LeBron great, not greatest

"Numbers Never Lie": Michael Smith explains that LeBron James is on pace to overtake Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time.

A decade ago, LeBron James began his NBA career, and he has been chasing the legend of Michael Jordan ever since. It's not his fault so much as it is ours. Right from the start, we wanted to see James in the bigger picture, wanted to somehow quantify the magic we were seeing each time he took the court. This kid from Akron was so big, so strong and so good that the stakes needed to be higher, the challenges we presented him with greater.

This week the LeBron versus Jordan debate seemed to come to a head as James' disappointing performances in the first three games of the NBA Finals left many wondering if the comparisons were invalid, or at the very least quite premature. Many considered Thursday night's Game 7 to be a deciding moment for James, a chance for him to prove the merit of those comparisons -- or put an end to them once and for all.

In some ways, James did both.

His thrilling performance in Game 7 reminded us all just how special and otherworldly he can be. He put up the kind of stat line a Finals MVP should: 37 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals. He made the Spurs pay for giving him space, draining five 3's and hitting nearly every open jumper they gave him.

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LeBron James got to celebrate another NBA title, but his struggles in the first three games of the Finals showed he still isn't on Michael Jordan's level.

Even the "haters" -- and there are still so many -- had to give it to James on Thursday night. He played with heart and confidence, he finished strong, he spent less time flopping and complaining and more time making plays, and when the final seconds ticked down, his first move was to congratulate a Spurs team that gave the Heat all they could handle.

In winning back-to-back regular-season MVPs and NBA titles, James joined a select few -- only Bill Russell and Jordan did it before him. And just like Jordan in 1993, James played in his third straight Finals after having led Team USA to a gold medal in the Olympics the previous summer.

If greatness is decided not just by a player's talent, but also by the hardware he collects, then James is certainly keeping himself in the conversation for greatest of all time.

On the other hand, James' inconsistent play in his four Finals stands in stark contrast to Jordan's superb performances when the spotlight shone the brightest. At times in this series, James was so invisible, it seemed absurd to compare him to Jordan, who saved some of his biggest, best performances for the Finals.

A few days ago, a friend said to me, "Sports are like time travel: What happens at the end changes the meaning of the past."

For James, this season's end -- a second straight NBA title -- makes another less-than-perfect Finals just a footnote to his growing legend rather than statistical proof that he can't meet the standards of those that came before him.

James' offensive woes in the first three games of the Finals were troublesome enough for those curating his legacy, but it was his play near the end of regulation in Game 6 that nearly spoiled the narrative entirely. Ray Allen's season-saving 3 to force overtime Tuesday night erased a disastrous stretch for James, helping ensure that his failures were just a part of the story and not the root of the tale.

In a four-minute span late in the fourth quarter, James had two turnovers, two missed shot attempts and an offensive foul. If Allen hadn't forced overtime, James' season would've been remembered not for the Heat's incredible 27-game win streak or his regular-season MVP award, but rather for his inability to finish when it counted.

Instead, James got a rewrite. His mistakes in the fourth quarter were a low point from which to rise back up again, and he did, helping the Heat to an overtime win. That set up Thursday night's tour de force, a title-clinching effort that will certainly keep James' early-series struggles from making the championship DVD.

For the team, the end result is what matters, but when it comes to James' legacy, the past cannot be rewritten so easily. In order for the "best ever" debate to continue, James must keep up with the impossible expectations set for him by Jordan's example. And so far, he simply hasn't.

Jordan famously won every Finals in which he played, never once requiring a Game 7. James has come up short in two of his four trips to the Finals so far, and his Heat needed all seven games to dispatch the Spurs.

In almost every one of the Finals in which he competed, Jordan improved upon his regular-season stats. Meantime, in all but one of the Finals in which James has played, his point totals and shooting percentages have been lower in the Finals than in the regular season. In the 1992-93 Finals against the Phoenix Suns, Jordan averaged 41 points per game. Forty-one! The lows were never as low as the highs were high for Jordan; he never scored fewer than 22 points in a Finals game. When Miami lost to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, James averaged just 17.8 points per game.

We won't know for many more years what the whole of James' career will look like, or how his legend will stack up. The Heat could be on their way to a three-peat -- or maybe even that eight-peat James so famously crowed about when the Big Three were introduced. In fact, James could end up winning so many titles and breaking so many records that Jordan's efficacy in the Finals becomes an afterthought.

But for now, there's really no debate. James may be a champion again, but Jordan is still the G.O.A.T.

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