Greg Cote

Golden State or LeBron, this NBA Finals is going to crown somebody as the greatest ever

LeBron James, above is on mission to be considered the greatest player of all-time, and another NBA title will get him closer to Michael Jordan — still the standard-bearer.
LeBron James, above is on mission to be considered the greatest player of all-time, and another NBA title will get him closer to Michael Jordan — still the standard-bearer. Getty Images

I respect the past and appreciate that wonderful stuff happened before TV, before me. Games were exciting and athletes great long before ESPN’s “SportsCenter” came along. The world was in living color before TV was, believe it or not.

No, what is happening now in sports isn’t necessarily the best thing ever seen just because it is right in front of us and discussed and dissected ad naseum to lend a false gravitas.

Ah, but sometimes it is! Sometimes a golden age of anything can be toughest to see when you’re surrounded by it.

Tom Brady is the greatest ever, and we needn’t wait for a retrospective upon his retirement to know that. Same with Serena Williams, another active G.O.A.T. Mike Trout is passing through town with the Angels and even at 25 he’s looking like he might be an all-time great.

Which leads us to the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers in their third consecutive NBA Finals, a first-ever such trilogy that starts with Game 1 this Thursday night.

Golden State is 12-0 this postseason and Cleveland 12-1. Never have two teams entered a Finals with such dominance. The finale must rise to scintillating and spectacular just to meet expectations.

The stakes are all-time epic, and history will be watching. That might seem overly dramatic. It might sound like hyperbole. It’s also true.

Somebody is going to come out of this thing with an audacious claim full of fresh ammunition. That is guaranteed.

The favored Warriors, if they win, can consider themselves to be the greatest team in NBA history.

LeBron James, if he wins, will have authenticated the notion he should now be considered the greatest player ever to bounce a basketball.

Greatest-ever titles rarely enjoy absolute consensus, of course. That’s one of the delights of sports. The barstool debate. The arguing.

But this NBA Finals is going to give the Warriors, or LeBron, a heck of a case.

A Golden State triumph would be its second championship in three years, with the Finals loss in between coming after a season in which the Warriors broke the long-standing all-time record for most victories.

Another championship would validate the historic supremacy of this combination of superstars Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and such a deep bench.

This is what happens when you’re great — and then you add Durant. This is the most exciting, hardest-to-defend team I have ever seen.

Yes, in foisting Golden State to the verge of greatest-ever stature, I am aware the Boston Celtics once won a surreal eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966.

I was born in Massachusetts and as a kid adopted the Celtics as my team two decades before Miami had the Heat. Toward the end of Boston’s eight-year reign is when I became an NBA fan and spent many hours TV-watching the action on that famed parquet floor in the original Garden. I loved that team of Bill Russell and John “Hondo” Havlicek, with those Sam Jones bank shots off the glass.

Full respect to those dynastic Celtics, and it’s prickly to compare accomplishments across generations, when athletes today are bigger, faster, stronger and better-conditioned.

But these Warriors are better than those Celtics.

Eight championships in a row won’t ever be seen again, but sports isn’t all math or always quantifiable. Jim Brown is the greatest running back ever but only 10th in all-time rushing yards. You know where Vince Lombardi ranks in career NFL coaching wins? Forty-second.

LeBron’s claim to greatest-player-ever might be less arguable and more quantifiable than Golden State’s claim, and slaying the mighty Warriors to deliver a second straight championship to Cleveland would feather that résumé.

Michael Jordan has always been out front as the singular basketball deity. On merit but also by rote, he’s the understandable starting point for any chatter about greatest ever. It grows wearying, though, the Jordan apostles’ unwillingness to hear any argument that anybody else (LeBron) might be close to Michael … or his equal … or even better.

Guess what. That isn’t blasphemy.

Michael averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists to LeBron’s 27.1, 7.3 and 7.0. They are nearly even in career player-efficiency-rating (Jordan leads 27.9 to 27.6) and field-goal percentage (James leads 50.1 percent to 49.7). Jordan narrowly leads in career win shares (214.0 to 205.4) and defensive win shares (64.1 to 61.5), but those are cumulative statistics that will soon find James in the lead. Michael won six NBA titles. LeBron is going for his fourth.

If Miami showed James how to be a champion, he sure has parlayed what he learned. And winning a second title in a row over the heavily favored Warriors would be a crowning achievement by a player who — though now 32 — shows zero signs of slipping from his prime.

I have seen both Jordan and James up close, at their pinnacle, and it is praise of one, not criticism of the other, to say I’d prefer the bigger, more versatile LeBron on my team.

This might or might not prove to be a great NBA Finals, but there will be greatness all over it.

And somebody — Golden State or LeBron James — is going to emerge from this thing looking a lot like the best there ever was.

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