On the periphery of sports there exists a widening spectrum on the value of analytics.
On one end of the spectrum is the staunch mathematician beholden to the almighty power of the numbers. On the other end is Charles Barkley.
Numbers don’t lie, but they’re malleable, and in that they satisfy a perceived truth.
LeBron James, the greatest basketball player on the planet, is now 2-4 in the NBA Finals.
Numbers might not lie, but they’re devoid of context. Numbers can tell us a lot. They can influence. They can also shape arguments, and it’s in this specific context that we see the inherent flaw in numbers.
How will history remember the 2015 NBA Finals? You could start with the breakthrough of Mike D’Antoni’s offensive vision, valuing pace and space. It might also be remembered for the success of the collective over the individual. What about LeBron?
There was a prevailing narrative centered on LeBron after Game 3 of the NBA Finals. With the Cavaliers leading the Warriors two games to one despite a slew of debilitating injuries, there was a notion that a championship under these circumstances would define LeBron’s legacy. A triumph based on an expectation that belied LeBron’s already otherworldly postseason accomplishment. Remember, there’s no endpoint that satisfies the absurd expectations heaped upon him.
“I’ve been watching basketball for a long time, I’m a historian of the game, I don’t know any other team that has gotten to the Finals without two All-Stars,” said a soberingly honest LeBron at the podium following his team’s Game 6 loss to the Warriors. “We had three playmakers in suits and in this round, and even throughout the playoffs, you’ve got to have all the playmakers, you’ve got to be healthy, you got to be at full strength to win it. We weren’t. We just weren’t.”
A true testament to LeBron’s greatness is his ability to make an annual Finals trip an inevitability in spite of any adversity.
LeBron averaged 36 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists in the six-game NBA Finals series. He’s the only player in the game’s history who could make those numbers appear pedestrian. ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh pointed out after the series concluded that with LeBron on the bench, the team’s best perimeter players: J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones combined to go 0/21 from the floor. The Cavaliers shot under 20 percent and scored 51 points per 100 possessions with LeBron on the bench. LeBron essentially took the Cavaliers that were awarded the top pick in last year’s draft, without that team’s best player (Kyrie), to within two games of winning the championship.
LeBron went for 32 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists in the decisive game of the series. LeBron was amongst the names mentioned for Finals MVP throughout the series, and a 32/19/8 line did very little to sway the electorate. Remember the sick child on Seinfeld who asked Paul O’Neill to hit three home runs for him? Two, while admittedly quite an accomplishment, just wasn’t enough.
LeBron failed to meet our constantly expanding expectations. “He’s not Jordan,” bellowed the masses. “Jordan was unblemished in the Finals.”
LeBron isn’t MJ. But in the context of our collective sports consciousness, neither is MJ. Jordan, as we recall him, is a mirage.
Unlike MJ, LeBron’s legacy has been a talking point since the day he was drafted.
If numbers are devoid of context, then the idea of a legacy in sports is the other extreme.
A legacy is a flawed construct, because it’s a narrative, shaped through very specific anecdotes. Writers and commentators, the individuals that create the idea of a legacy, are all impeachable because they’re all biased.
How a story is constructed and shaped creates the legacy as opposed to the other way around.
We used to define legacies based upon a few anecdotes that stand out throughout a player’s career. LeBron’s legacy has been written hundreds of times since he was drafted, and is defined by a failure to meet expectations.
In his Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons put MJ at the top of his NBA pyramid as the greatest of all time. Simmons said Jordan’s true greatness isn’t unique to any specific era. Jordan is the greatest of all time because his game translates to any era throughout the history of the game. So does LeBron’s. LeBron is so good he’d take the 16-66 Minnesota Timberwolves to the Finals in 2016, because that’s essentially what he just did.
Hail to the victors. Congratulations to the Golden State Warriors. But there’s more than just lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy that defines greatness. There’s hundreds of metrics we could utilize to identify LeBron’s transcendent talent, but instead we use the one metric that diminishes it: 2-4.
We never demanded MJ win without Scottie. We never saw Magic win without Kareem. We never watched Russell win without Havlicek, Cousy or Sam Jones.
Maybe I’m just making convenient excuses for LeBron James. Maybe his career will be justifiably defined by losses, despite his immense talent. Or maybe LeBron’s career will expose us to the natural order of the game of basketball.
“The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team,” said John Wooden.
Basketball is and always has been a team game. Well, it is for everyone, except for LeBron James.