If LeBron James leads his Cleveland Cavaliers past the Golden State Warriors and earns the fourth ring of his Hall of Fame career, he may finally be finished chasing ghosts. But even if he falls on the NBA‘s biggest stage, he’ll have accomplished something few individuals in any team sport have ever been able to claim.
After the series-clinching 135-102 victory over the Boston Celtics on Thursday, one in which he passed Michael Jordan to become the all-time leading scorer in playoff history, he’s truly become his own dynasty.
That’s a designation typically reserved for the greatest teams, the ones who keep racking up championships and leaving all competitors in their proverbial dust. The Jordan-era Chicago Bulls were a dynasty, winning six titles in a single decade.
So too were Bill Russell’s Celtics. Lew Alcindor’s reign with the UCLA Bruins certainly qualifies, and we can’t overlook great runs in other sports—the New York Yankees from the late 1940s through the early ’60s and the Montreal Canadiens in the late ’50s are just a few examples.
But James is redefining the term.
He’s boasted an unrelenting stranglehold on his half of the Association for the better part of a decade, following up losses to the Orlando Magic (2009 Eastern Conference Finals) and Celtics (2010 Eastern Conference semifinals) by putting together a run like none other. This is now James’ seventh consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, which puts him—and James Jones, who’s ridden on his coattails all the while—in some rarified air.
Properly contextualizing seven straight chances at the Larry O’Brien Trophy is nearly impossible. That doesn’t sound like too long a streak, especially because some of the trips have ended in failure.
But no one in modern NBA history has ever achieved such a feat. Members of Russell’s Celtics (Russell himself, as well as Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn and others) earned even longer streaks, but they also played during an era in which a single series victory was the only advancement necessary. Jordan may have joined the club had he not tested his baseball chops.
Until James, that’s about everyone worth mentioning.
Think about it this way: With James Jones now joining the club, only 19 players in NBA history have played in seven Finals. Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Wilt Chamberlain and Tim Duncan all fall just short, which means James has used a seven-year stretch to advance to the biggest stage more frequently than all but 18 other players in the history of this sport.
And it gets better: Only five of the league’s 30 franchises—and we can even throw the defunct squads into the mix—have as many NBA Finals appearances in their history as James has in the last seven years. If that’s not the definition of a dynasty, what is?
That’s not a rhetorical question. Maybe you don’t think just making the Finals is worthy of dynastic recognition. James does have glaring flaws on his postseason resume, thanks to his defeats at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs (2007 and 2014), Golden State Warriors (2015) and Dallas Mavericks (2011).
It’s a perfectly legitimate opinion…until you consider all the other factors that have gone into this run.
Dynasties also inspire fear, and that’s exactly what James’ reign of terror has done to the Eastern Conference. Just consider Kyle Lowry’s words during his Toronto Raptors‘ second-round series against the Cavs.
“They’ve got LeBron James,” the All-Star point guard told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”
Not only was the quote delivered in the midst of the series, but it came from the best player on a team that won 51 games during the regular season—the same number of victories Cleveland accumulated, though the defending champions earned the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed. Even Lowry was resigned to the fact James could turn his level of play up another notch when games really mattered, effectively achieving invincibility during the first three rounds.
But maybe you’re still not convinced. Unmitigated excellence leading up to the most important series and fear-inspiring play can’t sway you. In that case, how about the four-time NBA MVP’s adaptability?
Though James has been surrounded by stars throughout this legendary streak—Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving with Cleveland, and Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat—he’s always been able to morph his game to the roster around him, showcasing malleability that’s rather uncommon in players of such prominent stature.
He’s made the Finals as a basket-attacking, score-first stud, functioning as such during the beginning of his short-lived South Beach tenure. He became a sharpshooter at the end of the Miami era, almost refusing to take ill-advised shots and dazzling with his efficiency. Now, back with the Cavs, he’s allowed Irving to take over as a go-to scorer more frequently (despite averaging better than 32 points per game himself this postseason) while playing the Magic Johnson-esque type of basketball he always seemed born to play.
Chameleons are typically found in less important roles. They might shift their style to fit in with the bench of a different organization.
At the risk of hyperbole, no star has ever changed his stripes this seamlessly on so many occasions. Chamberlain may be the one exception, but his decision to lead the league in assists during the 1967-68 campaign was met by defeat at the hands of Russell’s C’s in the Eastern Division Finals. James, on the other hand, just keeps winning.
Enjoy what you’re watching, because a run like this won’t happen again for quite some time.
Functioning as the NBA’s best player through his late 20s and into his early 30s hasn’t been enough for James; his individual prowess and its ability to spark success on a team-oriented level has now transcended the very concept of dynasties.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, ESPN.com or NBA Math and accurate heading into games on Thursday, May 25.
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