Is LeBron James Ready to be a Legend of the Game?

How important is this NBA Finals victory for LeBron James?

When I was growing up, if you were talking about the NBA, then it probably revolved around Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. You were either a Larry fan or a Magic fan - not both. I was an East Coast kid and favored Bird, but the reason both of these players were in the public conscience so much was because every season one - or both - of their teams was challenging for an NBA championship. The Celtics and Lakers won a combined eight titles in the 1980s, and that is what cemented Larry's and Magic's legendary status.

That common theme has lived on as the NBA has traversed the last 30 years. The NBA moved from Larry and Magic, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James. Even though you can watch any basketball game you want these days, the focus year to year is on the teams and the specific players that lead their teams to an NBA championship. That's also the common denominator for what determines who is and has become a legend of the game. You can’t be an all-time NBA great and legend if you don’t end up with the hardware at the end of the season. The more championships, the better.

Bird has three NBA championships, Magic has five, Jordan has six, Kobe has five and LeBron has two. It seems hard to enter legendary status unless you have at least three NBA championships, and if you win three in a row nobody is ever going to question you. This is why LeBron is at a crossroads in his career. He's playing in his fifth NBA finals in eight seasons but if he doesn't win this year he’ll have lost more championships than he has won. Public perception of him, rightly or wrongly, will change depending on the outcome of this series.

LeBron is 29 years old and playing in his 11th season in the league. He's pretty much at the peak of his athletic powers, and should remain so for another three or four years. Being 29 years of age is also a significant measuring point for NBA championships when looking at past NBA greats.

Jordan won his third championship (in a row) at age 29. Bird won his third and final championship at the age of 29. Kobe had won three championships by the time he was 29, and then won two more at age 30 and 31. Magic won all five of his championships by the time he was 29, before his unfortunate early retirement at the age of 31. In other words, now seems like the time for LeBron to cement his legacy as one of the best of all time and win his third championship in a row at the age of 29. It won’t get any easier moving forward and you never know what the future holds with this Heat roster.

The table below shows where each player listed ranks in career points, rebounds and assists per game during the playoffs. These numbers alone show that LeBron has performed as well as some of the best players of all time, and better than some of the other superstars playing in the NBA finals with him this year. On top of that, LeBron is also 12th in total steals, 10th in three-point field goals made and 43rd in total blocks in his playoff career. He has astounding all-around ability and skills.

NameCareer PPGCareer RPGCareer APG
LeBron James56022
Michael Jordan110336
Kobe Bryant1013254
Larry Bird223224
Dwyane Wade2312648
Tim Duncan3616113
Magic Johnson58731

However, the numbers aren't enough, and we know LeBron doesn’t play just to put up numbers. He plays for the Larry O’Brien trophy, and that’s what his goal remains each and every season. It's also the only true measuring stick, fairly or not, of how great a player has been at the end of his career. That’s why this third championship will mean so much to his legacy if he can tear it away from the Spurs. Three championships in a row is going to look a lot better than winning two out of the five opportunities he has had for a championship.

We all know that this upcoming series with the Spurs is not going to come down to Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh or even Ray Allen. The outcome will rest on the broad shoulders of the current undisputed best basketball player in the world. The question remains though, is LeBron going to step into the upper echelon of basketball greatness inhabited by Jordan, Magic, Bird, Tim Duncan and Kobe and win that third championship?