(CBS)–Two titles in 12 seasons. That’s the current résumé of the greatest player in the world, LeBron James, who single-handedly kept his beat-up Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, only to lose again, falling to 2-4 in NBA Finals and raising questions about his ever ping-ponging legacy.
No one doubts LeBron is the greatest player of his generation. But, at this point, he’s the only player ever to earn that honor who hasn’t dominated the NBA Finals while in his prime — a prime that’s ending sooner rather than later. Is it his fault for not making his teammates better? Is it his team’s fault for not getting him better teammates? These questions are irrelevant and will stay irrelevant if LeBron ends up with a pedestrian amount of NBA championships. There’s no nuance involved in questions about legacy. It’s about numbers, pure and simple.
Two titles in 12 seasons. Michael Jordan had five in his first 12 years with the Bulls and six in 13 seasons overall. He waited six years for his first title, while it took eight years for LeBron to get his. But Jordan then went six-for-six in each of his last full seasons with the Bulls, while LeBron is only one-for-three after winning his first (though he’s made the Finals each of those years).
Making the Finals almost is worse for LeBron than not, as it brings up the question of why he can’t win when he gets so close. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fair query. It’ll be asked.
Two titles in 12 seasons. Magic had five in his first eight seasons and went to the Finals nine times in the 12 seasons he played before contracting HIV. Larry Bird had three wins in his first seven seasons, but none in his final six (though he has injuries and Len Bias as excuses). Kareem had two titles in his first 12 years too, while Wilt Chamberlain only had one in his first 12, but that’s mostly because Bill Russell and the Celtics sucked up all the oxygen, winning 10 titles those years.
More often than not, the greats have won more frequently than LeBron.
So what does this mean for LeBron’s legacy? Well, nothing — yet. He’s still only 30 and has maybe five more prime years. Given how close Cleveland came to a title in 2015 and how they’ll certainly be a free-agent destination with LeBron’s Nike banner hanging back in the city, he’s almost assured of winning more in Cleveland, ending the city’s much-ballyhooed drought. Then again, the expectation for that star-studded Miami team was more than two titles in four years.
Even though LeBron is just 30, he’s an old 30. All those seasons take a toll, especially for someone so physical. He’s played over 1,000 games in the NBA, including the playoffs, not to mention his three Olympics, world championships and exhibitions for Team USA. Even though LeBron has only played a dozen years, only 18 men have played more playoff games. And given that LeBron plays like a running back, it doesn’t bode well for longevity. He’s not Tim Duncan, in other words. He’s talented enough to adapt his game to the inexorable march of time, a la MJ, but can he? The fadeaway jumper seems unlikely to sustain his career.
And then there’s the matter of how LeBron won his titles. It was as a mercenary in Miami, after he stabbed Cleveland in the back on live television and created a super-team. The move was unbecoming of a champion and though LeBron has matured since then, that sojourn to South Beach is still remembered negatively.
LeBron’s narrative is far from over. But no matter how Herculean his effort in these playoffs were, the loss is what will be remembered. And those are building up for LeBron James, the greatest player in the world whose résumé gets thinner by the year.