It’s the question du jour: To whom does the NBA Finals matter more?
Whose legacy is more vitally tethered to this singular series?
It’s the debate on and beyond the hardwood. Is LeBron James’s legacy hanging on his next four wins? Does the King need one more crown to etch his place in the sport’s archives? Would a loss be a fatal blight on his bio, plunging him down the totem pole of history’s best ballers?
Or are the next six or seven games a referendum on Stephen Curry’s ascendence to the top of the league? Would four more wins not only confirm his place as the game’s singular player, but also forever change the metrics of the sport, making the three-pointer as vital as the bounce pass and rebound? Will the 3-ball replace the layup line as the game’s pregame and preamble?
LeBron is playing with the twin burdens of his woeful record in the NBA Finals and the sense that he should win this time. He took two games off the Warriors last year despite playing with one arm — and two players — behind his back. Indeed, last year’s title round, sans Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, just didn’t feel like a fair fight.
But LeBron, who says he feels no pressure entering the NBA Finals, is lying. He has to be. Has anyone so successful been more conflicted in the public’s eye? Two separate Harris polls in 2015 voted LeBron the most popular and unpopular American athlete.
It speaks to the ADD nature of our time, when we drift in and out of love with people on TV and in real life literally in minutes. But it also speaks to the sense that, for all his physical splendor, LeBron has yet to develop the ancient, assassin’s gene of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Curry has become the game’s darling by dint of his meteoric rise last year and his team’s surreal 73 wins this season. He’s jarred our old-school sensibilities with his NASA shooting range and ankle-breaking handle. The Warriors got so good so quickly that it almost offends us that they seemed to break the code of basketball, which always assured us that the team that takes the most shots in the paint generally wins the game.
Curry’s burden isn’t so much boosting his personal stat sheet as proving that the Warriors aren’t a novelty act, a one-hit hardwood wonder that will serve as little more than a speed bump on LeBron’s road to immortality.
It didn’t help that he won the league’s MVP by a unanimous vote, which was laughable. Michael Jordan actually lost MVP awards when he was clearly the best player, simply because the press was tired of seeing His Airness bag the hardware every year. Now the PR pendulum has swung absurdly in the other direction. No matter if you’re a Curry or King James fan, no objective basketball fan thinks Curry is exponentially better.
The general sense among people who really follow the NBA is that Golden State has the better team, while Cleveland has the more complete and dominant player. It’s an old-world narrative but fits flawlessly into today’s palate. No doubt the younger fan is feeling Curry, while more traditional NBA devotees seem to be pulling for LeBron to bring Cleveland its first title of import since 1964, when Jim Brown bowled over NFL defenders.
As paradoxical as this may sound, this is LeBron’s best chance to win a ring in Cleveland, despite the fact that he’s probably pitted against the best team he will ever play in June. He may only be 31, with several more shots at the Finals in the enervated Eastern Conference. But he’s also been laboring for 100 games a year since he was a teenager. His calendar stretches from October to June every year and includes the Olympics every fourth year.
Sure, he’s got that bionic body, chiseled by the gods, but he’s still human. Even if he’s a King.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.