Jeremy Conlin is a contributor for Buzz Feed Sports and the Editor-In-Chief of Suite Sports. Today he drops by to discuss the incredibly reductive template for legacy building applied to certain NBA players. You can find more from Jeremy on twitter, @Jeremy_Conlin.
Guys, can we talk about LeBron James‘ “legacy” for a minute?
In Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Miami led 90-88 with 39 seconds remaining, with possession. That’s a strong win probability – roughly 80 percent, but that obviously leaves roughly a one-in-five chance that San Antonio would be able to force a stop and score a game-winning basket at the other end (or a game-tying basket to force overtime).
As we all know now, LeBron drifted to his right and pulled up for a fairly routine 20-foot jump shot. After a few mostly-meaningless foibles from San Antonio, the clock expired and Miami had won back-to-back championships and LeBron back-to-back Finals MVPs.
In the aftermath, everyone rushed to place the event in historical context. A second championship ring for LeBron supposedly cemented him as an all-time great, winning the regular season MVP and the NBA championship in back-to-back seasons put him even more rarified air (only Michael Jordan and Bill Russell have done it). He now has as many successful trips to the Finals (two) as not. For lack of a better word, he had arrived. He is just about unimpeachable.
But let’s back track for a second. Let’s try a revisionist history for a second, where that one-in-five scenario comes to fruition. Maybe LeBron’s 20-foot jump shot clangs off the side of the rim (as more than half of his attempts from that area do) and is recovered by the Spurs. In the ensuing transition chaos, Danny Green floats to an open area and drills a three-pointer. Spurs win. Party in San Antonio. Parade on the Riverwalk scheduled for Monday. Pop Dances. In the grand scheme of things, the likelihood of those events transpiring in that sequence are, well, not that unlikely. Perhaps even higher than one-in-five.
What happens then?
Well, for one, LeBron gets blamed. Of course he does. Who missed the game-clinching shot? LeBron did. Who was responsible for finding Danny Green in transition? Probably LeBron. Furthermore? The critics collectively act as if Miami’s loss in the 2013 Finals invalidates, or perhaps even retroactively vacates their win in 2012. He goes back to being a choker, a shrinker in big moments, nothing more than his generation’s Wilt Chamberlain or Karl Malone. A historical footnote to be forgotten in the annals of NBA lore.
For all intents and purposes, LeBron’s “legacy” was decided by two possessions that spanned 39 seconds.
We’ve seen annoying and reductive test cases before, but never like this. In 2012, the Heat trailed the Boston Celtics 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron went into God Mode in Games 6 and 7, advancing to the Finals, but he still had to actually win the title for it to “count.” Miami went on to beat Oklahoma City in five games, but it’s not like that clinching Game 5 was of enormous leverage for Miami. If they lose that game, they’re still up 3-2 with both remaining games on their home court. LeBron has experienced moments with immense potential downside but the only potential upside has either been “well, he still has to win the next round” or “well, he probably would have ended up winning anyway.”
No, the end of Game 7 was a bare-bones referendum on LeBron’s ENTIRE career up until that point. A career that had spanned over two MILLION seconds being irrevocably altered by the 39 yet to come.
Does this sound inanely, laughably, preposterously and mind-blowlingly stupid to you?
Because it does to me.
[Related aside: the same thing happens if Ray Allen misses that corner three in Game 6. LeBron’s “legacy” was “saved” by Chris Bosh grabbing an offensive rebound (one that followed a LeBron miss, by the way) and Ray Allen knocking down a shot. Forget a legacy being decided by one or two possessions, try a legacy being decided by one rebound and one shot completely isolated from the player in question.]
LeBron James didn’t wake up as a better basketball player on Friday morning that he had on Thursday. He hadn’t developed a 40-foot jump shot or found a way to dunk from the three-point line. His performance in Game 7 was strong, but not unprecedented (his Game Score of 32.5 was the highest of this postseason, but only the 14th highest of his postseason career). So what new thing did we learn about LeBron James in Game 7of the 2013 NBA Finals?
Ostensibly, nothing. Nothing changed about LeBron. The only thing that changed was how we (the public) perceive his career. And that perception could have swung back and forth to polar opposites depending on the results derived from TWO possessions of basketball.
There is an amazing double standard that dominates the discussion of great NBA players. For LeBron James, anything short of an NBA title (and dominant performances along the way) is a failure. For Tim Duncan, another pantheon NBA great, a loss in the Finals is shrugged off as another body in the wake of LeBron James. When Kobe Bryant and the 2010 Lakers faced a Game 7 in the NBA Finals, there wasn’t much of a legacy at stake – he had secured that the previous year with his first sans-Shaq NBA title. A win in 2010’s Game 7 reinforced it, and anyone discussing his actual performance in the game (a remarkably sub-standard 6-for-24 shooting) is doing nothing more than lobbing sour grapes at an NBA legend (and discussing his 2008 or 2004 Finals? What would be the point of that?). Then there was the reaction amongst NBA fans following the 2011 season, where many acted as if Kobe and the defending-champion Lakers getting swept by the Mavericks in Round 2 was somehow a more desirable outcome than losing in six games to those same Mavericks in the NBA Finals. Even before Thursday’s Game 7, there was a conversation surrounding the fact that Jordan never played a Game 7 in the Finals (the fact that Jordan had never played a team featuring three Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach with bountiful Finals experience didn’t seem to come up).
The examples could continue for days, but the fact remains, there are certain players that are held to higher standards than others, perhaps even higher standards than any other player in history is held to. The framers of these conversations are set in their ways, so they constantly update the criteria in order to never have to admit they were wrong. When LeBron led the Heat to the title, all of a sudden he had to do it again for it to really matter. Now that they’ve won two, the next talking point might be about how after Jordan’s first title season, the Bulls won it again every full season he was with them (and LeBron has to mirror that, or at least exceed Jordan’s six).
Why do we do this? Why do we rush to place things in historical context, but in doing so, in fact strip away all context regarding teammates, opponents, and era-specific rules? Detractors rush to say that LeBron never won until he played with Wade and Bosh, while conveniently ignoring that Jordan’s teams never even finished above .500 until Scottie Pippen donned a Chicago jersey (no, seriously, you can look it up and everything).
We’re starting to turn a corner with NBA analysis. Tom Ziller’s wonderful essay on skepticism touched on the subject and outlined many points that I would have tried to make, only he did it much more eloquently. We’re approaching a point where we judge players on the totality of their performances, and not placing undue weight on the ones that happen to take place in June. But we aren’t there yet (and we’ll likely never get there completely), and that’s okay. We can’t expect perfection from ourselves, especially when we revolt when other fans expect it of players. All we can do, as the worldwide community of basketball fans, is constantly strive to be more intelligent in our analysis. That, and remembering that the default position of skeptics – the idea that “anything can happen” – is the exact reason why we love sports.