Thirteen or fourteen years ago, after LeBron James had become a household name but not yet an NBA player, I posed a hypothetical to my sister:
What if he’s just an average pro?
Not an All-Star or a draft bust. Not a legend or a loser. Nowhere near the best player in the league, and nowhere near the worst. Not one you would call “The Man.” Just a guy.
What if the most celebrated high school athlete in history turned out to be a run-of-the-mill pro athlete? What if the kid they were calling “King James” grew up to be no more stately than Donald Royal?
(Photo Credit: bcsn.tv)
We never got a chance to answer those questions.
On Sunday night, LeBron James finished off one of the greatest championship performances seen on a basketball court since the Michael Jordan era.
In Game 7 of the NBA Finals, on the road, against a team that some were saying was the best of all time, after already coming back from a 3-1 series deficit, LeBron put up 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals and three blocks in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
With the win, the city of Cleveland ended a 52-year major pro sports championship drought. And the city’s most famous man became only the third NBA player ever to post a triple-double in Game 7 of the Finals, joining Jerry West (1969) and James Worthy (1988).
For averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks in the series – and leading all players on both teams in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks – LeBron was unanimously voted Finals MVP.
In claiming his third NBA championship (winning the previous two with the Miami Heat), LeBron surpassed legendary two-time champs like Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon and Isiah Thomas.
With his third Finals MVP, LeBron surpassed two-time honorees Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
And by going three-for-three – that is, winning Finals MVP every time his team won a championship and doing it more than once – LeBron remains in an exclusive club alongside Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Willis Reed.
All of those numbers are accolades that add up to one inescapable truth about LeBron James: that even when the bar was set higher for him than it had been set for any basketball phenom before, he still exceeded expectations and lived up to the hype.
Go back to 2003, when the Cavaliers made LeBron the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
At the time, if you remember, LeBron was only the second high schooler to be the top overall pick. We had seen Kevin Garnett and Kobe become superstars from the prep ranks. But we’d also seen Kwame Brown and Darius Miles struggle to find their footing at the highest level. We’d seen Jermaine O’Neal ride the bench for four years before becoming an All-Star. But we’d also seen Korleone Young never get off the bench.
What was the sports world looking for from its newly-crowned star, this can’t-miss kid who was still absolutely in danger of missing?
While Nike and ESPN may have been seeing the next Michael Jordan as a pitchman and media force, from a pure basketball perspective, it was clear LeBron was less like Mike and more like Magic Johnson.
But 19-year-old Magic (with two years of college basketball experience) was drafted onto a Lakers squad ready-made to contend for a title with Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon. Eighteen-year-old LeBron (coming out of high school) was going to a terrible Cleveland team headlined by Ricky Davis, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Dajuan Wagner.
Winning a championship in his rookie year, like Magic, was out of the question. Winning five rings over a decade, like Magic, seemed equally unrealistic.
Given the mythical curse that seemed to be hovering over Cleveland since Jim Brown had led the Browns to an NFL title in 1964, just winning one ring for the Cavs may have been enough for LeBron to be considered a success.
Numbers-wise, what did you expect from a young LeBron? A pass-first forward with a streaky jumper – I don’t know the exact projections, but 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per night made sense.
Throw in a couple handfuls of All-Star and All-NBA nods, an All-Defensive Team selection here and there, and that seemed like a perfectly acceptable career for LeBron James.
It was a bar higher than what was set for the KGs and Kobes who had come before him. Back then, we simply wondered if those kids could play in the pros without wetting their shorts. But it wasn’t insanely high.
If he was lucky and stayed healthy, LeBron might be as productive as Brad Daugherty was for the Cavs. With his size and athletic ability, perhaps he could get somewhere near Dominique Wilkins. With his intangibles, maybe something like Grant Hill.
LeBron met that bar. Then he exceeded it. He put up 20-5-5 as a rookie. He led Cleveland to the Finals in his fourth year.
So the bar was set even higher. And he exceeded that. He led the NBA in scoring in his fifth year, then settled into a groove where 28-7-7 was normal for him. He won two league MVPs.
Then he shook up the basketball world by daring to exercise his free-agency rights and form a title-contending team in Miami because Cleveland wasn’t putting one around him. That’s when he turned into the bad guy and a generation of haters was born.
And, oddly enough, those who criticized LeBron the most – including those who seemed to think the least of his talent and tenacity – also set the highest expectations for him.
He met and exceeded those, too. Two championships and two Finals MVPs in Miami. And two more league MVPs. He was pretty much a lock for All-NBA, All-Star and All-Defensive Team every year. If it wasn’t already obvious, LeBron became a Hall of Famer in Miami.
(Photo Credit: USA Today)
Then he went back to Cleveland via free agency, and while some of the hate subsided, the expectations remained.
Going into his 30s, when a quick look around the NBA landscape revealed that almost every rookie who entered the league with LeBron in 2003 was either out of the league, barely in the league, or clearly on the downside of their careers, LeBron was being ridiculed for possibly not being the best player in the league. Every season for him would be championship or bust.
As of Sunday night, LeBron had again met and exceeded the bar.
He brought Cleveland its championship. He led his team past a team they weren’t supposed to beat; one that had embarrassed the Cavs in the regular season and put them in a seemingly impossible hole in the postseason.
He did it with a rookie coach and with no other 2016 NBA All-Stars on the roster.
And if you listen to his biggest critics, he did it with no jump shot, no post moves, no go-to move, no defense, no killer instinct and no heart. It’s truly remarkable when you think about it.
LeBron now joins a very short list of players who have won Finals MVP three times. He joins an even shorter list – i.e., he’s the only player on the list – who have so thoroughly dominated a Finals series statistically.
You couldn’t have predicted this in 2003. You shouldn’t have predicted this in 2003.
If you did, give yourself credit for having the best vision in basketball. Because you saw generational greatness before the rest of us could bear witness.