“He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said.
For two days, LeBron James couldn’t escape Jimmy Butler. What Butler did, scoring 35-points in 47 minutes, a 35-12-11 line overshadowing James’s 40-13-7 in Miami’s season-saving Game 5 win. What Butler could do, leading the Heat, perhaps, to an improbable series comeback. What Butler might be: A Finals MVP, even in a losing effort.
How did James respond?
With a 28-point, 14-rebound masterpiece in a series-clinching Game 6 blowout.
As great players do.
As the greatest of all-time does.
The G.O.A.T debate will never be settled, not as long as there are barrooms and barbershops. The Michael Jordan faction will point to Jordan’s flawless Finals record, his decade of dominance, his ability to succeed in a more physical era. James’s supporters will point to his ten Finals appearances, his now four championships and statistical achievements thicker than a Dickens novel.
There will never be a consensus.
But if we’re being objective—shouldn’t there be one?
“He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen,” Frank Vogel said.
At 35-years old, in his 17th year and in his NBA-record 260th playoff game played, James recorded his 28th triple double en route to his fourth championship, with as many Finals MVP’s. Years from now—well, maybe minutes—some will question the legitimacy of a bubble title. Don’t. The Lakers season began with 63 regular season games before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the league down but ended with a grueling, 100-plus day stretch in an isolated environment. A season that began in October 2019, ended 50 weeks later. The only asterisk for this title should be to denote how difficult it was.
“If you take this bubble experience, we have 17 players, he was committed to keeping all of those guys as a unit as one entire time,” said Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. “The amount of energy he invests in bringing his teammates together and keeping them focused on a common goal is unbelievable.”
James did it with a new running mate, a new roster and, yes, that presented a challenge. Anthony Davis is an All-NBA talent, as he showcased, again, with a dominant 19-point, 15-rebound performance in the Game 6 clincher. Vogel is a terrific coach. In the conference finals, Vogel pushed the right button, plugging Dwight Howard into the starting lineup. In Game 6, Vogel did it again, pulling Howard in favor of Alex Caruso, who sparked the Lakers with hustle plays.
But were we sure about Davis in September, when Davis—an elite player in New Orleans, albeit one with a limited playoff resume—first appeared in a Lakers uniform? Were we sure about Vogel, at best L.A.’s third choice last offseason? Were we sure about Caruso, Rajon Rondo or Dwight Howard, the Lakers’ patchwork supporting cast?
The Lakers missed the playoffs last season. They were hardly a cohesive unit. James made them one.
“You think you know but you don’t know until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group,” Vogel said. “Every damn day in film he’s leading the charge with getting our team better.”
Said Markieff Morris, “The type of leader that LeBron is for this team is unreal.”
Added Kyle Kuzma, “He’s one of the greatest leaders in sports.”
He did it with doubters, plenty of them. James played 55 games last season, the fewest of his career. For the first time, his body began to fail him. His field goal percentage dropped. His three-point percentage, too. He struggled to lead a group of largely young players. There were questions about James’s place among the elite.
It didn’t discourage James. It motivated him.
“Thinking I have something to prove fuels me,” James said. “It fueled me over this last year and a half since the injury. It fueled me because no matter what I’ve done in my career to this point, there’s still little rumblings of doubt or comparing me to the history of the game and has he done this, has he done that. So having that in my head, having that in my mind, saying to myself, why not still have something to prove, I think it fuels me.”
He did it in a year rocked by the tragic death of Lakers icon Kobe Bryant. He did it in a season stopped in its tracks due to a global pandemic. He did it in a racially charged climate, a leader among a collection of powerful voices demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. He did it without home-court advantage and with his family thousands of miles away.
A championship in Cleveland will always be James’s crowning achievement.
A championship, this championship in Los Angeles has to rank right behind it.
“At times I was questioning myself, ‘should I be here?’” James said. “Is this worth sacrificing my family? So many things. I’ve never been without my family this long. Missing the days of my daughter being in kindergarten, even though it’s through Zoom. Missing my son’s 16th birthday, which we all know is a big birthday if you have kids. Seeing my middle child continue to grow and be who he is.”
“I’ve had ups and downs throughout this journey. For some odd reason, I was able to keep the main thing the main thing. When I talked about all the stuff that I missed, they understood that, too, and that made it a lot easier for me.”
Was this James’s most challenging championship?
“I can’t sit here and say one is more challenging than the other or one is more difficult than the other,” James said. “I can just say that I’ve never won with this atmosphere. None of us have. We’ve never been a part of this… this is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve had.”
Debate Jordan vs. James now, but remember—James is far from finished. Davis is 27 and will likely sign a five-year, max-level extension with the Lakers this summer. Kyle Kuzma is on the books for $3.5 million next season. The Lakers can bring the rest of this group back on short term deals—and still project the $30-plus million in salary cap space they could have in the summer of 2021.
As James accepted his Finals MVP trophy, Davis barked in his ear.
Greatest of all time, Davis said.
He might be right now. Inevitably, he will be.
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