Appreciate LeBron James While You Can

LeBron James is the greatest basketball player I have ever seen, and maybe will ever see. I’ve been fortunate to see him play three times, and watched him create breathtaking physical art each time. The last time I saw him play, in March, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much of a difference one man can make on a basketball court. LeBron was in such control, it seemed like he had already written the game story. Get Kevin Love going early. Let Kyrie Irving do his thing for a little bit. Then take over in the second half and lead Cleveland to victory. For LeBron, the game was merely a matter of playing out what he had predetermined.

But that was then and this is now. LeBron James is headed to a fifth straight NBA Finals after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers through three rounds of the playoffs. He is the first player since Bill Russell and some of his Celtics teammates in the ’60s to appear in five consecutive Finals. Although the Cavs have a 12-2 record this postseason, the past six weeks have been a minefield for LeBron and company. Love injures his shoulder against Boston and is out for the season. Chicago’s Derrick Rose banks in a game winner and suddenly Cleveland is down 2-1 in the second round. Irving hurts conceivably every part of his legs and misses a few games against Atlanta. So far, none of this has mattered, because LeBron James. You might think a word or two is missing from that sentence, but it’s not. That is the Cavaliers’ answer for any question of why they’ve played so well recently, or how they’ve managed to overcome the myriad of injuries: Because Lebron James.

Alright, enough subjective gushing about the Chosen One. Here are some objective facts: LeBron, who finished third in this season’s MVP voting, has played in 172 playoff games in his 12-year career. For comparison, the other four top MVP finishers (Steph Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis) have played a combined 174 playoff games. Michael Jordan played in 179 career playoff games. LeBron could tie Jordan for career playoff games this season, and should pass MJ in career playoff minutes in the Finals as well. Some more facts: LeBron is sixth in career playoff points and could pass Jordan, the leader, two seasons from now. He is fourth in career playoff assists and also seventh in career playoff steals. It’s fair to say he will be rewriting the playoff record books shortly.

The counting stats are great, but wins and losses are what truly matter, right? Some more facts: LeBron is 102-43 (70.3 percent) against the Eastern Conference and is 23-4 in Eastern Conference series in his playoff career. His teams have won a road game in 21 consecutive playoff series, second only to Jordan. LeBron has the most playoff games in NBA history with at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists. He’s also the first player EVER to average at least 30 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists in a playoff series after doing so against Atlanta this past week.

LeBron haters (who are still upset about the Decision for some godforsaken reason) will point out that he is merely 2-3 in the NBA Finals in his career. True, but only in the 2011 Finals against Dallas was LeBron on the better team and didn’t win. Think about who was on his first Finals team, the ’07 Cavs that got swept by San Antonio. Outside of LeBron, it was a team of nobodies. The combined All-Star appearances for everyone else on that team? Two, both from Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel (Boobie) Gibson, Eric Snow and Donyell Marshall all played significant minutes. Larry freaking Hughes was the second best player! So what’s more impressive: Kobe Bryant going 3-1 in the Finals with Shaq or LeBron dragging that scrubby squad to the Finals and losing? It’s almost like it would be better for LeBron’s legacy if he lost more often in the Conference Finals, so his NBA Finals record would be cleaner.

The same case regarding LeBron carrying a team could be made to an extent with this season’s Cavaliers. Look who was playing crunch time minutes in the Conference Finals alongside LeBron: three Knicks castoffs in J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson (the guy who switched his shooting hand from left to right two summers ago) and Matthew Dellavedova, an undrafted Australian from St. Mary’s College. Combined All-Star appearances for those five guys: zero. Obviously, the wild card is Kyrie, an ultra-talented player who can take over games when healthy. If LeBron is in peak form and Irving is reasonably healthy and playing well, Cleveland has a chance against the Warriors. If not, it could be a short series. Yet again, LeBron is on the lesser team and is the clear underdog in the Finals.

I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped the fact that this upcoming Finals with Golden State will be LeBron’s sixth Finals. That’s one more than Larry Bird, as many as Jordan and Tim Duncan, and one less than Kobe. And look, LeBron has had an easier path to the Finals because he plays in the East, but to play that deep into the playoffs for five straight seasons is virtually impossible and would take a physical toll on any mortal. LeBron has played 41.4 minutes per game in 101 playoff games in this five-year run, so that’s basically 1.5 extra seasons without much deterioration or fatigue.

This season was the beginning of LeBron’s decline, and his best days are probably behind him, but he’s still the world’s best player. Thinking about all of these Finals appearances and playoff records has made me realize that LeBron’s greatness won’t last too much longer as well. This could be his last Finals. I doubt it, and wouldn’t be shocked if LeBron ends his career with double-digit Finals appearances, but you never know. When LeBron’s Heat beat Oklahoma City in the 2012 Finals, the consensus was that OKC would rule the West for the next decade. They haven’t been back to the Finals since. The 2011 Derrick Rose-led Bulls lost to Lebron and Miami in the Eastern Finals, and were considered worthy rivals for the foreseeable future. They still haven’t made it back to the Conference Finals.

So please, appreciate LeBron’s greatness while you still can. Success usually ends quicker than most people expect, so don’t take for granted how incredible The King’s career has been, specifically this past half-decade. If you don’t stop and admire what LeBron is doing, it’s possible that the greatest basketball player of your lifetime will be gone before you know it.

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