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The LeBron James Standard

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A precedent that seemingly exceeds perfection puts the legacy of LeBron James in a historical predicament.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James has appeared in each of the last six NBA Finals. He is a 2-time Olympic Gold medalist, a 3-time NBA champion, and a 4-time NBA MVP. He is almost universally regarded as one of the 3 greatest players that has ever played the game of basketball and is currently having yet another MVP-caliber season, all of this at just 32 years of age.

Despite this, we seem to take the greatness of LeBron James for granted.

LeBron is probably the most highly-scrutinized athlete in the history of professional sports, which should be expected since criticisms often come in droves when you’re at the pinnacle of your sport, and LeBron has been there for almost a decade now. He was the most hyped prep athlete since Wilt Chamberlain, and has far surpassed everything expected of him at every step of the way. However, from the time he was deemed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated as a high school junior to current day, it seems that for every wrong decision LeBron makes, for every mistake, for every moment of weakness, for every time we catch a glimpse of a potential chink in his armor, social media is always ready and eager to chastise him for it. No matter the magnitude of the faux pas, the scrutiny LeBron faces is always stiff and unforgiving.

This type of cross-examination of a superstar athlete is commonplace in today’s fervent sports media landscape. Introspection and concentrated analysis into every little move LeBron makes hasn’t slowed down since he became a household name as a young, generational basketball prodigy from Akron, Ohio. Combining awe-inspiring talent with unprecedented physical ability and a legendary work ethic, LeBron never ceases to defy conventional wisdom and admonish all those who have ever doubted his drive, his determination and his strive for greatness in all walks of life.

Revisionist history has a funny way of altering our perception of past events, so one might look back at LeBron’s past defeats in the NBA Finals as failures. With no context, it might seem that way, but we know better than that. You can never judge a book by its cover.

At just 22 years of age, LeBron James led the Cavs to the NBA Finals (pretty much on his back) past a Detroit Pistons team that, while they were on the way down, were still the class of the Eastern Conference. The Cavs would advance to their first NBA Finals in franchise history, only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. All of the games were close, as the total point differential in the series was nine points over the 4 games. What LeBron did that season was herculean and truly one of the greatest feats of individual dominance the NBA has ever seen, but it is mostly lost in translation. Far too often, we fail to appreciate a player’s accomplishments because of the constant fixation on winning and losing.

In the 2014 NBA Finals, LeBron and the Miami Heat were defeated by the Spurs by a record margin for a Finals series. In that series, LeBron averaged 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists while shooting 57.1% from the field and 51.9% from three with a gaudy true shooting percentage of 67.9%. Kawhi Leonard (slightly before he became an unflappable two-way superstar) won the Finals MVP based almost predominantly for his defense on LeBron. Dwyane Wade, who appeared to be burned out after playing remarkably well in the first three rounds of that postseason, averaged 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game in the series while shooting 43.2% from the field with a true shooting percentage of 50.4%, and an 89 ORtg. For comparison’s sake, LeBron’s ORtg was 120. Outside of those two and Chris Bosh, who averaged 14.0 points and 5.2 rebounds, no other player averaged more than 10 points per game in the series for the Heat. Once again, the loss was pinned squarely on LeBron’s shoulders and is often referred to as a black mark on his career resumé.

The very next season, in the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cavs were without Kevin Love heading into a series with a Golden State Warriors team that won 67 games and was looking like the revolutionary new face of the NBA; a team predicated on constant ball movement and proficient, volume three-point shooting. Game 1 would go to overtime, and Kyrie Irving would go down with a broken kneecap. LeBron would have to win this series with Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov, and Tristan Thompson playing primary roles. In order to stay competitive in the series, LeBron had to abandon the calm reserve and efficiency he normally plays with in favor of volume, sheer aggression and determination. LeBron ended up posting averages of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game in the series. While the Cavs momentarily led the series 2-1 after 3 games, the Cavs ran out of options and the Warriors finished them off in 6 games. Andre Iguodala would go on to win Finals MVP, like Kawhi Leonard before him, because of the defense he played on LeBron James.

While LeBron has been given due credit for his Finals victories, a triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by younger, more inexperienced versions of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, a grueling, hard-fought victory over the ageless San Antonio Spurs, and the greatest comeback in NBA history from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals against the 73-win Golden State Warriors, he never seems to command the reverence from the masses that a player of his stature should merit.

LeBron is truly the first player in league history to be held to this type of standard; a standard juxtaposed to perfection. LeBron is forever chasing the ubiquitous presence of the ghost of Michael Jordan, and he’s admitted as such. Everything LeBron does is cross-examined and compared to Jordan, which is to be expected since Jordan is likely his final hurdle of competition in becoming the greatest basketball player of all time.

Expectations often dictate our perceptions of the world around us, and in the curious case of LeBron James and Michael Jordan, LeBron is the one that has to make the precarious climb to match or surpass the expectations set by His Airness.

In the case of Michael Jordan, we often tend to sensationalize his accomplishments even when, on the surface, they were spectacular enough in their own right. Context never seems to be properly applied when comparing Michael Jordan’s career with his contemporaries, but is rather met with conjecture and grandeur. We look at his 6-0 Finals record and hold that mark against any and all challengers, saying they must have a similar or superior Finals record than him or they just aren’t worthy of the comparison to begin with, no matter the context or any other comparative measures.

In essence, Jordan's faults are long forgotten, while LeBron's are constantly put under a microscope and blown way out of proportion due to an inequitable comparison to the near-mythological status affixed to a player thought to be the the basketball equivalent of Nietzsche's Ubermensch.

This is the standard Michael Jordan has set, and the one LeBron James is left to follow, seemingly grasping at straws due to the idealistic ceiling perpetuated by the idea that Jordan has laid a foundation of perfection and flawlessness that even the most quintessential competition could never realistically hope to surpass.

LeBron has had a career more than worthy of comparison to the greatest players that have ever played the game, but the unnecessary sensationalization of Michael Jordan’s career makes it difficult to rationalize the comparison to a broader audience that seemingly only defines success by career Finals record.

The realistic threat LeBron James presents as the first legitimate competitor for Jordan’s title as the greatest player of all time is most likely the pre-eminent reason as to why so many seem to hold LeBron in such contempt (this theory is very easily discernible on social media), but it’s ultimately a pointless exercise in futility. LeBron and Jordan are two of the greatest players of all time; whichever slots in front of the other is just semantics. It’s far past time to stop bickering about players’ historical rankings in juxtaposition with one another and just appreciate their greatness before it’s too late.

We tend to focus far too often on what LeBron James isn’t, but for a moment, let’s contemplate what he is. He’s a living legend, still in his prime, and playing some of the best basketball of his career right now. He will shatter a litany of hallowed NBA records before his playing days are finished. He’s an incredible role model off the court, a conduit for social justice, and an altruistic community leader. He’s fought to overcome adversity throughout his entire life and has earned everything that he has. He has stood up and fought for the rights of others, for those less fortunate and for those fighting for equality. He’s a leader of men who treats his wingman equally to the last man on the bench. He’s a family man, a caring father to his three children and a faithful and loyal husband. He’s helping to pay for a college education for 1,100 underprivileged Akron youth. He founded the LeBron James Family Foundation to positively affect and enrich the lives of the younger generation.

This is who LeBron James is.

Far too often, we get so caught up in the adversity and the grind of a long NBA season, we forget to recognize and appreciate the greatness that’s right in front of us. Far too many choose to focus on the negatives within sports, when in reality, sports are intended to bring us all together with a common interest. Most of those who hate LeBron are perpetually blinded by unfounded hatred and contempt of a great player and an even greater person for no good reason. This is not a man worthy of scorn, but rather admiration and appreciation for all that he does for his community, for his city, for his family, for his teammates, for the fans, for the league, and for the sport of basketball.

I believe it was Ferris Bueller who once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” One day, LeBron won’t be around anymore, and those who have made a living bashing him every step of the way will look back with regret and remorse and wonder how they allowed themselves to miss what was clearly in front of them the whole time.