Greg Cote

Here's why, win or lose in NBA Finals, it's time to call LeBron James the greatest ever

The Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) defended by the Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) during the 2017 NBA Finals. The teams meet in a record fourth straight Finals beginning Thursday night.
The Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) defended by the Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) during the 2017 NBA Finals. The teams meet in a record fourth straight Finals beginning Thursday night. AP

Time to stop hedging and hesitating. Time to stop acting as if you need a little more evidence or maybe another ring. Fifteen seasons in, you can finally say it without feeling the old guilt of blasphemy (as long as you are willing to endure the perfunctory and incredulous outcry from in and around Chicago).

LeBron James is the greatest ever.

No asterisk required. No yeah-buts, no maybe-someday.

Right now and until some slightly beyond-human mutant who's even better comes along.

The. Greatest. Ever.

Not since James Naismith first hung a peach basket in 1891 has anyone touched a basketball who proved to be a better all-round player than LeBron, the kid who was introduced to us at age 19 as "The Chosen One" and somehow managed to exceed expectations.

The Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are not James' equal, even though they may well combine to defeat James and his outmanned Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals beginning Thursday night.

And, no, not even Michael Jordan was, at least by my eye and reckoning, although parsing LeBron vs. Michael rather than simply celebrating the other-worldly majesty of both is like arguing Beethoven or Mozart while the symphony plays. (I guess Kobe would be Bach in my scenario?)

Call Jordan the greater champion, fine. Call him more iconic, a better pure scorer. OK. The more artful acrobat. Sure, whatever. But for me the bigger, more physically dominant James is a more complete player as mirrored by more average rebounds and assists than Jordan, and also a better career shooting percentage. Again, it isn't any knock on Jordan, whose place in history can never be diminished.

I just find silly the idea that Jordan is unassailable, or that the ring count must forever be where all sports arguments start and end. Greatest ever is an individual designation.

LeBron at 33 is better than ever. Not as good. Better. The latest indication is that he could carry this Cavaliers team — not special in the least beyond his own brilliance — to the Finals.

Cleveland is the biggest Finals betting underdog in 16 years, including a 12-point 'dog in Game 1. A 24-person ESPN "experts panel" predicted the series, and all 24 picked Golden State, with only two seeing it going the full seven games. The Cavs' scant upset chances might rely on a couple of injury wild cards. If Kevin Love (concussion) returns for Cleveland and Andre Iguodala (knee) remains out for Golden State, the Cavs' odds would rise slightly.

Let us not kid ourselves, though. Cleveland's only real hope is if No. 23 takes over, as he is so prone to do when counted out — the one best hope for a lengthy series.

It would feather his legacy to lead one of the biggest upsets in Finals history, unquestionably, but my point is his legacy is formed. LeBron should be done needing to prove himself to anybody.

James' place on the top tier of basketball history is secure in a way that Golden State's place, as a team, is not. Not quite yet. "Dynasty" is a word too frivolously used. But three titles in four years (if they get this one) at least would enter the Warriors into the conversation.

This era's greatest individual player and greatest team are just part of what makes what we're about to witness feel like history.

This Finals represents an all-time first — the first time any two teams have met four years in a row for the league championship in any of America's Big Four team sports.

The rarity is underlined by the fact the only three instances of three straight are beyond the memory of most of us and the stuff of history books:

In 1954-56 the NHL's Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings met in three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, Detroit winning the first two. Those were Gordie Howe's Red Wings and the Canadiens of Maurice "Rocket" Richard.

In 1952-54 the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns met in three straight NFL Championship Games, the Lions winning the first two. The quarterback duel was Bobby Layne versus. Otto Graham.

And in 1921-23 the New York Yankees and New York Giants played in three consecutive World Series, the Giants winning the first two, led by a slugger named High Pockets Kelly. The Yankees? Oh they had some dude named Babe Ruth.

And that was it. The only other times that two teams met for the championship three straight years until Golden State-Cleveland came along to equal that achievement and now to surpass it.

It will take a near-miracle for LeBron James to raise a championship trophy for the fourth time.

But that is a miracle on which his legacy does not depend.

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