Starting Thursday, the Golden State Warriors will face off against the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals. The Warriors will look to capture their third straight title and fourth in five years. The Raptors are in the complete opposite boat as this is their first trip to the Finals in the franchise’s 24 year history.
Yet something feels off about this year's NBA Finals. For the first time since 2010, the finals will not include superstar forward LeBron James.
Think about it — one player went to the finals eight straight years with two different teams, completely obliterating the Eastern Conference. James is the greatest basketball player ever.
Most will tell you it’s Michael Jordan with his unblemished 6-6 finals record, and fans of Kobe Bryant will tell you his five rings and scoring ability puts him at number one. But neither are as great as James.
The fact of the matter is James’ legacy is seen as tarnished in the eyes of some because of team accomplishments. Jordan was amazing in his six title runs, but he could not have done it without Scottie Pippen. Bryant was great as well, but in three of his five finals wins he played second fiddle to Shaquille O'Neal.
You can go on about all the things these guys have done that James hasn’t, but almost all of them are a result of a Hall of Fame head coach and better teams around them, not individual skill.
In the 2016 finals, James led both teams in all five major stats, and it still took coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to the Warriors for the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the championship. In the 2017 finals, James averaged a triple-double for the series, and the Cavaliers still lost in five games.
James has had some very good teammates throughout his career, but one more superstar does not make up for an entire team worth of production. With that being said, James was still able to make the finals eight times in a row. That is the longest streak of any player that was not part of the Bill Russell-led Celtics of the 1950s and 60s.
This season marked the end of an era in the NBA. After utterly dominating the Eastern Conference for the better part of a decade, the 16-year NBA veteran James took his talents west and joined the Los Angeles Lakers.
Throughout his career, James has taken a lot of unwarranted criticism for things mostly out of his control, such as his unfortunate 3-6 record in the finals for his career. But let’s not forget three of his finals losses are against the Warriors’ dynasty, and two more came against the San Antonio Spurs, who won five championships in a span of 15 years. The past season with the Lakers didn’t exactly do him any favors either.
Before their Christmas Day game against the Warriors, LeBron and the Lakers held a 19-14 record, which was good enough for the fourth seed in the Western Conference. That game would turn out to be a 26-point drumming for the Lakers, but not before James went down with a groin injury early in the third quarter.
This would mark the beginning of the end for the Lakers’ playoff hopes. James missed the next 17 games of the season, and the Lakers only managed to pick up six wins in his absence and dropped down to tenth in the playoff standings.
James would return to the court Jan. 31 against the Los Angeles Clippers, in which he posted 24 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds in an overtime win. Despite being back on the court, it was obvious he was not 100% and had been brought back early in hopes of climbing back up in the standings.
James got a lot of blame for the way this season went for the Lakers, and it is completely unfounded. In 55 games, James put up 27.4 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game and 8.3 assists per game, all while shooting 51% from the field. Despite being in the back end of his career at age 34, all of these are higher than his career averages.
Regardless of the criticism for his lack of contribution, the mediocrity of this season for the Lakers was not James’ fault. To go along with his absence, the Lakers were also without Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo for 30 or more games each. Each of these players averaged at least 30 minutes a game when healthy this season.
James put up great numbers in his limited time on the court this season, but some believe this is James' worst season to date. Add those claims to the long list of unfounded criticisms of James, which include his defensive effort and leadership of the younger Lakers players.
The hate James gets is laughable at this point. Take a look at any post on Instagram he is featured in, and the first comment will likely read “use me as a Michael Jordan’s better button." Twitter threads compare his performance at 34 to Jordan and Bryant at the same age.
Even current NBA stars such as Kevin Durant have taken stabs at James, calling the environment that he creates “toxic."
NBA fans can argue forever about who is the best to ever play. The difference is that right now James is still playing. Every time he steps on the court, we’re watching one of the best to ever do it.
LeBron James won’t be around forever, so appreciate him while you still can.
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