by Chris Foss
In February, I questioned whether LeBron James could fulfill the hype that accompanied him out of high school to become the “King” of the NBA. In the 2017 NBA Finals, perhaps more than ever in his storied career, James played like a King. With 33.6 points per game, 12 rebounds per game, and 10 assists per game, James became the first player in NBA history to average a triple double in the Finals. He left it all out on the court;: in the five games, James played between 39 and 46 minutes per game each night. With a Game 5 tally of 41 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists, James was not the reason the Cleveland Cavaliers came up short against the Golden State Warriors, by a margin of four games to one. Indeed, James had to go up against perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent ever on an NBA floor. This rationale aside, however, LeBron is further away than he was four months ago from getting to the status of greatest of all time, and it’s far from certain that he’ll even win another NBA title.
With his loss this year, James not only dropped to 3-5 all-time in Finals series, but to a surprisingly poor 18-27 (40% win rate) in Finals games, among them 4-0, 4-1, and 4-1 embarrassments. His win percentage removes him from the class of all-timers Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal (who won four of his six NBA Finals appearances), Kobe Bryant (who went five for seven in the Finals), and Tim Duncan (five of six). With his loss this year, James falls closer to the category of memorable NBA “losers” like 1960s-era Lakers greats Jerry West (who won in 1972, but fell in the Finals of 1962-63, 1965-66, 1968-70, and 1973), Wilt Chamberlain (who won in 1967 and 1972, but lost in 1964, 1969-70, and 1973), and Elgin Baylor (who lost in all eight of his Finals tries). True, James has more overall championships as a player than any of them did, but he’s also come up short far too often to be in the GOAT conversation.
James may have among the greatest statistics of all time for someone who has played fourteen seasons, but statistics do not trump winning on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. If you stuck around after Game 5 for the presentation of the NBA Finals MVP award, you would have noticed that the award is given out by—and named after—Russell, perhaps the greatest winner of all time in American sports. His 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics (not to mention his two NCAA titles with the San Francisco Dons and his 1956 Olympic gold medal) will almost certainly never be equaled by any individual in any sport. Like James, Russell went up against players ranked among the best of all time, but arguably even greater: he took on Hall of Famers Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks, Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals, Baylor and West, and Chamberlain (who also played for the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors and the Philadelphia 76ers) Pettit and Chamberlain each got past Russell once; Baylor, West, and Robertson never did beat him.
In the hydra-headed monster of Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant, James is undoubtedly up against historic competition. He only plays the Warriors twice in the regular series and in one playoff series per year, however; while Russell’s Celtics usually took on two or three of the aforementioned teams in the same playoffs. In the pre-expansion era, furthermore, Russell had to go up against Chamberlain, et al up to a dozen times each during the regular season. In an era before game video/iPad breakdowns, regular TV/radio broadcasts, and even in some cases before reliable NBA newspaper beats, Russell had to figure out how to overcome some of the NBA’s greatest players ever on a regular basis, and he did. James has the benefit of a more favorable schedule, modern recuperative and scouting technology, and plays in world-class arenas, and despite his impressive accomplishments, he’s not quite good enough to regularly beat the best.
James’s defenders can rightfully point to one feat unequaled since Russell—seven straight NBA Finals appearances, and eight appearances in eleven years. Indeed, this is an astonishing feat. James has also won championships leading two different teams, a feat unmatched since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He’s made the Finals more times than Michael Jordan, who took thirteen seasons to make it to six Finals. But if we’re measuring James against Jordan, one has to consider that Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals against top playoff competition. Between 1991 and 1998, he overcame all-time greats Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, and Alonzo Mourning in the East; in the Finals, he bested Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, and (twice) Karl Malone and John Stockton. Note also that except for Thomas, all of these Hall of Fame players were Olympic gold medalists, many of them with Jordan in 1992. Before Jordan finally cracked the Finals code, moreover, it wasn’t chicken feed that he was losing to in the playoffs: other than a 1985 loss to Milwaukee in his rookie year, Jordan bowed out at the hands of teams led by Bird, Bird, Isiah, Isiah, and Isiah between 1986 and 1990. James has had more than his share of embarrassing non-Finals losses, meanwhile, including at the hands of the past-their-prime Pistons in 2005 and 2006, and Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic in 2009.
If James is not quite at the level of Russell and Jordan, however, could he top another GOAT contender, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Not quite. With 38,387 points, Abdul-Jabbar remains at the top of the league’s all-time scoring list, despite recent challenges from Jordan, Malone, and Kobe Bryant. His twenty seasons yielded six NBA championships out of a whopping ten NBA Finals appearances—imagine spending half your career in the NBA Finals! James’s durability and statistics may be drawing comparisons with Abdul-Jabbar, but his winning is not. On a purely aesthetic note, James also doesn’t have a pretty shot to match Abdul-Jabbar’s classy sky-hook. James might match Abdul-Jabbar in career longevity, Finals appearances, and maybe even that elusive all-time points mark, but it’s hard to imagine him winning three more championships.
After a galling 2011 NBA Finals loss to an inferior Dallas Mavericks team, James, then in his first season with the Miami Heat, famously said that he would wake up the next day and still have a far better life than the haters and doubters who criticized him. The comment, however, was probably meant to mask James’s insecurity about his place in history. Why else would he train so hard and come back so strongly after every defeat, even after he’d already won the 2012-13 championships? James’s drive, his numbers, his Finals appearances, and his championships do make the GOAT conversation worth having. A 2017 win would have given him a second set of back-to-back titles and put him squarely in the GOAT running. Instead, a far-superior team took him out, and now, about to turn 33 this December, James is clearly on the back side of his career. Bryant, who like James skipped college, won his last title at 32. Even barring injury and the inner turmoil Bryant’s later Lakers suffered, a younger Durant and Curry have a better shot than James of winning the next few Finals. Now the question may not be whether James is the GOAT, but, in fact, is his championship window closed for good? If so, it’s closed on a fine career, but not one quite worthy of Jordan, and especially not that Russell guy who is on the Finals MVP trophy.
 Ironically, Russell never won the trophy named after him. The first Finals MVP award was handed out in 1969, the last year Russell won the championship. That year, for the only time (yet) in NBA history, the MVP went to a player from the losing team—Jerry West of the L.A. Lakers.
 Russell lost to Pettit in the 1958 NBA Finals, and Chamberlain in the 1967 Eastern Division Finals. Otherwise, his record against the aforementioned all-time greats is, to paraphrase West from one interview about the Celtics, “unfair”: beat Pettit in 1957, Baylor in 1959, Chamberlain and Pettit in 1960, Pettit in 1961, Chamberlain, Baylor and West in 1962, Robertson, Baylor and West in 1963, Robertson and Chamberlain in 1964, Chamberlain and West in 1965 (Baylor blew out his knee and didn’t play in the Finals that year), Robertson, Chamberlain, Baylor and West in 1966, Chamberlain, Baylor and West in 1968, Chamberlain, Baylor and West in 1969. (Not to mention that in 1969, the Celtics also topped a Knicks team that featured all the players who would play next year for the squad largely regarded by the media as one of the all-time great clubs.)
 Not to mention that Abdul-Jabbar won three NCAA championships with the UCLA Bruins, and would have won the 1968 Olympic gold medal had he not boycotted the games that year to protest racism against African Americans in the United States.