The 2015 NBA Finals was yet another example of just how far LeBron James has come as a player and a person since his ill-fated, televised Decision to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010. While many once questioned his work ethic, dedication, and desire to perform in the big games, James took a team that won an average of 24 games from 2010-2014 and made them championship-caliber without All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to share the load. He is no longer the guy who shies away from taking the final shot either, as he did numerous times this postseason. LeBron has always been a talented playmaker, able to create for his teammates, but his accent into crunch-time performer goes hand in hand with his continued growth as a leader, as well as his place in basketball history as the best player since Michael Jordan (surpassing Kobe Bryant once and for all, as Kobe did have Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum during his post-Shaq titles).

Part-WAS-Was8934562-1-1-0LeBron still has his criticisms. He still can’t make it through the Finals without coming down with cramps. He still has a losing record in the finals, with only two wins in six appearances. He still expects to overrule his coach, as he did right before his buzzer-beater that tied the series at two games apiece. But LeBron is still the first non- Boston Celtic in history to play in five consecutive NBA Finals. He lived up to every expectation possible upon his return to Cleveland by navigating the Cavaliers to only their second finals appearance ever, and if Love and Irving were healthy it’s entirely possible there’s a different outcome. But regardless, LeBron averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists during the NBA Finals. Clearly there wasn’t much more he could do than average nearly a triple-double a game.

While he didn’t bring the championship to Cleveland, he has redeemed himself in the city that burned his jersey after his departure to South Beach. The fans that vilified him welcomed him back with open arms and still believe in him, as evident by the “MVP” chants heard throughout the crowd after his game six exit in the final seconds. The fans clearly recognized that no player had been able to single-handedly will his team to get so close to a championship since Allen Iverson’s days with the Philadelphia 76ers.

LeBron has clearly embraced his role not just as the leader of his team, but as the face of the NBA. When he was taken out with 10.6 seconds remaining, he went over to the Warriors bench and shook hands with their entire starting lineup and head coach Steve Kerr, recognizing and acknowledging the hard-fought victory. As much as LeBron will always be compared to Michael Jordan, and as much as Jordan may still be the best to ever play the game, he was never the type to engage in such an open display of sportsmanship immediately following a loss of this magnitude. It might be more a sign of the times that both players played rather than a reflection of the individuals, but in terms of heart, hard work, and ability to lead a team that has so little to work with, James did surpass Jordan even in defeat, if only for a moment. The debate will rage on until long after James leaves the sport, but for the first time ever, LeBron’s place in NBA history is in a positive and secure place, and the gap between Jordan and James continues to decrease in many observers eyes. They were two entirely different players, so it will never be an easy answer, but James continues to make his case in ways Jordan never had in front of him, which makes it entirely possible that one day the scale shifts to LeBron after all.

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