most ridiculous thing. If I were him, I'd probably want to strangle [detractors]," West told reporters before Game 2. "He's carried teams on his shoulders. He's been to the Finals six straight times. How many times has he been the favorite? None. Zero. Grossly unfair to him.”
While James has actually been favored twice, West’s fervent point remains. James has often faced such an uphill battle in the finals that he can be viewed as a sympathetic figure. It's a curious situation for a superstar to be in, with James perhaps forced into the same company as Wilt Chamberlain, a legend who won just two titles in 14 seasons.
James is held to an impossibly high standard, often receiving comparisons to Michael Jordan. He’s arguably launched himself into the conversation as a top-five player in NBA history—ESPN ranked James third on their all-time list—but the four-time MVP is still a long way from approaching Jordan as the greatest of all time.
Defeating the Warriors, however, would put James one step closer to reaching Jordan’s level.
James’ career is defined by a sustained level of greatness, one that hasn’t been matched in the history of the league. He’s averaged at least 25.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists in each season since 2004-2005, arguably holding the title as the NBA’s best player for a decade.
But James’ time as the No.1 player in basketball might have already come to an end. Stephen Curry doesn’t have the same impact on both ends of the floor, but the electric sharpshooter has become an undeniable force on offense with consecutive MVP awards, and the first unanimous winner. Another title would certainly help Curry's case.
Meanwhile, a comeback for the Cavaliers remains a long shot. The Warriors have become slight favorites to win Game 3, and the Cavs have offered little reason to believe they can figure out Golden State's winning formula.
Unless he completely unravels in his time in Cleveland, James’ legacy won’t receive any noticeable damage. In some ways, the 0-2 deficit is more of a golden opportunity than a challenge for James. With the odds so stacked against him, he has the chance to cement his place among the all-time greats by surpassing the loftiest of expectations.