LeBron James has been all things to all people in his 14 NBA seasons — from hyped prodigy to basketball supervillain to homecoming hero.
Along the way, we've taken ample opportunity to analyze the King. His every mistake is made out to be the end of the world. His successes come tinged with a neverending stream of, "Yeah, buts."
The most striking element about the way we talk about LeBron, though, is how quickly we change our minds immediately after coming to concrete conclusions. When you step back and look at the narrative arc since 2003, you can't help but marvel at all the ways we've painted LeBron with the broadest brushes.
With the 2017 NBA Finals in the rear-view mirror and LeBron falling to 3-for-8 in his Finals history, we decided to trace the evolution of how we view one of the greatest players on the planet through the lens of his eight Finals appearances.
LeBron's legacy is far from written, to be sure. That won't stop people from telling the story — a story that begins in earnest in 2007.
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2007: Spurs beat Cavaliers 4-0
This is the one Finals loss you absolutely cannot hold against LeBron.
He took a ragtag group of teammates — Larry Hughes started 68 games for the Cavs! — to the 2007 Finals by himself, only for the San Antonio Spurs to show the King what a real team can do.
Tim Duncan thanked LeBron for letting him have one last shot at the league before The Chosen One conquered the entire NBA, and that was the overarching perception of LeBron in June 2007.
The world was his oyster; in time, he'd take what belonged to him.
Oh, how wrong we were.
2011: Mavericks beat Heat 4-2
Every criticism of LeBron comes back to his inexplicable 2011 disappearance against the Mavericks.
LeBron isn't clutch — because he lost to Dallas.
LeBron isn't a real leader — because he lost to Dallas.
LeBron isn't the GOAT — because he lost to Dallas.
And as one of the staunchest LeBron defenders on the planet, there's not much I can say to shoot down that hot take. I can point out that the Mavericks shifted their entire identity to try to beat Miami's superteam by packing the paint on defense and letting the 3s fly on the other end.
I can tell you that LeBron and new teammate Dwyane Wade were still trying to make their overlapping skill sets work. I can blame Erik Spoelstra for not embracing LeBron's versatility — and I can question how things might have played out if LeBron had any semblance of a post game in 2011.
In the end, though, I'm just making excuses for the King. I can admit that.
His epic collapse in the 2011 Finals combined with the lingering hatred from "The Decision" and the "Not one, not two, not three ... " introduction in Miami to make LeBron the most reviled player in all of sports at the time.
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2012: Heat beat Thunder 4-1
Coming off his greatest failure and still facing backlash from his Decision, LeBron entered 2012 in need of redemption.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were happy to lend a hand. Scott Brooks was overmatched in his coaching battle with a resurgent Spoelstra, and Oklahoma City's holy trinity of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden was still a couple years away from ascending its peak.
Winning that first title exorcised some of the demons he'd gathered over his career, but doubts remained. Surely a superteam like the Heat wouldn't be content with one title, right?
2013: Heat beat Spurs 4-3
LeBron's fourth Finals appearance represented a turning point in his career, albeit one that almost never happened.
Just imagine how differently we'd look at the King had Gregg Popovich not pulled Tim Duncan from Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, making possible Ray Allen's 3-pointer off of a Chris Bosh rebound. LeBron would have been 1-3 in the Finals — and two of those losses would have come with LeBron boasting the better team.
Jesus Shuttlesworth saved LeBron with the Heat on the brink of elimination, and the King pulled his Finals record even at 2-2. Miami looked poised to threepeat, but there was a problem. San Antonio's collapse stoked a fire in Popovich that he used to fuel the Spurs to an astonishing run in 2014.
Sorry; we're getting ahead of ourselves— as tends to be the case with LeBron-based discussions.
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2014: Spurs beat Heat 4-1
When we criticize LeBron for his shortcomings, we tend to gloss over 2014.
Maybe it's because he already erased doubts about whether he could lead a team to a championship by winning two straight. Maybe it's because LeBron suffered those dehabilitating cramps in Game 1. Maybe it's because the writing was on the wall that this Miami team's dominance was on the wane. Maybe it's because those Spurs played the best version of modern basketball we've seen to this day — and that includes both the 2016 and 2017 Warriors.
Whatever the reason, or combination thereof, LeBron's near-sweep at the hands of the Spurs largely faded from our judgments of the King. The far larger impact came when LeBron returned to Cleveland in what was as much a business decision as a heartwarming story.
Because LeBron went home, we mostly forgave him for changing teams once again. Looking back, though, this five-game loss is another glaring blemish on his resume.
2015: Warriors beat Cavaliers 4-2
LeBron's critics want to have it both ways with 2015.
They can't denigrate LeBron for losing to Golden State, then turn around and belittle the Warriors' title win because it came against a depleted Cavs squad. The fact that LeBron stretched this series to six games without Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving (injured in Game 1) should be an argument in his favor.
The further removed we are from the 2015 Finals, the more it seems people appreciate that accomplishment. There's even been a rising tide against the idea that Andre Iguodala deserved the Finals MVP for "limiting" LeBron to averages of 35.8 points, 13.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists in six games.
Truly, not all losses are created equal. Making the Finals for the fifth straight year in 2015 is reason to celebrate the King's accomplishments, regardless of the outcome.
2016: Cavaliers beat Warriors 4-3
On Friday, June 10, 2016, LeBron was on the verge of cementing his undeserved status as the game's biggest choker.
The Cavs had lost Game 4 to fall behind 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
You know what happened next.
LeBron led all players in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals for the series as the Cavaliers stormed back to win a title for Cleveland. LeBron wept, the city celebrated, JR lost his shirt, and we all made "3-1 lead" jokes at the Warriors' expense for about a year.
Instead of falling to 2-5 in the Finals, LeBron found himelf staring down Michael Jordan as the greatest player in NBA history. All he had to do was make a whole lot of history of his own to earn the respect he deserves.
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2017: Warriors beat Cavaliers 4-1
... and the 2017 Finals put an end to any talk about LeBron as the GOAT.
He's the best player in the NBA today and perhaps its best ever, but he needed this championship to balance out some of the graver sins of his past. Coming out on top against a superteam built to take him down would have added to the legend of LeBron; a threepeat next year would have helped him surpass Jordan once and for all in my book.
The loss doesn't detract from his legacy, necessarily, since the Cavs managed to avoid a sweep. Little of the vitriol we've seen when LeBron lost in the past popped up this time.
Fourteen years into the King's career, we've learned to appreciate him for who he is — warts and all.
His detractors will continue to scoff at the idea of his greatness; his supporters will attest to his supremacy from the highest mountaintop. It's a fitting, living legacy for one of the most polarizing athletes of the 21st century.
Love him or hate him, LeBron is always on your mind — mostly because he's always in the Finals.