a) How a Miami Heat victory would foretell the culmination of Lebron as the greatest player in the game today and a legitimate GOAT candidate
b) How a Dallas Mavericks victory would assure Dirk Nowitzki his place in history as one of the greatest power forwards of all time, possibly surpassing both Karl Malone and Charles Barkey
Everything would go according to plan and either Lebron or Dirk would leave the 2010-11 season having charted their course in NBA history.
Except there is one small problem.
Dwyane Wade has other ideas.
Through 3 games of the Finals, Wade has been the best player on the best team. He has scored, rebounded, and made the clutch plays that have put his team just 2 games away from an NBA championship. Dirk Nowitzki, as he has been throughout the playoffs, has been unbelievable – but he is on the losing end currently. And Lebron, well, he has just been a distant 3rd best player in this series to date. A quick glimpse at the stats below further tell the story:
In 4 less minutes per game, Wade has outscored, outrebounded, and outshot Lebron by significant margins. His stat line of 29/9/5/1.3/1.7 is the stuff of fantasy basketball wet dreams, especially when you toss in the stratospheric 57% average from the field and microscopic 1.3 turnovers per game. Wade has simply been brilliant.
And this would not be the first time.
As Dirk Nowitzki knows, Wade is also the owner of perhaps the greatest NBA finals performance in history – willing the Heat to their first NBA finals victory over the Mavericks. So what if D-Wade continues on this pace, Lebron on his, and the Heat win the NBA Finals. Where does that lead Lebron and his legacy? This is a fascinating dilemma.
On one hand, you have Wade, who would have 2 rings, 2 Finals MVPs, and at least 1 legendary performance in a Finals series (and this one is beginning to be a borderline second). With Lebron, you have a physical freak who has absolutely dominated the regular season over the last few years. He’s also had incredible playoff performances in losing efforts (see: Orlando Magic of 2009) and in many ways, has been more clutch. Still, his Finals performances have not have been up to his all-world caliber. Is Lebron deferring too much on the biggest stage? Or is he merely exemplifying the team player he is, giving up his statistical game so he can focus on team fluidity (and shutting down Jason Terry)?
Lebron supporters would have you believe the latter, pointing out that Lebron is doing whatever it takes to win. Still, it’s not like the Heat won going away last night. They got lucky. And it was Wade who showed up in the biggest moments. Lebron pessimists would point to times in his career where he just seems to lack the killer instinct necessary to close the deal – passing the ball to less skilled players or simply just not seizing the moment.
It’s a slippery slope for Lebron. History has not been kind to guys who play 2nd fiddle in the Finals. An analogous example may be the 2001 playoffs. For most of the playoffs, a strong argument could be made that Kobe was a better player than Shaq, averaging the following lines in each series:
1st Round (vs. the Portland Trailblazer): Kobe – 25/4/8; Shaq – 24/16/3
2nd Round(vs.the Sacramento Kings): Kobe – 35/9/4; Shaq – 33/17/2
Western Conference Finals (vs. the San Antonio Spurs): Kobe – 33/7/7; Shaq – 27/13/3
Finals (vs. the Philadelphia 76ers): Kobe – 27/6/5; Shaq – 36/12/4
Kobe’s incredible series against the Spurs that year willed the Lakers to a sweep. However, it is often Shaq’s dominating performance against a relatively weak Sixers frontcourt that receives a bulk of the attention (leaving aside the brilliant defensive job Kobe did on an Allen Iverson still in his prime). The result: most fans attach the alpha dog label to Shaq for his Finals performance, ignoring the earlier contributions made by Kobe.
Could a similar fate await Lebron if Wade wins MVP?
It seems doubtful , given the fact that James has spent much of this season as the Heat’s alpha dog. However, it now throws into question how you can be called the Greatest of All Time when you haven’t even been the greatest player on your team on basketball’s greatest stage. Furthermore, it would be a potential dent in the Lebron championship resume (i.e., Jordan won 6 Finals MVPs in 6 tries; Lebron would have won zero in 2 tries).
Of course, there is still much ball to be played in these Finals, and it would be foolish to count out a late run for MVP by Lebron. Still, it is a credit to D-Wade that he is once again stepping up when it counts the most. In so doing however, he may be unwittingly adding to one legacy and hurting another.