James, though, may yet prove capable of introducing nuance to the historical conversation. If the phrase count the rings has long served as an argumentative cudgel—Jordan’s six beat Kobe Bryant’s five; Bryant’s five beat Shaquille O’Neal’s four; Bill Russell’s 11 mostly stay at the margins of the conversation due to sheer antiquity—James’s greatness is so plainly evident that it throws the usual criteria into question. This postseason, he has done almost everything one basketball player can do (34 points per game, 9.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists), all to prop up a probably doomed team a little while longer. Whenever James finally leaves the sport, any honest accounting of his legacy will put these nominal “failures” right alongside his triumphs.
Asked in the moments following Sunday’s Game 7 win over the Celtics where James’s output ranked in the annals of the player’s career, the Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said, “The best.” That may have been the adrenaline talking (James’s closing run in the 2016 Finals remains one of the iconic stretches in NBA history), but the implication was clear: Premier performances aren’t always reserved for the ultimate stage. That game capped a month-and-a-half stretch in which James led the Cavaliers to three elimination-surviving victories, dispatched the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Toronto Raptors with ease, and survived the loss of his only All-Star teammate, Kevin Love, at the crucial juncture. The Cavaliers’ roster was so dysfunctional, during the season, that it was essentially rebooted at the trade deadline; James turned the resulting mishmash into one of the last two teams standing. “I’m trying to squeeze this orange until there’s no more juice left,” he said after beating Boston.
Over the course of these playoffs, James has had his usual every-play involvement, orchestrating pick-and-rolls on one end and shouting out defensive orders on the other. But even so, certain sequences stand out. With eight seconds left and the score tied in the third game of the Toronto series, he dribbled the length of the floor, drove left, twisted his torso, and arced a running right-handed shot high off the backboard from a distance of some 10 feet to beat the buzzer. Late in a back-and-forth sixth game against Boston, he canned a pair of contested three-pointers to seal the win. For symbolic value, though, it was another sequence from that evening that stuck in the mind. Early in the second half, James broke free for layup; sensing that the Celtics would retaliate with a quick attack of their own, he warped back down the court and arrived just in time to swat a Boston layup attempt into the stands. In the span of seconds, he had made plays at opposite rims 94 feet apart, as if to sum up the scope of his importance.
It’s hard to think of a player who has accomplished as much with as little help. When Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls in 1993 to pursue baseball, the team he left behind reached the conference semifinals without him. Bryant, in the years immediately following O’Neal’s departure from Los Angeles, put up gaudy but largely meaningless stats as the Lakers missed the playoffs or limped to first-round losses. The five-time champion Tim Duncan spent his career in the basketball idyll of San Antonio, surrounded by egoless All-Stars. James, on the other hand, has amounted to a one-man guarantee of top-level relevance for more than a decade. When he left Cleveland in 2010 to join Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, the team he had led to 61 wins suddenly found itself with the second-worst record in the league; when James returned four years later, he lifted them from a .402 winning percentage to the Finals.