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LeBron Is the Greatest Underdog of All Time

The Cavs are in familiar territory, down 3–1 to the Warriors. So, too, is LeBron, who has eight Finals appearances, but only two where his team was the odds-on favorite. It begs the question: Can a player be both an underdog and the greatest ever?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For the second year in a row, the Cavaliers played spoiler to certain immortality. I was bracing for history on Friday. Weren’t you? A year after the greatest Finals comeback in NBA history prevented the Warriors from cementing the greatest single season ever, the Cavs once again broke the Warriors’ combo in Game 4, preventing the unprecedented 16–0 title run. Since July 4, when Kevin Durant first agreed to terms with the Warriors, you could actually bet on the Warriors winning 98 straight games, going undefeated through the regular season and the playoffs. And we were one game away from playoff perfection. Despite the Cavaliers’ win to extend the series, little has changed about this year, or about the years to come. The Warriors are still the favorites to win the 2017 title, and will still be prohibitive Finals favorites until 2020, at least. This is our basketball reality; we’re in Year 3 now, and it’s still hard to get used to it.

The internet has spent a lot of time all year focusing on how the league should respond to Golden State. Should teams blow it up and build for the 2020s? Is it good for the NBA to have a team so powerful? Or are things the same as they ever were? Why not just enjoy greatness? You’ll find different opinions about all these macro questions — personally, I think teams always need to build with the future in mind, whether there’s a juggernaut in the league or not. In fact, the sense I get from chatting with friends and Ringer teammates and reading Reddit is that people have entered the acceptance stage with these Warriors. Greatness is usually a good thing — just check the ratings. After all, Game 4 wouldn’t have felt as thrilling as it did if history wasn’t on the line, if it didn’t feel like we were watching an unstoppable force get knocked off its pedestal.

There’s also been a dramatic role reversal. It wasn’t long ago that LeBron James and the Heatles were the hated nemesis. LeBron is now getting beat by a team that saw the superteam trail he blazed and went beyond it. LeBron’s odds of winning this series against the Warriors are currently about as strong as they were in 2007, when he led Boobie Gibson and Larry Hughes to the Finals against the Spurs. It was three years later that LeBron made his decision to form a superteam in Miami to chase the title that eluded him over his first seven seasons in Cleveland. They lost one, won two, then lost another. But the Warriors, with their sheer firepower bolstered by the league’s spacing and shooting evolution, are on another level from those Heat teams (and the opponents they faced). “[The Warriors are] a different team. You guys asked me, ‘What was the difference?’ And I told you [‘KD’],” LeBron said after Game 2. “They’re a different team.”

This is the second consecutive season we’ve seen someone in the Greatest Player of All Time conversation go against a Greatest Team of All Time contender. It’s the first time since, perhaps, Wilt Chamberlain faced off against the ’60s Celtics. Michael Jordan never faced an opponent like these Warriors — the Bulls were the superpower of the 1990s. The Cavs made a historic comeback last year against Golden State’s 73-win team. And this year, they avoided a sweep. Unless they double-down on ruining all probability models, I can’t help but wonder what annual Finals losses at the hands of the Warriors might mean for LeBron’s legacy. The King’s teams have a 3–4 record in the Finals. It could soon be 3–5. I don’t think Finals losses should negatively impact his legacy in the slightest, but there’s a large segment of the population that will hold it against LeBron.

Take Stephen A. Smith, for example. “You don’t want another sweep on your résumé if you’re LeBron James, particularly when you’re chasing ghosts and you’re pursuing a status as the greatest player who ever played this game of basketball,” Smith said on ESPN after Game 4. “That’s just not gonna suffice.” These words might sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to you, but to many others, it’s gospel. Jordan was 6–0 in the Finals. Kobe Bryant was 5–2. Magic Johnson was 5–4. Bill Russell was 11–1. Tim Duncan was 5–1.

If LeBron falls to 3–5 sometime this week, that’s one thing, but what happens if the record keeps getting worse? Cleveland’s 3–1 comeback last year was miraculous, and perhaps the crowning achievement of LeBron’s career. But for him to leave no doubt that he is the GOAT, he’ll need to continue coming out on top. “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing,” James said in a 2016 interview with Sports Illustrated. “The ghost played in Chicago.”

It’s a little weird to consider, but LeBron has actually spent much of his career playing for an underdog — his team has been favored by Vegas in only two of his eight Finals appearances. But underdog implies more than just gambling odds; LeBron understands that and, considering his position in the league, it’s a label he’s routinely dismissed. LeBron said in 2015, “I would never be an underdog.” Then in 2016, he said the underdog talk is “stupidity.” And most recently, he claimed last month that it “doesn’t matter” that the Cavs were underdogs. Can a player be the GOAT while simultaneously playing most of his career for an underdog? I don’t know, but it’s a fascinating dichotomy. Besides a few years in Miami, LeBron has never played for the favored team and he won’t again for the foreseeable future.

It’s hard to imagine what Cleveland could do to turn itself into the favorite. It won’t be easy tweaking and assembling a roster that can take down the Warriors. The Cavs could look to flip Kevin Love, but I question what a return could yield considering the knee injuries that have plagued him the past year. The Cavs have expensive, aging reserves; it’s a core held together with Scotch tape and future protected draft picks. Meanwhile, the Dubs still haven’t peaked — they could get even better as bench youngsters like Patrick McCaw and Damian Jones develop.

LeBron might have to leave again, as discussed last week on The Ringer, to actually catch the Ghost of Michael Jordan. LeBron could be tempted by the Lakers or Clippers, or some other team with a better roster, a more experienced coach — and a quality owner. That last bit might matter more than one would think. After that LeBron story was published, a front-office source texted me that morning adding that a big reason LeBron might look elsewhere is due to his still-rocky relationship with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. LeBron’s comments in a video on Uninterrupted were posted hours later and confirmed LeBron’s — and his family’s — tensions with ownership. Gilbert’s infamous Comic Sans letter to James still weighs on his close circle today:

“Our owner, at the time when I left [Cleveland in 2010], decided to put out an article that we all know about, where he completely … disrespected not only me as an individual, but disrespected my name,” James said in the video. “When I decided to go back … my mom and wife were like, ‘I ain’t with that.’”

Management-player relationships can be testy, but ultimately I think LeBron’s decision will come down to where he can best compete for titles. Can the grass really be that much greener on the other side? Kyrie Irving is likely both a better short-term and long-term teammate than he’d have in perhaps any other realistic situation. Irving has already been to three NBA Finals and won in 2016, and has racked up historic moments that’ll live in highlight reels forever — like his epic 41-point Game 5 performance last year, and the Shot in Game 7. Kyrie’s Game 4 performance represents, again, the potential LeBron saw in Cleveland when he made his return.

Irving is one of the greatest below-the-rim paint finishers ever. His lefty floaters are the equivalent a guitarist playing guitar with their teeth. His handles are like a magician’s sleight of hand that deceives an audience. He can score efficiently from anywhere on the court. He’s clutch. In Finals-elimination games, he’s averaging 32.5 points on a 62 effective field goal percentage. Sometimes I think we forget, considering how accomplished he is, that Kyrie Irving is only 25 years old.

For LeBron to continue making Finals runs as he ages, he’ll need younger players to help carry him. LeBron won’t always be able to average 27.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 7.5 assists, like he has through 44 Finals games. At some point, the King might age into a supercharged version of Boris Diaw, tossing full-court outlet passes and facilitating in the half court. While we’re years away from his end-of-career form, even now, he needs help.

This is why Kyrie is so important. Irving’s single-mindedness enables LeBron to be the primary facilitator without always feeling the pressure to score. James had a similar setup in Miami with Dwyane Wade, but there’s a big difference between that and LeBron’s one-two-punch dynamic in Cleveland: Irving isn’t done getting better. He still needs to improve his basic playmaking skills for situations in which James is out of the game, and his defense needs to be more consistent in the playoffs, but the makings of a perfect duo is there.

His presence was the difference between a six-game series loss, and a historic championship victory in seven. Irving got hurt in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals. He was the extra juice in 2016, emerging once the series shifted to Cleveland after a disappointing Games 1 and 2. Kyrie is only the sixth player age 25 or younger to score 40-plus points in the Finals. He’s just the third, after Rick Barry and Dwyane Wade, to do it twice. Magic, Russell Westbrook, and Allen Iverson all did it once. “He’s just been built for that moment,” LeBron said after Game 4. “I said that over and over again, that he’s always been built for the biggest moments, and tonight he showed that once again. It’s not surprising. He’s just that special.”

For now, though, the Cavaliers are still underdogs. They’re against incredible odds for the third year in a row. In the past, LeBron was miffed by being called an underdog, but perhaps he’s had a change of heart. In Episode 12 of the Road Trippin’ podcast, LeBron called Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath “unbelievable.” On Page 2 of the book, Gladwell explores the idea that “what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”

Facing overwhelming odds has certainly produced a lot of greatness and beauty over the past year, with the Warriors, Cavaliers, and Chicago Cubs all making historic comebacks from 3–1 deficits in best-of-seven series within a five-month span; the Patriots roared back after trailing 28–3 late in the third quarter only months later. We can only hope for more of the same, not just in this year’s Finals, but with all future contenders hoping to take the Super Dubs down.

Gladwell added, “And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.” For seven straight seasons, LeBron’s Cavs teams were David. In 2007, at 22, LeBron reached his first Finals, an island of promise surrounded by postseason disappointments both in the past and still to come. The Cavs got roasted by San Antonio, losing in four games. “I really think the team we have now is good enough to win a championship and I really stressed that from the beginning,” James said after the Cavs got swept by the Spurs. “It just shows we went up against a better team, simple as that. We went up against a better team in this series, and everybody has to be better coming into next season.”

You might hear LeBron echo this statement if (or when) they lose to the Warriors. LeBron learned lessons as an underdog, and when the opportunity presented itself, he made his own Goliath in Miami, and then again in Cleveland. He fell short for seven straight seasons, and is now making his seventh straight NBA Finals appearance. The problem for LeBron is there’s an even greater Goliath lurking in the league, one more powerful than he’s ever faced before. If Gladwell is right — we succeed because of our challenges, and not despite them — then, perhaps, the greatest accomplishment of LeBron’s storied career has yet to come.

An earlier version of this piece suggested a LeBron James quote about Tristan Thompson was about Kyrie Irving; the correct quote has been added in the original quote’s place.