The NBA Finals are a few hours from tip-off and from the standpoint of legacies this may be the most consequential matchup since Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz in 1998. At stake is the answer to this question—does losing the Finals taint Golden State’s 73-win season? And on the flip side, does losing the Finals for the third straight year put a black mark on LeBron James’ resume? If the answer to both questions is yes, who is there more pressure on?
Golden State has been the story of the season so we’ll begin here. The most common refrain is that if they don’t close the deal, they would be the 2007 New England Patriots who went 16-0. What I find curious is that this statement is framed as though it were a negative. The Patriots’ achievement remains one of the most significant in NFL history based on the regular season alone.
The same holds true for these Warriors and in fact they would still be a cut above the ’07 Patriots because I don’t think anyone disputes that LeBron’s Cavs are a more formidable opponent than the 2007 New York Giants of Eli Manning and Michael Strahan that came out of the wild-card round.
It also has to be said that Golden State is not a one-year wonder. They won a championship last year to cap off a 67-win regular season. Thus, in a worst-case scenario we have a team that’s averaged 70 wins a year over two seasons, won the NBA’s superior conference both times and has a championship.
Based on that, I’m tempted to say there’s no pressure at all on Golden State. But there are a couple caveats. The first is that there is always at least a little bit of an asterisk next to a record like the 73 wins if you don’t close it out. How serious the asterisk is may be up for debate, but we can’t deny it exists.
The issue for Golden State is not so much the legacy of this year’s team specifically, but how this group will be remembered. The NBA is different from every other sport in one crucial way—multiple championships are expected of truly outstanding teams.
It’s a favorites league and if the Warriors “only” win one championship they’re place in history is only a little bit higher than Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks or the recent Boston Celtics of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Golden State would be higher on the food chain because of the wins record, but they’d still be in the broad pool of teams with one title.
That also assumes that the Warriors wouldn’t bounce back in 2017 or beyond though, so for the short-term I’m going to say there is only very minor pressure on them. But when it comes to LeBron, I don’t know that the same applies.
Let’s begin by acknowledging the obvious—anything said negatively regarding LeBron is only because all the positive things are already assumed. His legacy is already in a different stratosphere than any contemporary and he is firmly in a group of historic players who are a notch below Jordan on the all-time great rung. Players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, etc. And LeBron is the only one who could still elevate out of that group to challenge His Airness.
The six straight trips to the Finals are a great start, but LeBron has played in an Eastern Conference that’s been basically a B League for several years. His record in the Finals is currently 2-4 (including a 2007 trip with Cleveland before the current streak started). Is it fair to use that as a knock?
If I answer that question today, the answer is no. I can give him a pass for 2007, when he dragged a lousy team into the Finals and for last season, when Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were both hurt. His performance in the 2011 finals against Dallas was a disaster and the 2014 trip against San Antonio was disappointing. Sitting here today, we can point out that Magic Johnson had a horrid NBA Finals in 1984 and Larry Bird struggled in 1985, just to name a couple. But if LeBron loses again, with his supporting cast healthy and falls to 2-5? How many passes can you give out before moving LeBron behind the other historic players he’s grouped with?
I know that requiring someone to beat a 73-win team doesn’t sound exactly fair, but somewhere along the line LeBron needs a make-good for coughing up the 2011 title to Dallas, an eminently winnable series in which he was awful. He needs a make-good for allowing the last two Finals MVPs—Kawhi Leonard and Andre Igoudala—to be the players that were guarding him.
Thus, in spite of Golden State’s historic season, and in spite of oddsmakers making the Warriors a (-180) betting favorite I think the pressure in these NBA Finals has to fall squarely on the shoulders of LeBron James. And for the record I think he’s going to do it—the prediction here is Cavs in six.