We’ve seen a lot of shades of LeBron James at the NBA Finals. That’s going to happen when a man has been at a press conference for the final game of eight different Finals. We’ve seen him petulant (2011), we’ve seen him giddy (2012). We’ve seen him joyful (2016) and we’ve seen him frustrated (2015).
In 2014, LeBron James was mostly checked out. He knew the Spurs were better, but he knew he had more greatness in him, that he had more greatness ahead of him. People in Miami would suggest that at the back of their minds, they knew even then his heart was headed back to Ohio.
In 2017, we saw a new LeBron James at the podium after a Finals loss. After Golden State defeated Cleveland 129-120 Monday in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to win the series 4-1, James joined an elite group of players to lose five Finals, which is still never a list you want to be on. James was confident, he was, in a sense, relieved. He said that he knew he left it all on the floor, he knew that he couldn’t play better than he did in these five games.
And he’s right.
James averaged a triple double, with 34 points per game, along with 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. He shot 56 percent from the field, 39 percent from 3-point range. He was incredible. In a series the Warriors won in four games, and in which they beat the Cavs by a combined 34 points, the Warriors outscored James by just seven points across 212 minutes. They outscored the Cavaliers by 27 points in the 28 minutes he sat in this series.
Let’s be clear on this. There is nothing more James could have done. Nothing. He went to the rack relentlessly in Game 3. It wasn’t enough. He shot more 3-pointers per game in this series than he ever has. It wasn’t enough. He defended Kevin Durant and was guarded by Kevin Durant and found holes in the defense that moves so well and attacks him so well and he still scored or found open shooters. It wasn’t enough.
It has to be enough, for us. If you want to simply look at his record and condemn him to inferiority for whoever your favorite player is, then fine. Partisanship is an essential part of sports. But if you pride yourself on seeking truth, if you want to have any honest perspective on basketball history, you have to come to grips with this: James gave as much as he could to the game. He didn’t hide from the moment or overthink things like he did in 2011. He didn’t cramp up, or choke, or fail. The other team was better. His team was not good enough. That is not a reflection of James.
The reality is that the more we watch this Cavaliers team, the more we see that they are a great team, because they are a team built well around James, not a great team on their own. Their second-best player is an isolation-only firebug who doesn’t play defense. Their role players are shooters only who are special because of what James makes them, not because of what they make the team. That’s never been more clear than in this moment. It was enough last year, and no one can ever take that from them. That accomplishment will always be theirs.
But for James, his past is what his legacy is built on. It’s the stone that forms the pillar of the basketball temple in his name. He is a three-time champion, a four-time MVP, and is widely regarded as one of the two-best players in NBA history. There is no taking that away from him.
However, James did lose something on Monday night, outside of this series.
James sat at the podium, and couldn’t say he could have played better. He couldn’t really, honestly say that the Cavaliers could have played better.
This was it.
He was asked by a reporter (Dave McMenamin of ESPN who wrote a book on James and this team’s run last year) on what he thinks of where he’s at, with the Warriors having won two titles the past three seasons.. This is the most important answer he gave Monday night (emphasis mine):
“Well, it’s a two-sided question because for me personally — I don’t know. I need to sit down and figure this thing out. And so I don’t know as far as me personally right now.
But as far as that team, they’re going to be here for a while. They’re going to be around for a while. Pretty much all their guys are in their 20s. Pretty much all their big-name guys are in their 20s, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down.
So there’s going to be a lot of teams that’s trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that if they’re able to actually face them in the Playoff series, both Eastern Conference and Western Conference. Because they’re built for — from my eyes, they’re built to last a few years. So we’ll see.“
This is LeBron James seeing the end of his reign, and it’s got nothing to do with his individual game. Think about where James is at. He’s 32, chasing Jordan’s ghost. He’s got two All-Stars with him. He’s continually found a way to get better and better; he registered a career high in assists and rebounds this season. And yet, his team took one measly game from Golden State.
James is smart. He’s truly, incredibly intelligent, not just at basketball, but in seeing the bigger picture, whether that’s life, player-owner politics, media narratives, or whatever. He’s too smart not to know Golden State is a juggernaut with no expiration date on the carton. There’s no end in sight.
The worst part is, James may only be able to worsen his legacy by continuing. I’m not suggesting he should quit, he’s LeBron James and as long as he’s around, the Warriors had better be their best selves. But if he just keeps making the Finals, and losing to this same team, and his Finals record sinks from the 3-4 it was last year to the 3-6 it could be next year or 3-8 it could be in two years, that somehow makes him come off worse than if he just didn’t make the Finals at all. That number will be on his basketball retrospective, even if it takes nuance to realize the more impressive thing is how many times he got there.
What’s important is to see Monday night as the important moment it was, when LeBron James didn’t say “We’ll get to work over the summer and come back better next season.” He didn’t say “I know we can play better.” He didn’t even say “Our front office will get the pieces we need.”
He just said “I don’t know.”
This is the moment when LeBron James saw basketball mortality stare back at him. In 2014, he knew he could go find better teammates. In 2015 he knew his team had it in him to beat that Warriors team. But this one? With Kevin Durant? He knows the difference. He just doesn’t now how to overcome it.
Maybe James will come back with a different, better team, in Cleveland or elsewhere, next season or the year beyond (when he’s a free agent in 2018). Maybe there really are changes he can make to his game to lift him past Steph Curry and Kevin Durant (and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson). But maybe this is just the reality, that James is destined to be the greatest player of his generation, in a generation defined by teams greater than their individual talent.
James remains magnificent. He’s efficient, and brutal, and brilliant, and special in a way we’ve never seen. But no legend has faced something like he’s facing in Golden State. This isn’t the Spurs at the end of their run, just as James reached his peak. This isn’t the Malone-Stockton Jazz or the Kobe-Shaq Lakers. It’s a different beast because of how it’s built, how it fits together, and the age of its stars.
James said he doesn’t know right now what the answers to these tough questions about how to get past them are.
The real problem may be that there simply are none, and the clock keeps ticking on a career that no longer has infinite upside. Time is not on LeBron’s side.
And neither are the Warriors.