John Smallwood: LeBron picture incomplete without a championship
Forget the comparisons of LeBron James to Michael Jordan. That debate ended last season when James shrunk at the biggest moments of the Miami Heat’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
Forget the comparisons of LeBron James to Michael Jordan.
That debate ended last season when James shrunk at the biggest moments of the Miami Heat's loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
James can never be considered greater than Jordan — not when he's is already 0-2 in the NBA Finals, while Jordan went 6-0.
I can forgive the 2007 NBA Finals loss, when James, in his Finals debut, and his inferior Cleveland Cavaliers team got swept by Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, who won their fourth title.
Had James then gone on to win a championship or two, the conversation about him and Jordan could have raged on.
But the Heat's falling to the Mavericks in six games last year ended the argument.
James left Cleveland in 2012 to form a superpower in Miami with fellow All-Star Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Their supposed reign of terror began with the trio mugging in front of cameras talking about four, five and six championship rings.
James had already tainted his quest to be called the greatest by bailing out on Cleveland and jumping to an easier route to a title.
Then the heavily favored Heat went out an loss in a Finals that basically came down to Dirk Nowitzki's displaying more championship desire and mettle than James.
In 2009-10, James was the league MVP and the Cavaliers had the best record when they lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
That was a season after James was the MVP and the Cavs had the best record, but lost to the Orlando Magic in the East finals.
You can't be called the greatest ever if you lose the biggest games to opponents that weren't as good as you.
Having watched Jordan's entire career, I will flat-out state he and his Bulls never lost a single playoff series to an inferior team.
Once Jordan's Bulls finally got over the hump moved past the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons in 1991, they reigned with absolute authority as long as he was on the court.
James is in his ninth season. Jordan won the first of three straight NBA titles in his seventh.
The 2012 NBA playoffs are crucial to the legacy James acknowledges won't be complete without championships.
The expectations on him to win this year's title will be greater than ever — especially because of last season's flop.
Remember, we are not talking about James as a Hall of Fame player or even a player who will join whatever becomes the next all-time NBA team.
James is already a lock for both of those honors.
But in every sport, there is a small group of elite names that transcend all others.
It is defined by a combination of extraordinary abilities that led to championships.
You can't just have one or the other. It must be both.
For example, Robert Horry doesn't get in, because he rode the coattails of others to seven titles among the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.
Karl Malone doesn't make it, because he has no championships, despite being second on the all-time scoring list and winning two MVP awards.
Forget trying to compare James to Jordan; right now, James' lack of titles doesn't allow him to be placed in the same category with Magic Johnson (five NBA titles), Larry Bird (three titles), Bill Russell (11) or Wilt Chamberlain (two).
If Philadelphia can put aside its hatred for a moment, it's clear that James isn't even the most likely candidate for the pantheon from this current generation of players.
Kobe Bryant will claim his sixth title if the Los Angeles Lakers win the championship.
Bryant is already fifth on the all-time scoring list and may well pass Jordan into third before he is done.
Bryant won his first three titles with Shaquille O'Neal.
When O'Neal was traded and the Lakers were left bare, Bryant didn't leave town via free agency but instead embraced the challenge of building another dynasty with him as the unquestioned centerpiece.
In the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons when James was league MVP, Bryant was Finals MVP as the Lakers won consecutive titles.
That's the work of an all-time elite.
It's not that isn't still time for James, who is only 27, to carve out an all-time legacy.
But he must win multiple titles, at least three or four, and it must start now.
Each season that he fails to get that first ring simply increases the belief that, despite his enormous talent, he is not of championship stock.
What kind of legacy hit does James take if, instead of him, three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, of Oklahoma City, or reigning MVP Derrick Rose, of the Chicago Bulls, comes out of these playoffs with their first ring?
What would it say about James if it the Heat wins, but it is Wade who claims his second NBA Finals MVP, because he was clearly the catalyst?
Wouldn't that make James just like Alex Rodriguez, who got his only World Series ring by riding in the back seat with the New York Yankees?
Right now, James is little more than Allen Iverson — a great showman with nothing but a high school championship.
So, James can never be considered the greatest player of all time.
He hasn't established himself as the greatest player of his era.
If he doesn't win the NBA title this season, it becomes questionable whether he ever will be able to legitimately sit among the NBA's all-time greats.