No high school basketball player has ever been hyped up more than LeBron James. On the surface, this may seem like a lofty statement to make but when you truly analyze his high school career, it becomes quite clear just how obsessed people were with LeBron’s draft stock. While playing for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, James was no stranger to large crowds. His high school games were broadcast on ESPN, and off the court, he was being featured on the cover of magazines like Slam and Sports Illustrated. Even with all of this coverage, there was no guarantee LeBron would be taken with the first overall pick. The 2003 NBA Draft was loaded with talent including Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Darko Milicic who some felt could actually be a better player than LeBron.
Unlike players such as Bosh, Wade, and Melo, James had never been to university so some scouts were unsure he would be able to live up to the hype. There was this overwhelming sense of fear that he might be a bust, a player who wouldn’t be able to adjust to the pace of an NBA game. Eventually, the Cleveland Cavaliers used their number one overall pick to select LeBron and their risk paid off immediately. Starting with his very first game, LeBron showed superstar potential. Throughout his entire first stint in Cleveland, James had to carry a team of bums to the playoffs year in and year out. At the age of 22, LeBron led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals where they eventually lost to the San Antonio Spurs in a four-game sweep.
This was LeBron’s first of nine NBA Finals appearances and it was by far his most hopeless. When it comes to LeBron’s legacy, many people forget this series even happened. The self-proclaimed “king” was carrying a team with the likes of Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle this team even made the playoffs, let alone the NBA Finals.
With LeBron leading his team to the Finals, it became quite clear he had already surpassed the hype laid out for him in high school. The next step for LeBron on his path to surpassing the greats was winning an NBA title. Throughout his next three seasons in Cleveland, LeBron was unable to get back to the Finals and as soon as he had an opportunity to leave, that’s exactly what he did. In perhaps one of the most infamous cases of self-serving publicity, LeBron orchestrated his very own ESPN special called “The Decision.” It was here that LeBron announced that he would be “taking his talents to South Beach.” Of course, LeBron was joining a team with two of his best friends from the 2003 draft class, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
“The Decision” was ultimately the inciting incident that had fans, pundits, and other NBA players wondering what LeBron’s legacy would be. There was no doubt in people’s minds that LeBron would at least win a few championships in Miami considering how good the team was. Despite this, some felt like winning championships on what would become the first-ever “super team,” was just a little bit cheap. LeBron was continuously compared to the likes of Michael Jordan who was able to win six NBA titles on the team that drafted him. The kid from Akron was being given a hard time and his first season in Miami was certainly one to forget.
After a shaky start to the season, the Heat eventually made it to the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks and were shockingly upset in six games. Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs ran all over LeBron who had one of the worst performances of his career. Simply put, LeBron choked his first real opportunity at a championship and no one let him forget it. The next year, James and company bounced back and made it to the NBA Finals where they defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder. With his first championship out of the way, LeBron was finally free to progress his career without the added burden of being a title-less. LeBron played two more years in Miami and came through with one more title before heading back home to Cleveland.
His decision to go back home was purely a legacy move. The city of Cleveland was desperate for a championship and with players like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and JR Smith on the team, it seemed like they were in prime position to get it done. If LeBron could make good on his promise to bring the city a championship, he would instantly become one of the greatest to ever do it. Throughout the 2014-15 season, it seemed like he would finally get to do just that, but, as we all know, the Golden State Warriors came out of nowhere to steal the title. The following year, the same two teams were in the Finals and the Warriors built a 3-1 lead. No team had ever come back from this deficit. LeBron was being called a fraud who couldn’t win without his friends. In a legacy-defining moment, LeBron and the Cavs clawed their way back into the series and eventually won the championship in seven games. If there was any moment that encapsulated the greatness of LeBron’s career, it would be him lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy for all of Cleveland to see.
Two more unsuccessful trips to the NBA Finals later and LeBron is now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers with a Finals record of 3-6. Statistically, LeBron is one of the greatest players that has ever lived. He is fourth all-time in scoring, top 10 in assists, and is widely considered to be neck-and-neck with Michael Jordan in the conversation for the greatest player of all-time. Whenever LeBron and Jordan are compared to one another, people always like to bring up the fact that Jordan was 6-0 in the Finals and never had to change teams to win his titles. Others will say LeBron’s accomplishments are more significant because he made the Finals eight times in a row and played against much better superstar players and dynasties. With all of this being said, it truly begs the question as to whether or not LeBron needs another title to cement his legacy.
With three titles and countless accolades under his belt, there is no denying his legacy as one of the best to ever do it. However, if he wants to surpass Jordan, winning a title in his mid-to-late 30s would certainly be the accomplishment to push him over the edge. Just think about it. There have never been this many superstars in the league. Take one look at the Western Conference and you see Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the Clippers as well as Russell Westbrook and James Harden on the Rockets. Meanwhile, emerging teams like the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Dallas Mavericks are all thriving in a way that will make things difficult for LeBron to get through the playoffs. Not to mention, the Eastern Conference has players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and now, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Jordan never had to deal with this much talent during his career. Realistically, LeBron would have owned the 90s had he played during that decade. If James could defy the odds and bring the Lakers their first title since 2010, he would immediately change the narratives that have surrounded him since the NBA Finals disaster of 2011.
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Four titles across three different teams would certainly be an unprecedented accomplishment for a superstar player such as LeBron. If he were to pull it off, he would have won a championship for the league’s most storied franchise, brought a title to a city that had never won before, all while singlehandedly ushering in the “super team” era. LeBron would be the first player to be able to claim all three of those things on his resume and it would make it a lot more difficult to deny him the “GOAT.” None of this even takes his longevity into account. No player in the history of the league has been this good, 17 seasons into their career. LeBron could realistically go another five high-quality years which tells you what kind of player he is.
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