The Cleveland Cavaliers are going back to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season.
Allow that to sink in for a moment. Four straight chances to play for the NBA title.
And to think LeBron James is responsible for making this happen. In fact, this is the fifth Finals appearance for the franchise, all with James as the centerpiece, the leader, and the best player on the roster.
James is making his ninth appearance in championship round, and the only players in history to have made more are Bill Russell, Sam Jones, and Kareen Abdul-Jabbar. That’s it.
By contrast, Michael Jordan went to only six Finals. Jerry West? Nine times, same as James. Magic Johnson? Only nine times.
Eight of those appearance by James have come in the last eight seasons, four with the Miami Heat, and of course, the last four with the wine and gold.
When Jordan was getting to the Finals on a yearly basis, outside of the two years he left the sport to play baseball, we recall the media adoring His Airness, appreciating what he was accomplishing.
It seems James gets nothing but criticism about his feat. Yesterday, we read how this season, the Cavaliers avoided the four next best players in the Eastern Conference: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Kyrie Irving, in order to win the conference title.
We also read about the terrible teams James defeated to advance to the title round.
James doesn’t have any control over either of these things. Both the Bucks and Sixers lost to the Celtics in the playoffs, the same Celtics that pushed the Cavs to seven games in the conference finals.
His team got a chance to play Boston, and they won. Would it be better for his legacy to lose this season or any of the other seven seasons? If he did, then the media critics would pound him for that.
Last season, Cleveland defeated the top seeded Celtics to get to the Finals. The year before, the Cavaliers were the top seed, and defeated the second seeded Raptors in six games.
In James’ first return year with the Cavs, the swept the first seed Atlanta Hawks.
And this year, Cleveland knocked off not only the top seeded Raptors, but also the second seeded Celtics.
In LeBron’s four years in Miami, his team was the top seed once, and beat the top seed twice to reach the NBA Championship round.
It is true that James’ record in the Finals is 3-5, but the only time you could claim his team was upset in the Finals was the loss to Dallas in the 2010-11 season. The other four losses came to the sports’ most consistently excellent franchise of the last 25 years, the San Antonio Spurs, and to Golden State.
The criticism gets really insane when the first loss to the Warriors, in which Cleveland was missing all-stars Kyrie Irving (injured in Game 1) and Kevin Love (missed the entire series), and yet the series still went six games.
And after the Cavs’ triumph in 2016, the Warriors fortified their roster by signing the league’s second best player in Kevin Durant.
When Jordan played, his teams were the equivalent to the Warriors, the team regarded as the league’s best. Meanwhile, in the last three seasons, the Cavaliers were considered the underdogs going into The Finals.
Perhaps James will be appreciated more when he retires from the sport, at least nationally. Maybe at that point, when he could be the sport’s all time leading scorer, and rank in the top five in assists, and the top 40 rebounders, we will realize his greatness as a player.
He’s not just a numbers compiler either. His nine conference titles should be proof of that.