With 10 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, LeBron James came clean off a Chris Bosh screen for an in-rhythm, wide-open three pointer. With his team down three, and on the verge of elimination, it was a career defining moment. Until it wasn’t. James missed the three. Bosh recovered the offensive rebound and found a scrambling Ray Allen in the corner, and the best shooter of all-time pre-Stephen Curry did not miss. The Heat ultimately won the game, and then Game 7, and with it the NBA championship.
If Ray Allen isn’t Ray Allen, James missing that shot gets played over and over and over again. If Chris Bosh doesn’t get that offensive rebound, James falls to 1-2 in the Finals with his super team in Miami. But as soon as Bosh got that rebound, and Allen made that shot, and the Heat closed out the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron's move to Miami was vindicated. Two titles in three years in Miami after zero in seven seasons in Cleveland. Maybe the way James left Cleveland had not been vindicated, but the rest of the NBA world never cared about that anyway. And deep down, most Cavs fans just wanted LeBron James on their team. With the second title in Miami, the move to South Beach was an inarguable success.
A little over a year later, James made a choice that was both natural and stunning. Forget the burning jerseys (which continue to be overplayed by the media), Cavs fans drowned James in boos when he first returned to Cleveland in a Heat jersey to the point where a truce seemed impossible to imagine. The disappointment and anger, justifiable to an extent, felt too deep to come back from.
And even beyond that, James was coming off three straight trips to the NBA Finals in Miami. The Cavaliers were stuck in the lottery. It gets cold in Cleveland. There's no way he'd actually go back and play for an owner that went a bit over the top comparing him to one of the most infamous traitors in American history, right?
LeBron came home, and this time it was Miami's turn to be angry. It started early on, with Pat Riley's somewhat unhinged press conference where he intimated that if his stars didn't stay with the Heat it simply meant they didn't "have the guts". Once again, an NBA executive was challenging the demeanor and character of LeBron James. It continued on all through James' first two years back in Cleveland, with upset Heat fans (mostly in jest) taking up a cause under the hashtag #HeGone. He as in LeBron James. Gone, as in, back to Miami and Dwyane Wade. Let's take a moment to sit and think about how that one has gone for Miami.
But it wasn't just the Heat or Heat fans. After LeBron James lost in the NBA Finals last year, the whispers grew louder and louder. Are the Cavs better without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love? Can they win with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love? LeBron's prime keeps ticking away. Had James made the worst decision of his life going back to Cleveland? The Warriors won't stop winning; is LeBron James irrelevant?
All of these questions were, to a certain extent, fair. The Cavs were a very good team all season long. The Warriors and Spurs were historically good. Kyrie had an uneven season. Love, even when Irving was out, failed to step in as a clear dominant number two scoring option next to James.
But here's the thing about LeBron, and it's a point that seems to be forgotten a little too often: he's one of the greatest players of all time, and he's still playing basketball. As such, observers must account for transcendent occurrences that could happen at any point in time. You aren't supposed to beat 73 win teams on their homecourt twice in a seven game series. You aren't supposed to win three straight games, putting up 41 points, then 41 points, then notching a triple-double while you play four positions and protect the rim like DeAndre Jordan.
You're not supposed to do this.
And you're certainly not supposed to do this.
And when it was all over, LeBron had won his third NBA title. These arguments are fickle, and silly. The narrative changes if Allen misses that three-pointer. The narrative changes if Kyrie Irving doesn't have Game 5, or perhaps if Tristan Thompson doesn't do what he did in Game 6. It remains a team sport. But it ultimately doesn't matter. Once again, James is vindicated. You can no longer question his return to Cleveland. He delivered for the city something he promised long ago, and something no one else has been able to bring in over a half-century.
So what's left? James was right to go to Miami. He was right to come home to Northeast Ohio. It's self-evident. He's established himself as one of the greatest players ever, and he has plenty of time to keep rising. He's 31, and is in a position in the Eastern Conference where he can pace himself during the regular season for the foreseeable future.
With the Cavs down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, Matt Moore of CBS Sports tweeted something to the effect of "These #NBAFinals are going to probably remove any chance LeBron had of being a top-five guy all-time." Moore's tweets self-delete, so I can't link it. I don't bring it up to shame him or anything like that. I think it was a reasonable take during the circumstances, even if I didn't agree with it at the time. My point in bringing it up is that the Cavaliers' comeback flips the tweet on its head.
These NBA Finals should remove any chance of anyone keeping LeBron James outside of their top-five best players ever. Time is on his side.