Are we there yet? Have we crossed the Rubicon? One day, LeBron James will lose a playoff series – for the record, the guy’s 11 for his last 12 – and America will have to react. And I think it’s all Michael Jordan’s fault.
The Jordan narrative, more than anything else, is excruciatingly linear. Like LeBron, he didn’t win a title for the first seven or eight years of his career. LeBron couldn’t get past the Celtics; Jordan couldn’t get past the Pistons. Is LeBron too passive; is Jordan too much of a ball hog? But then Jordan wins his first title … and he never loses a title in a full season again. Once he becomes champion, he remains champion forever, in easily digestible three-peats. We’re smart enough not to apply this logic anywhere else. After Peyton Manning finally beat New England in the playoffs on the way to a Super Bowl title, we didn’t expect him to play perfectly in every playoff game since (and have mostly stood idly by has he hasn’t). Even in sports that actually are individual, not just perceived as such, we understand this: No one tried to take back Andy Murray’s elusive U.S. Open title when he lost in the Australian final a few months later.
This postseason, though, with the slowly awakening Western frontier town, to take Dan Le Batard’s analogy, convinced me we’re not prepared for LeBron not winning the championship. Bill Simmons poked his head out from under the table, doing sky-is-falling, trade-everyone podcasts with Brian Windhorst after every big loss; the old ghosts crept to the fore. Should the Spurs have won Games 6 or 7 – and, lest we ever forget, they were one Kawhi Leonard free throw, one offensive rebound, or two hurried 3-pointers from doing so – LeBron, last season’s conquering hero, would have lost a series in which he played perfectly competently, but far from extraordinarily. It would probably have been considered a failure by many (we were, after all, having a National Discussion about whether three straight trips to the Finals is anything but an enormous success), because we don’t know what to do with a basketball player who’s anointed the best player since Jordan whose career arc doesn’t exactly follow Jordan’s.
I don’t think we have this problem if Jordan drops just one series over those two three-peats – if he, as very plausibly could have happened, doesn’t always defend his title and loses to New York, or to Phoenix, or to Indiana, or to Utah. Somehow, whether thanks to Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, the role players, or dumb luck, that never happened, and we don’t have the memory of Jordan walking off the court in a deciding game, defeated. San Antonio is a fantastic basketball team, one of those basketball teams other fantastic basketball teams should be allowed to lose to without being called names. But because Jordan avoided that fate, LeBron must do so, too. Jordan just might’ve ruined sports analysis for everyone else.
By this point, I would hope, the scales have swung convincingly enough in the right direction. The entire LeBron-as-clutch-failure narrative is based on a stunningly small, albeit high-profile sample – Game 5 against the Celtics in 2010, and Games 3-6 against the Mavericks the next year. Five games. On the other side is pretty much everything else he’s ever done. Sure, LeBron could throw up a stinker in his next elimination game, but he’d still probably have the highest points per game in elimination games in league history. It’s time we retire even the gentler trope, the “LeBron’s so interesting because we don’t know what he’ll do in this big spot” column that Joe Posnanski wrote nicely enough for most readers to forget it’s still psycho-analytic crap.
Maybe it’ll be different now, with the Heat having transitioned from loud new kid on the block to venerable champion looking to complete the set (In the NBA, everything comes in threes). I hope LeBron, after Game 4 in Indiana, Game 6 in Boston, Game 4 against Oklahoma City, Game 7 against San Antonio, has so earned our trust that when he inevitably goes down, we’ll celebrate him, too, the way we celebrated Roger Federer’s gripping Wimbledon defense against Rafael Nadal in 2008 or Djokovic valiantly holding off Murray for hours last year in Flushing. There’s too much variance in sports, too many injuries, too many subjective calls, for LeBron to win every time, even when he is the best player on the court. I don’t think we were there yet in 2013, which – I suppose I’m a little disappointed I determined a rooting interest this way – pointed me toward the Heat in the battle between my two favorite non-Wizards teams. Whenever someone does knock off King James, I hope they get full credit for dethroning a champion — and I hope “choked” is nowhere to be found.