The Phoenix Suns defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 113-100 effectively ending the Laker’s dream of a repeat. What this result also does is perhaps end one of the stronger arguments in Lebron’s GOAT case. Never before has LeBron lost a series in the first round. Unlike MJ this was something that LeBron had managed to avoid of course until now. Unfortunately, in sports we tend to paint everything in black and white when it’s anything but that.
The Lakers suffered many injuries throughout the season and one can attribute that to their bubble run last season. In fact, of the final four teams, only Denver made it out of the first round this year. To have three of the four semifinalists out before the second round hasn’t happened in over 20 years. Obviously, the quick turnaround caused problems for each and every one of those four teams. But history probably won’t be so kind to those teams 15-20 years from now. That’s why context matters when discussing legacy.
For example, MJ lost in the first round three times in his career. On the face of it, that should damage his legacy and LeBron supporters have used that fact repeatedly. Take a deep dive and you find that there’s more than meets the eye. Those three losses came in MJ’s first three years in the league when that team was nowhere near ready for the playoffs. Nothing highlights this fact more than the 1985 Bulls who went 30-52 (MJ broke his foot and only played 12 games). That is by far one of the worst records to ever qualify for the playoffs. They went up against a Celtics team who had Bird and McHale. That team is regarded as one of the best in NBA history.
Did MJ lose in the first round? Yes. But at no point in time was he expected to win those series. Much like how LeBron shouldn’t be punished for losing to the Spurs in the 2007 finals. The context of those events gets lost in time and a narrative whether its accurate or not takes its place. One can only look to Tom Brady and his legacy. He has won seven super bowls and is regarded as this all-conquering player. But that ignores the fact that he was a glorified game manager during his first three titles. It wasn’t until later in his career that he became this dominant winner that could at times carry his team to glory.
These players are just so much more than what the stat sheets tell you. LeBron is a prime example of this as his off-the-court contributions might actually outweigh his on-court accomplishments. Taking the step and being a voice for social justice (something that MJ shied away from) while at the same time backing it up financially. He’s built schools and remodeled worn-down buildings to improve living conditions in poverty-stricken areas. He’s always made it a point to combat the “shut up and play” mindset that Americans try to hold their athletes to. In doing so he’s changed the perspective on how we view athletes.
He started this change when he was in Miami in 2012. He and the entire Heat team took a photo wearing black hoodies to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. It was the first time that such a prominent athlete had taken a stand like this since the days of Mohammed Ali. The ripple effects are still felt today with social justice athletes like Colin Kaepernick getting endorsement deals from Nike. Companies like Nike are giving their signature athletes more and more platforms to speak up due to the changing of perspectives.
LeBron is breaking the mold when it comes to the modern-day athlete and it arguably has a bigger impact than anything he’s doing on the court. Which isn’t to say that his on-court accomplishments are anything to sniff at. He’s a 4-time champion, 4-time MVP, and been to the all-star game 17 times. He’s still a top 10 and probably even a top 5 player in this league at age 36. Obviously, his best years are behind him and father time is gaining ground on him, but Lebron is still a force to be reckoned with. He’s doing things we’ve never seen a 36-year-old do and it is impressive as hell. But thanks to modern medicine and athletes taking care of themselves better than ever before it won’t be as impressive in a few years.
LeBron is just the first wave of athletes being able to extend their careers and before long playing at a high level at 36 won’t be as special anymore. That’s how we as fans look at these athletes. They do something we’ve never seen before and its special until it isn’t anymore. We get too caught up in who’s better than who and we forget to enjoy the greatness before our very eyes.
The GOAT debate will always rage on and as time passes context will sadly lose its value. LeBron, as of right now, is 4-6 in the finals which of course is a losing record. So how can someone with a losing record in the finals even be in the conversation? It all depends on how you look at it. The most used argument for MJ is that he went 6-0, but that doesn’t shed any light on what had to happen for him to achieve that mark. If being 6-0 in the finals holds so much weight what would’ve been said about Tim Duncan who was a Ray Allen 3 away from being 6-0?
As I’ve mentioned before, stats are used and manipulated to drive one point regardless of the story behind it. MJ went 6-0, but was the favorite in all but one of them. The chips were in his favor and he took care of business that’s why he’s idolized by millions. That being said getting to the finals isn’t always as hard as it is made out to be. Perhaps a harder road to the finals would’ve presented LeBron a better-looking finals record.
Which brings up one of the biggest knocks to LeBron’s legacy. The 8 straight finals are more impressive on paper than it is in reality. A past its prime Celtics team, a Bulls team offensively dependent on an inconsistent shooter, and an overachieving Pacers team were the biggest obstacles during that run. Perhaps more than anything that’s why this first-round loss is so damaging. Being in the west means getting to the finals is no longer a cakewalk. Winning the title last year definitely helps his case, but he didn’t get the full experience of the west due to the bubble. In his first real experience of the west, he couldn’t get past the first test. Sure, injuries played a part, but that’s not the story that will be told years from now.
In my humble opinion, I still have MJ as the GOAT and there shouldn’t be any shame in being the second-best ever. Coming into the league LeBron had expectations that no one could hope to fulfill, yet he somehow exceeded them. His career has been a success and it’s not even over yet. It remains to be seen if he can escape MJ’s shadow on the court. But perhaps LeBron’s legacy doesn’t need to because its wings have taken flight off of the court.