For LeBron to be THE King, he must lead a third team to an NBA championship
James could leapfrog Jordan and any other kings of hoops simply because it’s never been done
By his own admission, LeBron James played more like a commoner than a king against Boston on Sunday.
Against a smothering Celtics defense anchored by Marcus Morris, James turned the ball over seven times, made just 5 of 16 shots and scored only 15 points.
He also added to Brad Stevens’ rapidly growing coaching legend.
“Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you’ve ever followed my history,” James explained after the Cavaliers’ 25-point loss to the Boston Celtics.
After a stunning home playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers last month in another Game 1, James exploded for 20 first-quarter points in Game 2 on the way to a 46-point performance.
He won the fifth game of that series on a last-second shot, then went on to single-handedly sweep Toronto with a performance that led to the Raptors firing head coach Dwane Casey.
But the question for LeBron, the only real question, is not what must he do to get past these Celtics. The larger, existential question is what must LeBron James do to leapfrog over Michael Jordan as the greatest player in NBA history.
Not everyone agrees with the notion that only Jordan stands between James and basketball immortality.
Several former players argue they would take Magic Johnson over both James and Jordan. Cedric Maxwell, the former Celtics great turned broadcaster, reminded me on Sunday that Hakeem Olajuwon, the former Houston Rockets center, was great at both ends of the floor.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was part of six NBA titles and had the most unblockable shot, the skyhook, in NBA history. Older Boston fans in their 70s and 80s insist that the Celtics’ Bill Russell was the greatest winner of all time.
But the persistent comparison of James is with Michael Jordan. The myth of Jordan is the mountain James is hard-pressed to climb.
How can James climb that mountain?
There really is only one way. James must do what the rumors say he will do: He must leave Cleveland and lead a third franchise to an NBA title.
The Cavaliers’ lopsided loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals reignited talk and conjecture about James’ possible impending departure. The reason: There is no way James can stay in Cleveland with this group and win a fourth ring.
History matters to James, as evidenced when The King parenthetically reminded a reporter that he should have known James’ approach to Game 1s, “if you’ve ever followed my history.”
Not his career, his history.
If James were to leave Cleveland and lead a third team to the NBA Finals, even the most fervent Jordan supporters would have to put James on top of the NBA’s Mount Everest.
During a recent conversation, Elle Duncan, an ESPN SportsCenter anchor, told me she would put James over Jordan if James won a championship with this Cleveland team.
“If he is able with this team to beat the Warriors or the Rockets then he would leapfrog Michael Jordan to me as the greatest of all time,” Duncan said.
For posterity, James must do something no generational star has done.
Many players have won championships with two different teams, but only two players with James’ mythical stature have accomplished the feat.
Wilt Chamberlain led Philadelphia to an NBA title then went to Los Angeles and won a title with the Lakers. Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee to its first and only NBA title, then won five with the Lakers.
Jordan won each of his titles with Chicago, Johnson each of his with Los Angeles and Russell each of his in Boston.
If you’ve followed James’ history, you know that The King left Cleveland and won two championships with Miami. He returned to Cleveland and helped the franchise win its first NBA title.
No legendary player has led three different organizations to NBA titles. To accomplish this, James will have to leave Cleveland for one final basketball destination. Philadelphia perhaps. Los Angeles most likely. The Knicks, he’d better not.
Los Angeles is a historic franchise waiting for the latest savior to usher in new glory: George Mikan, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt, Kobe Bryant, Magic, Kareem.
When looking at generational players, you must look past the moment and put the moment in historical context.
The Celtics’ Marcus Morris knows this and mentioned it Sunday when someone asked why he said he looked forward to guarding James.
“Why? Because I’m a competitor,” Morris said. “He’s the best player, you know? I’m going to be able to tell my kids one day.”
Morris will want to tell his children not only that he played against James but also that his team defeated The King.
The likelihood of that happening seemed promising after Game 1, although James pointed out that he had “zero level of concern at this stage.”
“I’ve been down 0-1,” he said. “I’ve been down 0-2. I’ve been down before in the postseason, but for me there’s no level of concern no matter how bad I played tonight, the seven turnovers, how inefficient I was shooting the ball.”
James reminded reporters Sunday that these are the NBA playoffs, not the NCAA tournament, where a team can get hot for three weekends in a row and win a national title.
The best-of-seven series is a truth machine.
Invariably, the best team and the best-coached team wins a seven-game series. If he holds true to form, James will emerge on Tuesday as the re-energized superhero and explode.
“You get better throughout the series,” James said. “You see ways you can get better throughout the series.”
On the other hand, the Celtics are not the Toronto Raptors. If Sunday’s game is any indication, Boston’s young players are not caught up in the rapture of King James, even if Morris is looking forward to telling his children about playing against The King.
“I think we’re very alert to the fact that we’ll get a heavyweight punch on Tuesday,” Celtics coach Stevens said after Sunday’s game.
Some make the nuanced distinction that Jordan might be the best player but James is having the best career. Fair enough.
But Jordan remains the river James must cross. The only remaining challenge for James is leapfrogging past Jordan into basketball immortality.
To do that — the only way to do that — James must leave Cleveland once more and lead one final franchise to a championship.
That is the errand of a lifetime.