DALLAS -- Well, that's one conversation we won't be having. Ever.
Where does LeBron James fit with Michael, Magic, Larry and the greatest players of all time? He doesn't.
That's what he lost in the 2011 NBA Finals, and it's a more enduring loss than the actual championship ring going to Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of the Dallas Mavericks. James will get a ring of his own some day, and probably more than one, but his place in NBA history? His place as the G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time? That's gone.
|Plastic bracelets with self-glorifying nicknames are not the stuff of legends. (Getty Images)|
But not anymore. Not after the Heat defeat in the 2011 NBA Finals, his second appearance in the title round -- and his second disaster. The first one has been chalked up to Not His Fault, and maybe it wasn't. The Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in 2007 by San Antonio, but after the debacle of 2011 let's look back at 2007 with a more discerning eye. What you'll see, in addition to a Cleveland roster that lacked the Spurs' depth of talent, was a Cleveland superstar who simply wasn't very good that series. After averaging 27.3 points and 47.6 percent shooting in 2006-07, James' production dipped to 22 points and 35.6 percent shooting in the NBA Finals. He had 23 turnovers in four games. He began with a 4-for-16 stinker in Game 1 and closed with a 10-for-30 freak show in Game 4.
But James got a pass. He was only 22 years old, and his best teammates were Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden.
So what now? LeBron James is 26. And his teammates are Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. And James was worse in the 2011 Finals -- not by a little, but by a lot. For the series James was nine points below his season scoring average and also failed to reach his season numbers in rebounds and assists, and he shot below his season percentage from the floor, foul line and 3-point arc. About the only area where he surpassed his regular-season production was turnovers.
This was a choke. It was a great player having his worst possible performance at the worst possible time.
It was something Michael Jordan never would have done. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Larry Bird. Magic Johnson. Tim Duncan. Isiah Thomas. Great players who almost always played great in the NBA Finals.
Now then, don't get me wrong on this point: James didn't lose his claim to greatness. After he retires he'll go into the Hall of Fame, and he'll go in on the first ballot. He'll have gaudy individual numbers, and he'll have an NBA championship ring. Multiple rings, I would guess.
But lots of guys go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Lots of guys win multiple NBA championships and have gaudy individual numbers. That's the club James will join, someday. He'll join a lot of guys, instead of elevating above most of them and entering the conversation about the greatest ever.
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That's what James lost in the 2011 NBA Finals, when he disappeared in the fourth quarter five games in a row, making a cameo only in Game 6 -- after his team trailed by 12, the game all but over -- with seven points in the final seven minutes. James failed to reach 20 points in Games 3, 4 and 5, the first time he had done that in three consecutive games since his rookie season in 2004. And he avoided a four-game streak only with a late 3-pointer in garbage time, finishing Game 6 with 21 points. This wasn't a single missed shot or a single bad game, but six games of substandard play.
His legacy was damaged -- but then as only LeBron James can do, he made it worse.
Sitting in front of the media after the game, answering a series of tough questions, James dropped his carefully crafted veneer and let the world know what he's all about. In a sound bite that will rival The Decision for sheer self-absorption, James lashed out when he was asked if it bothered him "that so many people are happy to see you fail."
"Absolutely not," he said. "Because at the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had. ... I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live."
At the end of the day, they're still them. And I'm still me.
Hey, he calls himself "King James." He has "Chosen 1" tattooed across his back. And after Game 6, he tweeted the news that God still has wonderful plans for LeBron James -- just not the 2011 NBA title.
"The Greater Man upstairs knows when it's my time," James tweeted. Right now isn't my time."
Fair enough. But that whole conversation the world had been waiting to have? The conversation about LeBron James' place among the best of the best?
It'll never be time. A G.O.A.T. isn't a goat. And Sunday night before he tweeted, LeBron James bleated.