The NBA Finals is going to be a career-defining test for LeBron James and his legacy

lebron jamesDarron Cummings/AP

When Game 1 of the NBA Finals kicks off on Thursday night, it may begin the toughest test of LeBron James’ career.

Throughout this postseason, talk has ramped up comparing James to Michael Jordan, a once untouchable figure in the NBA.

James has earned it. He’s dominated a conference for nearly a decade. He’s now on his seventh straight Finals and is climbing up every statistical leaderboard, even passing Jordan in playoff points scored, though, yes, it took him more games.

James, of course, only has three championships to Jordan’s six. But James’ third title, earned last year when the Cavaliers stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the greatest regular-season team in NBA history, showed James as great as we’ve ever seen him. He dictated every action on the floor, canning jumpers, hitting the open man, and imposing his will on the defensive end. It was as fine a two-way performance as the league has ever seen.

If James seemingly pulled off the impossible last year, then his test this year may not have a title. The Warriors team James and the Cavs will face this year is even tougher, due mostly to the addition of Kevin Durant. They have more firepower, leaving James and the Cavs nowhere to hide, as they had last year when wings like Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala went cold. Furthermore, the Warriors are healthy, and Draymond Green isn’t tip-toeing along the edge of a cliff. James won’t be able to goad Green into a flagrant foul and suspension this year.

Most experts have picked the Warriors to win (as they did last year). Vegas has the Warriors listed at about -260 favorites for the series. If it took a Herculean effort from James last year, how could he possibly do it again against a better Warriors team?

But what if he does? The question has already been circulating in the sports world.

Wrote ESPN’s Zach Lowe:

“LeBron is probably the second-greatest player ever. He has a chance to finish his career as the all-time leading scorer, and one of the half-dozen greatest passers in history. In the end, maybe he won’t even need a win in this series to state his case as the best to ever do this. Maybe a strong showing in defeat would be enough.

“That would drop LeBron to 3-5 in the Finals. That is three fewer titles than Michael Jordan, with five more losses on the biggest stage. But at some point, the gap in appearances — eight and counting for LeBron, six for Jordan — starts to matter, too.

“But if Cleveland wins? Against this team? The discussion gets real, right now.”

The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski argued that if James can overcome the Warriors again, his four titles would be more impressive than Jordan’s.

“For James to chase down Jordan … he has to go through the most talented roster the sport has seen in decades again and again and again. The years left that James has as a dominant player, perhaps still the best on the planet, will force him to go through these Warriors, with all-time talent, and perhaps an all-time championship dynasty destined for themselves. To get another title off Golden State could be all that James needs to surpass Jordan. Because four titles in this NBA climate is far more impressive.”

Former head coach Jeff Van Gundy, now of ESPN, picked the Warriors to win the series, but admitted on “The Lowe Post” that James makes him think twice.

“I didn’t think [the Cavs] had a chance last year. I thought it would be Warriors in five last year … But I’m never gonna say LeBron James doesn’t have a chance. Because he’s proven time and again, his greatness is not normal greatness — this is aberrational greatness. And he’s capable of doing incredible things.”

These Warriors have put together the best three-year regular-season run the NBA has ever seen. They’re so good that they’ve made the league’s best player and his own cast of All-Star sidekicks an underdog. If James were to pull off another championship against these odds, he’d forever hold a place among the NBA’s greatest, if not the greatest.

To do so, however, he’s going to have to put in one of the most taxing two-way performances the NBA has seen. He’ll have to overcome an occasionally shaky jump shot, snake through multiple long-armed, tough defenders, and find the open man when swarms of Warriors come after him. He’s the fulcrum of the Cavs’ offense, and their chances begin and end with his efficiency. On the other end, his job may switch between defending perhaps the best scorer in the NBA, the greatest shooter in the NBA, or a positionless Swiss Army Knife who’s revolutionized the NBA.

As Lowe notes, perhaps excellence in a loss will be enough to cement James’ legacy as one of the NBA’s greatest. But a win in this series, a second-straight superhuman effort to beat seemingly unbeatable team, would render him untouchable.

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