Here is a big, and maybe even controversial (but not really) question: Do these Finals even matter for LeBron James? More accurately: Do these Finals even matter to the way that we process the idea of LeBron James?
In the short term, the answer is probably yes. The Cavs will (almost certainly) lose this series and people will probably say things about him, and those things likely will not be very nice, and then that’ll be that. In the long term, though, I suspect that the answer is no, these Finals do not matter for LeBron James. And that is fascinating, because generally that’s not how these things tend to work. But it makes sense because LeBron is not a "how these things tend to work" kind of human, nor are the results of this particular championship for him.
Let me state it more plainly: LeBron James is the most important person in the Finals. And nothing about these Finals matters to the way we understand him.
Players in the Finals, Arranged by How Interesting They Are Philosophically
1. LeBron James: It feels like LeBron has bulldozed his way into the very, very, very top section of the Greatest Players of All Time pyramid, and there are just as many people ecstatic about that fact as there are people furious about it. It’s bewildering, and a great deal of fun to talk about and think about.
2. Kevin Durant: Will we ever truly be able to corral all of the different things that Kevin Durant is, or all of the things he isn’t? Does it matter?
3. Steph Curry: Has any player who’s been as great as Steph Curry has been these last three years ever been questioned and disregarded as often as Steph has? And how differently would we all feel about him if he was a 20 percent nastier person? What if during a presser before Game 3 someone asked Steph how he thinks he’d have done in the NBA 25 years ago and he was like, "You know what? I’m tired of this question. I’ve watched game film from those Finals from late ’80s and early ’90s. Drop me in any one of those series you want and I’m hanging 40 points on all them bitches."
4. Draymond Green or Klay Thompson: Which of those two guys is more vital to the success of the Warriors now? Tough question, right?
5. Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love: Both of these guys are exactly the same amount of uninteresting that it’s somehow become very interesting. They’re the second- and third-best players on a team that’s been to three straight Finals, and still they seem to function as topics of conversations only in spurts and flurries, and generally only as LeBron-based asides.
Were the Cavaliers to Win This Title, Nothing Changes for LeBron
Let us imagine a scenario in which the Cavaliers, on their most Beatrix Kiddo shit, manage to climb out of this impossible-feeling 2–0 grave plot they’ve been placed in. Were that to happen—and, FYI, of course it will absolutely not happen — then that would certainly be long-term problematic for Kevin Durant and Steph Curry (and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) and the Golden State Machine of Excellence. Everything there would be tainted forever. Kevin Durant would (likely) never be able to shine bright enough to glow away the shadow of the collapse. Steph Curry would (likely) never be able to make enough 3s in a season to flamethrow away the doubt that he wasn’t actually one of the 35 greatest players ever. People would say that the Warriors were just a 30 percent better version of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns (or something like that). And on and on and on. So, were the Warriors to somehow lose this series — and, FYI, of course that will absolutely not happen — the loss would have an everlasting impact on all the current Golden State–based things and ideas and players.
What of LeBron, though? Were he to rally the Cavs to a win, what would be said of him? Surely there would be a cohort that would argue it as further proof that he is, in fact, the greatest basketball player who has ever lived. "Jordan never breathed life into an 0–2 corpse in the Finals before," they would say, and before they could finish saying the other side would yell, "JORDAN WAS NEVER DOWN 2–0 IN AN NBA FINALS AND IN FACT, GUESS WHAT? JORDAN NEVER EVEN PLAYED IN A FINALS GAME 7, SO DO SOME RESEARCH, YOU STUPID IDIOT," because that is the only hurdle LeBron has left to clear: being better than Michael Jordan. It’s wild, honestly. Everybody in the NBA is chasing LeBron’s level of greatness, and LeBron is chasing a level of greatness set by (and only ever reached by) the honest-to-goodness GOAT. That’s why the Cavs winning this series — which, FYI, for a third time, absolutely will not happen — would not (likely) change the long-term way in which we view LeBron. He’s still incredible, but he’s also still in the middle of a discussion he can’t win or lose, really.
Were the Cavaliers to Lose This Finals, Nothing Changes for LeBron
Now let us imagine a scenario in which the Cavaliers get swept (which feels inevitable). There are four smaller, specific reasons it wouldn’t grand-scheme matter, and one bigger idea why it wouldn’t grand-scheme matter.
The smaller reasons:
1. LeBron already won his title for Cleveland. Doing so felt like the fulfillment of a destiny grander than even the biggest destiny: a hometown prodigy delivering a championship to a sad-sack sports city only ever used to being on the bad side of history.
2. He did so in an incredibly historic and iconic fashion. Last year’s Finals was a legacy-defining series for LeBron. He was staring down a better version of the Warriors team that had beaten him and his Cavs in the 2015 Finals. The Cavs were in a 3–1 hole. And two of the remaining three games were on the road, including Game 7. And then LeBron went atomic, putting up 41–16–7 in Game 5 in Oakland and 41–8–11 in Game 6 in Cleveland, then finishing the series with a triple-double in Game 7, which was highlighted by the single greatest and most important and most impactful and most impossible and most unbelievable block ever in an NBA Finals.
3. LeBron is playing against the most statistically dominant team in the history of the playoffs. We have never seen a level of dominance like this ever during a playoff run, which was probably to be expected, given that a team that won 73 games last year added a generational talent to its roster. Speaking of …
4. The Warriors have a baked-in reason to argue against their legitimacy. To be sure, I do not think that the addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors this past summer means they would be illegitimate champions, nor do I think their successes were incorrectly or immorally gained. But that is for sure a thing that people argue toward, and so it’s something that has to be mentioned in a discussion like this.
Now the bigger question:
Wouldn’t LeBron getting swept for a second time in the Finals be a truly devastating blow? What other all-time great player has that ever happened to twice?
Well, let me point out two things here:
1. It actually has happened before, yes. Magic Johnson and his Lakers got swept in the 1983 Finals, and they were also swept in the 1989 Finals. You could definitely probably take Magic off the hook for 1989 because he missed a lot of those Finals with a leg injury, but if you do that then I’d like to remind you that Magic’s Lakers came within about two inches of getting swept by the Bulls in the 1991 Finals, so we’re still pretty much back to where we started. (And since we’re here, let’s also mention that Shaquille O’Neal came within a Kobe Bryant prayer 3 against the Pistons in 2004 from being swept twice in the Finals [that Lakers team lost to the Pistons in five, and Shaq’s 1995 Magic team was swept by the Rockets].)
2. But the thing of bringing up the His Teams Got Swept Twice point is you can’t apply it only to the losses. You have to apply it to the wins that got him there, too. Think on it like this: Using the number of games someone lost a series in means you’re weighting things. You’re no longer having a binary "Did he win or did he lose?" argument. You’re dealing in gradations. By that line of thinking, some kinds of victories (and some kinds of losses) are better or worse than other kinds. And if you’re thinking in terms of gradations, then you also have to give credit for partial accomplishments, too. And if you’re giving credit for partial accomplishments, then all of a sudden things start to look way different, because you can’t acknowledge that someone lost in the Finals in four or five or however many games without also acknowledging that that player got to the Finals. And if that’s the angle you’re arguing from, then how could you ever say that getting swept in a Finals is a bigger black mark than not even getting to a Finals, or broader still, that going 3-for-8 in the Finals is a lesser accomplishment than going 3-for-3 in the Finals, or even 3-for-5 in the Finals, or even 3-for-7 in the Finals? It should be mentioned here that no player in the post-merger top-10 conversation has been to seven straight Finals like LeBron has. LeBron has lost more than the other guys in that conversation — he’s also been there more.
And if you decide you want to argue from the straight-up "Did he win or did he lose?" angle, then that means you would also have to argue that losing in the first round of the playoffs is just as meaningless (or meaningful) as losing in the Finals, given that both of those things result in not winning a championship, which is the only way you are keeping score. (This, obviously, is an incredibly dumb way to think about this question, but it’s a thing people like to say because they think it makes them appear very alpha and competitive. "There’s no such thing as second place," they bark, living a third-place life.)
So pick your side. It can’t be both things at the same time. It has to be one or the other. You’re either grading on a weighted scale or a binary scale, both of which end up as a net zero for LeBron. Win or lose, he’s in the exact same spot in the conversation.
Because LeBron James is the most important person in the Finals. And nothing about these Finals matters to the way we understand him.