As the Golden State Warriors took down the Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron James learned that his annual trip to the NBA Finals would be a healthy rematch with the team that took down the Cavaliers last season in his return to Cleveland and his triumvirate reboot. Last year he was without Kevin Love thanks to a cheap move by Kelly Olynyk and Kyrie Irving thanks to an even dirtier move by Kyrie Irving’s knee. What James likely realized, whether consciously or subconsciously, is that this finals appearance would be the most important one thus far in his illustrious career with regards to his legacy.
First, the opponent. The 73-9 Golden State Warrriors, the best regular season team to ever play. His entire career, LeBron James has been chasing Michael Jordan in the court of public perception. While this is completely unfair to James, this is the world we live in. You can’t be the best around if you aren’t Jordan. While this will not put him on par with Jordan, it will do one thing Jordan cannot do: take down the team that took down his record. The Bulls’ record stood for exactly twenty years until the Warriors won 73 (coincidentally the same night Kobe retired, ending the career of another player who would not escape Jordan’s shadow). While it doesn’t make any difference to James that the Warriors beat the ’96 Bulls, taking down the team that took down Jordan could not be a more symbolic gesture. Ignoring that the Warriors downed Jordan, the ring earned against the team that won more regular season games than any other would be the sweetest ring to date.
More important to James with regards to the Warriors is taking down the team that gave him his fourth NBA Finals loss in six tries. It will be his second title won against a team that had previously defeated him in the finals (the other team being the Spurs, who then got their own revenge the next season). Judging from all the pure expressions of James’ psyche in the media and on social media, revenge and perceived slights are the only things that fuel James more than securing his place in the NBA pantheon. LeBron James has basically spent every waking moment since the final buzzer of game six last year’s NBA Finals awaiting this rematch. Taking down the team that broke his narrative of returning home to bring a title to Cleveland would justify everything. The Decision, the strange social media idiosyncrasies, leaving Miami, signing the “easy to bail on” contract. All of it would be justified if he brings a title to “The Land.”
Bringing the title home to Cleveland will bring him into an elite group. While many players have won titles with multiple franchises, arguably only Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led those franchises to the title in the modern NBA. His overall ring title is unimpressive, with three being shy of a great number of people (who let Robert Horry win seven dang rings?) but leading two different franchises to the NBA title in four years will be up there as an all-time achievement. He can do something that Jordan unsuccessfully tried to do and something that Kobe refused to do: lead two teams to the promised land.
With a victory, LeBron will become one of six active players with three or more championship rings. Joining him would be hall of fame-caliber coattail rider James Jones, but a third ring would tie him with former teammates Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, and put him one behind Manu and Tony Parker on the active player championship tally. While LeBron can’t take his rightful place among the best until he’s retired, he will have to settle for being among the best (right now).
This all says nothing of being able to bring Dan “Angry Comic Sans Letter” Gilbert to kneel to the King.
The Warriors go for their second-straight NBA Championship and LeBron James goes for his third ring starting Thursday at 6 PM Eastern on ABC.