LeBron James could make or break the conversation of becoming the greatest of all-time in just one night.
Tonight, as he takes the floor in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, The King could keep his case for remaining in that conversation by grabbing a win at home, or ruin it forever by getting swept by what looks to be a dynastic Golden State Warriors team — a loss that could prove as downright unforgivable.
Withstanding the test of history
While James lost the 6-for-6 battle with Michael Jordan long ago, another loss in the NBA Finals will put him at 3-6 in the biggest stage of them all — sporting twice the losses than wins — and making it harder to argue for his greatness when the lights shine the brightest.
If the Cavs lose another one on their home floor, a court in which they’ve been historically reliable through the course of the postseason (7-3 during this playoff run), James would have been swept out of the playoffs twice now.
While many could make the argument that another great franchise in the San Antonio Spurs overwhelmed a young James back in 2007, that argument is no longer valid this time around — as James has virtually handpicked most of the players on this Cavaliers roster, including vouching for the likes of J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson (as close to non-factors in this series) for long-term deals.
The King can get a pass for getting swept by a veteran team early on in his career, but having a team tailored around him, one in which he’s managed to recruit several players — just seems unforgivable compared to other greats.
Era of player-control is perhaps his worst enemy
When making a comparison to the likes of Michael Jordan for the title of G.O.A.T. — James falls plenty short, given the sheer amount of appearances he’s had throughout his playing career.
The Akron native has now played just as many seasons as Jordan (15), played in 71 more regular season games and in 59 more playoff games than Jordan did through his passage.
What stands as the key difference is how little control Jordan had of personnel decisions and how much of it James has had during the course of his career.
The closest input that Jordan had was hoping to steer Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf away from Toni Kukoc, as he and teammate Scottie Pippen handed it to him during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with stifling full-court defense. The gambit even backfired, as Reinsdorf loved what Kukoc brought out of Jordan, signing him for the 1993-1994 season.
James’ greatest contribution to the modern game is perhaps being able to pull the strings and surround himself with not only star-quality players by first going to the Miami Heat to play with two of his All-Star friends in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but doing so again by returning home to play alongside a young talent in Kyrie Irving, soon steering management’s sense of urgency to trade former No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love.
Even after the All-Star trio was formed, James found ways to keep adding pieces to help him — James Jones, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye — and even getting star players past their prime to join as free agents (Deron Williams, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose).
James had a team tailored to his play — surrounded by shooters to give him help with his bulldozing drives to the basket. That kind of power also comes at the cost of scrutiny, and history does not take kindly to those who forcibly take, yet don’t deliver.
Not getting over the hump
Greats have always had to climb over other greats to snatch their own place in history — Magic Johnson over the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, Jordan over a stacked Detroit Pistons roster and later against the Utah Jazz.
Yet James, even with the input he’s had around management, and his storied ability to reel in free agents and other stars to help him in his quest, has been unable to conquer his greatest challenge yet.
Scrapping his early years in Cleveland seems fair, given that he was fresh out of high school, figuring out the game and what comes with stardom. And yet, James was only able to win twice during the four years he took part with the Big 3 in Miami, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in his first season there, and later to the Spurs in the last of his four seasons.
The King is on the verge of his third NBA Finals loss against this Warriors team, who have become his archenemy and the one major roadblock in his way to more rings.
The Warriors have beaten James and the Cavs 4-2 in 2015 and a more convincing 4-1 in 2017 — checking that last box in a sweep of these Cleveland Cavaliers tonight might not only cement them as the NBA’s next dynasty, but puncture holes in a boat that already had problems sailing to the pantheon of all-time greats.