OAKLAND – Jerry West went 1-8 in the NBA Finals. Elgin Baylor was 0-8. Magic Johnson lost two Finals series in sweeps.
LeBron James’ 3-5 Finals record with three Finals MVPs holds up more than fine, and if anything, his performance in his past two Finals losses – against Golden State in 2015 and 2017 – adds to his legacy.
When it’s said and done, James will go down as one of the top three players to ever play the game, and quibble all you want about who is the best to ever play the game. Is it Michael Jordan? Is it Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Is it Bill Russell? Does it matter?
To paraphrase the late, great sports writer Frank Deford with a modern twist, you can yell on social media and scream on TV about who the greatest is, but no one truly knows. It makes for a fun and sometimes heated arguments, but there is no right answer.
In the Finals loss to Golden State – a 129-120 victory in Game 5 secured the championship for the Warriors – James became the first player to average a triple double in the finals, posting 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists per game.
It was an efficient effort, too. James shot 56.4% from the field and 38.7 on three-pointers (just 64.9% on free throws). In Game 5, he finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in 46 minutes. The Cavs needed James on the court for almost the entire game just to have a chance to win.
“I left everything on the floor every game, all five games,” James said. “So for me personally, I have no reason to put my head down. I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn't have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.”
This was James’ eight Finals appearance, and his seventh consecutive, joining an elite group of Boston Celtics players from the 1950s and 1960s to play in seven straight Finals.
He is the all-time leading playoff scorer (6,163 points) and is No. 3 on the all-time Finals scoring list with 1,247 points, trailing just Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
With two triple-doubles against the Warriors, James now has a league-best nine Finals triple-double, passing Magic Johnson in Game 4.
In his postgame news conference, he was not deflated but he wasn’t content with the outcome. Asked if he had any joy that his friend Kevin Durant finally won a championship, James said, “Well, I'm not happy he won his first. I'm not happy at all.”
He wasn’t as downtrodden as Jerry West after the Los Angeles Lakers lost the championship to the Boston Celtics in 1969.
“Probably the main reason I wanted to walk away from basketball,” West wrote in his biography West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, “was that I honestly didn’t think I could endure any more pain. … It was the most helpless feeling because I was sure I was going to be labeled a loser forever.”
That didn’t happen. Time sands the rough edges. West is the NBA logo and revered. With three titles, James is comfortable with who he is and what’s accomplished. He knows it’s better to have played in the Finals and lost than to have never played in the Finals at all.
“I put in the work individually, in the film room, in my mind, my body every single day to prepare myself for whatever obstacle that this ball club entails,” James said. “Does it always result in us winning? No. This is my third year here, and we haven't won every game. We haven't won every Finals, obviously. We lost two of them.
“So but like I've always told myself, if you feel like you put in the work and you leave it out on the floor, then you can always push forward and not look backwards.”
James' work ethic has clearly rubbed off on fellow franchise cornerstone Kyrie Irving.
"As a student of the game, it would be a disservice to myself if I didn't try to learn as much as possible while I'm playing with this guy," Irving said. "Every single day demanding more out of himself, demanding more out of us, the true testament of a consummate professional."
The Cavs may one day be Irving's team, but for now, he and James will look ahead to 2017-18, searching for ways to beat the Golden State Warriors.