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Is it better for LeBron James’ legacy if he loses series to the Celtics?

LeBron James turned in another masterful performance in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. With his season in jeopardy of ending before June, James delivered 46 points on 17-of-33 shooting including a sizzling 5-of-7 from beyond the arc.

Two of those three-pointers came in the final two and a half minutes of the fourth quarter in back-to-back fashion. In the simplest form: James willed the Cavs out of elimination-game through his own grit, and still has one more to go before possibly getting to the NBA Finals.

It was a game for the ages, for sure, but the work is not over yet for James.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are still facing elimination versus the Boston Celtics with Game 7 at the TD Garden on Monday. If the Cavs lose, it will be the first time in eight years that LeBron James will not be playing in the NBA Finals. The seven straight Finals appearances are the most by any player outside of the Bill Russell-era Celtics players.

Cavs fans want the streak to continue, for the team to head to the Finals and get another shot at winning the franchise’s second championship. But the Cavaliers, if they advance with a Game 7 win, will be facing an irresistible force with a Finals opponent that’s better than any team they ever faced in the Eastern Conference.

Cleveland will be a huge underdog in the Finals whether they face the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. Both teams have better records than the Cavs and each one has superstars that are in the top 10 players in the league today.

LeBron James

James’ teammates have been much maligned for their disappearing act multiple times in these playoffs, especially on the road. Even his fellow All-Star, Kevin Love, has been non-existent many times in the postseason and the Cavs have suffered greatly for the ineptitude of both the starters and the bench players.

Most pundits believe that the Cavs will lose in the Finals to either team and James’ record in the championship round will go down to just three wins in nine appearances. It’s bad enough that he currently has a 3-5 mark in the Finals, another loss will affect his legacy negatively.

There’s a sentiment among NBA circles that it’s better for James to lose prior to the Finals for the sake of his legacy. The suggestion seems preposterous especially to James’ followers in particular and Cavaliers fans in general.

But a closer inspection of NBA history shows that the suggestion has merit — something that fans don’t want to hear about (or James himself, for that matter).

The discussion has been around since perhaps before the playoffs began. If memory serves, it was brought up by sports personality and infamous LeBron critic, Skip Bayless. A few days ago, Bayless’ fellow Fox Sports analyst Chis Broussard acknowledged the unusual argument that it is better for James to lose to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals rather than suffer the ignominy of going down 3-6 in his Finals appearances.

Nick Wright, co-host of “First Things First” and avid LeBron supporter, brought up the topic on the show after the Cavs lost to the Celtics in Game 5. There would be two games left for the Cavs if they won Game 6, which they did, and that’s where Wright inserted his confusion as to why some would subscribe to this logic.

“Some folks would make the argument that it’s better for LeBron to lose one of these games,” Wright said. “So someone please explain this logic to me because the argument is, ‘The Finals record! The Finals record!’”

“Because in team sports,” Cris Carter, Wright’s co-host said, “they keep track of ‘how many did you win’ and ‘how many did you lose?’”

“And it doesn’t count as a loss by losing before then?” Wright responded.

“Here’s the thing, Nick,” Broussard chimes in. “Over time, these [not getting to the Finals] get blurry. I’ll put it this way. Michael Jordan. First of all, you brought up, ‘oh he lost in the first round, he got swept in the first round, he didn’t make it his first six years.’ You’re the only one that talks about that. Nobody else thinks about ‘Oh he got beat in the first round.’ We think about 6-0. And here’s the thing. When he came back from baseball, and they got beat by Orlando, it actually was better for him not to get to the Finals, ‘coz if…I get it, you always wanna go as far as you can, but when we look back, if they had gone to the Finals and lost to the Houston Rockets, that mystique of Jordan never losing, being 6-0, he’d be 6-1 and it would be worse for his legacy.”

Michael Jordan


James has been chasing Jordan’s legacy as perhaps the greatest player in NBA history for as long as we can remember.

There are those who believe that he’s passed Jordan already and there are those who don’t believe that James has done it yet. And then there are those that vehemently reject the idea that James will be able to catch up to Jordan because the Bulls legend never lost in the Finals in his six trips there while the Cavs superstar has a losing record.

That immaculate 6-0 Finals card has been the record that Jordan defenders use to argue against James despite his numerous accomplishments and achievements, some of which have surpassed Jordan’s own milestones. Never mind that James has better assists and rebounds numbers, and the fact that he now has more buzzer-beating game-winners in the playoffs than Jordan.

The rationale for Jordan’s supremacy over James would always boil down to the 6-0 record. Fair or not, that’s the standard that many are using to measure Jordan’s greatness in comparison to any and all challengers.

If this is going to be the standard that we apply to the “Greatest of All Time” discussion, then no one has a chance to catch up to Jordan’s greatness unless they have an unblemished Finals mark.

If this is so, then if James loses in Game 7 against the Celtics, it is going to be better for his legacy. It would be better for James to come back next year, whatever team he plays for, with a more well-rounded supporting cast. If he ever returns to the Finals, then he needs to be playing for a team that has a chance to win the championship rather than going solo against well-oiled machines like the Warriors or Rockets.

This is the argument that is being discussed in sports talk shows and barbershops around the country; that it’s better for James to lose before the Finals than to play in it with little to no chance of winning.

If a basketball player’s legacy is measured by Finals numbers, then yes — it is better for James not to enter the Finals at all.

But is it right?

In the final minutes of Game 6, the camera focused on James’ Nike LeBron 15’s which featured something different on these shoes. There was a “Man in the Arena” Player Exclusive version of the aforementioned shoe that debuted earlier this year with the words, “Bronny, Bryce, Zhuri, #JamesGang” on the left and “#StriveForGreatness, ‘Man In The Arena’” on the right. The one that James wore in this game had the same words handwritten, it seemed, with his mom Gloria’s name and a crown added on to it.

LeBron James, Nike LeBron 15

Screenshot from ESPN

“The Man in the Arena” was a famous excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizenship In A Republic” speech. This is what it says:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

In light of Roosevelt’s iconic words, losing before the Finals is not better for James or his legacy.

That’s just for critics and analysts to talk about. It has no bearing on the present, especially when these same critics are going to be all over him for losing to a Celtics team that is missing its best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

When you’re a competitor, you want to win every game because not trying hurts more than losing.

Legacies are going to be written by whoever holds the pen at that time. That’s something that’s beyond anyone’s control. People are always going to compare LeBron James with Michael Jordan because they’re both great players who have dominated their eras.

But someone else will be controlling the narrative of who’s the greatest 10 or 20 years down the line. Someone else will hold the pen or the microphone. By then, perhaps the standard for greatness will not be about the Finals record, but about the overall numbers and the total career achievements and records. Who knows?

If we’re talking about legacy in today’s atmosphere, yes it’s better for LeBron to lose in the Eastern Conference Finals rather than in the Finals. People will forget the losses prior to the championship round, but they will keep track of the Finals record.

But if we consider that someone else will discuss James’ legacy decades from now, it’s better to lay everything on the line now and let the people debate what the results mean. As Roosevelt said, it’s better for James that “if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Greatness and legacy are relative and, just like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder.