Now that LeBron James has won his second NBA championship, where does he rank among the greatest players of all time? Here’s my HoopsHabit article on his current legacy and why LeBron haters and LeBron supporters alike need to calm down.
Almost four months ago, I wrote The LeBron James Opinion Piece, detailing the King and his journey in the NBA: from his struggles to secure a ring, to the general feelings of dissent, betrayal and hate directed his way from the basketball public, to what his final legacy should be taking everything into account. At that point, LeBron had no rings. He was the most hated player in the NBA, playing on possibly the most hated team in the entire league. And while the LeBron haters certainly won’t let up now that the King has finally won his crown, the rest of the basketball population knowledgeable enough to know a dazzling postseason run when they see one has to at least respect LeBron for his complete dominance throughout the 2012 NBA playoffs. In other words, if you know anything about basketball, you have to admire him and somewhat feel happy for him for winning his first ring.
What made the run truly spectacular was the fact that LeBron finally silenced all the haters and doubters who said he couldn’t come up clutch when his team needed him the most. During the regular season, LeBron would play fantastic for the first three quarters of games and end up with 30+ points to go with other solid statistics, but when the fourth quarter rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. When he passed up a potential game-winning shot to a wide-open Udonis Haslem and cost his team a regular season victory, people criticized him. When he passed up another potential game-winning shot in the All-Star Game with Kobe Bryant egging him on and turned it over, people were ready to abandon ship. But in the playoffs, LeBron James settled the argument over who was better between him and Kevin Durant by coming up big for the Heat down the stretch in the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. During the regular season, it was easy to win a LeBron argument; just point out that he didn’t have any rings or that he wasn’t clutch and you’d get someone to laugh. Try making that joke now and you’ll start a heated debate that you’ll probably lose.
However, winning his first ring doesn’t change the fact that LeBron took the easy path to get there. While I’m happy for such a transcendent player to finally win a ring after nine years of putting up with unfair amounts of hype, scrutiny, criticism, expectations, hate and doubt, I still would have preferred him win one on his own, in Cleveland. Yes, basketball is a team game and yes, LeBron’s decision to leave for Miami ultimately proved to be the right one because he got what he was looking for. It’s hard to fault a guy for choosing to play with his friends: one future Hall-of-Famer and his reptilian All-Star counterpart. But ever since LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, the culture of free agency and the NBA as a whole hasn’t been the same and probably never will be again. Before The Decision, championship teams were built from good draft picks, smart trades and team chemistry build over the course of a few seasons, all engineered by good management (aka the Oklahoma City Thunder). Now, star players decide where they want to play and which one of their superstar buddies they want to join forces with. In other words, it just doesn’t feel fair or natural. While I applaud LeBron for taking a pay cut and give up money for what should be the ultimate goal (an NBA championship), that mentality is dangerous for the competitive integrity of the game; nobody wants to play pickup at the gym with all the talented players on one side. It looks like that’s exactly how the NBA is starting to function.
There’s no question LeBron and the Miami Heat deserved to win the 2012 NBA Finals. If the Thunder had played the way they did on their run to the Finals, I think they would have challenged the Heat, but because they didn’t show up in full force, there’s no doubt that the best team won the trophy. But the way Miami came to be is nothing short of unnatural. The people of Cleveland still have a legitimate reason to hate LeBron James, ring or no. As a fan and student of the game, I can’t say I was cheering LeBron to victory, even if I did respect and admire his dominance along the way and even if I was happy for him when he finally got his ring. On the one hand, you had the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were built on smart draft picks (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka), helpful trades (Fisher, Perkins), good management and a rabid fan base. On the other, you had the Miami Heat, who became the most hated team in basketball after LeBron and Chris Bosh settled for smaller salaries just so they could play with their fellow superstar Dwyane Wade. Nobody on the Thunder’s roster betrayed an entire city, let alone make their announcement to do so on national television.
But as easy as it will be for some people to do so, eventually, the world will have to get over The Decision and stop holding it against him. Because as much as that move was an ultimate act of betrayal, holding that grudge against him would mean missing out on being able to appreciate one of the greatest players in NBA history. We looked down on him because he couldn’t win one in Cleveland and he couldn’t rise to a Michael Jordan-level to elevate his team to greatness. We turned on him faster than he turned on Cleveland because we were disappointed that this superstar we loved to cheer for had suddenly admitted he couldn’t do it alone. By taking his talents to South Beach, he basically told the world that he wasn’t going to be the greatest and his legacy would never trump Jordan’s. The Decision cemented that fact. As a news-hungry generation that depends on social media to establish and clarify our thoughts, opinions and expectations, we are always looking for the next Michael Jordan, the next Michael Phelps, the next Tiger Woods. We want to believe that the great sports figures we witness in our lives will be better than the ones we watched as children or heard about from our parents. But the fact is, even with an NBA championship under his belt, LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan. As I wrote a hundred times before this, he never was going to be Michael Jordan. But that’s not the worst thing in the world.
LeBron James isn’t a villain. Now that he’s finally won a ring, people must acknowledge his skills on the court as an NBA champion. Whether they like him or not is irrelevant now because he’s not going anywhere. LeBron will still be one of the most polarizing figures in sports because of his decision to leave the Cavaliers, but hopefully the hate will recede as much as LeBron’s hairline (one more LeBron joke for old time’s sake) so we can all appreciate what this future legend can do on a basketball court. There will always be haters; Kobe Bryant is living proof of that. But let’s keep things in perspective: the worst thing LeBron has ever done was leave a terrible basketball team for a more talented one. Some players in the league have been accused of rape, domestic abuse, gun possession and other serious crimes. Looking at the big picture, LeBron and his rise to the championship really shouldn’t be the enemy. We can be disappointed that LeBron sold out and that it ultimately paid off. We can be upset that The Decision changed the dynamic of free agency in the NBA. And we can be upset that a class act like Kevin Durant wasn’t able to win a title in his first attempt. But this ring forces us to acknowledge the LeBron is a winner who took matters into his own hands, even with two fellow superstars on the floor. And although one ring doesn’t put him the conversation with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and other NBA all-time greats just yet, he’s getting there. A few more rings and who knows? We might have to mention him in the top ten if he keeps winning. But for now, let’s be clear: LeBron James is not Michael Jordan. LeBron James is not Kobe. LeBron James is still LeBron James. His choice to leave Cleveland will slightly tarnish his legacy forever, no matter how many rings he wins. And while he’s still young and there’s no way of knowing how many titles LeBron will claim before his career is over, keep in mind Bill Russell won more rings than anyone; that doesn’t make him the best player of all time. We can’t say for sure where LeBron will rank on the list of all-time greats yet, but whether you like it or not, the name LeBron James can now be equated with being a winner.