That’s Jerry West. He’s the NBA logo and has been since 1969, when he was still playing.
Jerry West’s nickname was “Mr. Clutch.” Former Boston Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most, who disliked every player not wearing green and white, used to call him “Gentleman Jerry.” To my knowledge, Jerry West and Julius Erving are the only visiting players who ever received polite applause upon entering the lion’s den known as Boston Garden.
West was respected by fans everywhere. He is the logo because he epitomized excellence in basketball, coupled with class and grace. He remains the only player from a losing team to win MVP of the NBA Finals. Above all, he stood for something.
Do you know what West’s record was in NBA Finals when he became the logo? Oh and six.
Ultimately, West was 1-8 on the league’s biggest stage, losing his first seven trips before finally breaking through in 1972. And then losing again, just for good measure.
But he got one, which many people like to consider some sort of validation of NBA greatness. That’s as many as Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett have and one more than Elgin Baylor, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and Kevin Durant – combined.
LeBron James has two titles. He is about to make his fifth straight NBA Finals appearance, making him the only player in league history other than members of the dynastic 1960s Celtics to do so. And this will be his sixth NBA Finals overall, one more than Larry Bird and matching the totals of Tim Duncan and a fellow named Michael Jordan.
But because James has lost three times in the Finals, many people like to diminish his accomplishments when discussing the greatest players of all time, which is utterly ridiculous.
Somewhere along the way, losing in the Finals became the equivalent of a cleft palate or herpes or a felony conviction. It has become an undesirable, permanent mark that haunts a player for the rest of his life, regardless of what he does to overcome it.
It certainly metastasized in the iconic worship of Jordan, who to be sure went to six Finals and won them all, claiming MVP honors in each one. As hat-hangers go, that’s quite a hook.
Magic Johnson won five championships. He also watched four teams win titles at his expense. In 12 seasons, he played in nine Finals. But he was barely over .500, so let’s just remove the statue outside Staples Center right now.
Kobe Bryant has five titles but also has lost twice. Yeah, he’ll never amount to anything.
Tim Duncan won four championships before losing one that was on his fingertips, then bounced back to win a fifth the very next year. Sorry, pal, we’re only accepting perfection here.
Shaquille O’Neal won four titles but also lost twice. What an overrated bum.
Larry Bird won three championships. But he also lost twice. And two of his Finals wins were against the Houston Rockets and not the “Showtime” Lakers, so they almost don’t count.
Each of those all-time greats have won more Finals than they have lost, so they all must be better than James, right?
James doesn’t need someone to throw him the ball the way Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal did and Duncan does. He’s a better playmaker and rebounder than Jordan and Bryant and a better scorer than Johnson. The only player listed above whose all-around skill set is on a par with James is Bird, who wasn’t nearly as good a defender.
Abdul-Jabbar had Oscar Robertson and Johnson as sidekicks. Johnson had Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, who won a Finals MVP alongside him. O’Neal had Bryant and Dwyane Wade, who won a Finals MVP alongside him. Bryant had O’Neal until he became alpha dog.
Bird had Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson, who once won a Finals MVP. He also had Cedric Maxwell, who won a Finals MVP alongside him. Duncan had Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, who both won Finals MVPs alongside him. Jordan had Scottie Pippen.
For four years in Miami, James was just as fortified with Wade and Chris Bosh. But in 2007, he took a Cavaliers team to the Finals with Larry Hughes as its second-best player. This season, he has taken Cleveland to the Finals without injured third option Kevin Love and a hobbled second option in Kyrie Irving.
James said last week that he is “never the underdog,” but he is in this series. According to the folks in Las Vegas who make a living with this sort of thing, the Warriors should beat the Cavaliers. They are the best home team and have home court advantage. They won 14 games more than the Cavaliers while playing in a tougher conference. They have a deeper roster that includes NBA MVP Stephen Curry. James isn’t supposed to win.
What if James roadblocks Curry the same way he has roadblocked Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant? What if he turns Irving into this generation’s Scottie Pippen, the superstar riding shotgun? What if he elevates David Blatt the same way he elevated Erik Spoelstra? What if he turns an overtly tattooed knucklehead like J.R. Smith into an NBA champion the same way he did with Chris Andersen?
What if he touches off a celebration in Cleveland that has been 51 years in the making? Will that be enough to silence the critics?
Probably not. Haters gonna hate. And if James doesn’t win, the critics will immediately point to his 2-4 record in Finals – the same record as Wilt Chamberlain, another unfairly criticized player – and advance their utterly ridiculous argument that he can’t get it done on the big stage. Even if he scores 35 points per game. Even if he averages a triple-double. Even if Love is in a sportsjacket and Irving is dragging around a lame leg.
That’s fine. Just keep your talking points handy, because you are going to need them next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. In their current state with Love sidelined and Irving hobbled, this is the worst the Cavaliers are going to be for a long time.
Love sounds like he is sticking around and is going to get more acclimated. Irving is going to get better. Anderson Varejao – yeah, remember him? – will be back next season. Tristan Thompson is becoming a monster rebounder. Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert still haven’t reached their ceilings. Matthew Dellavedova just might be a legitimate backup point guard.
And with the salary cap set to explode in 2016, the Cavaliers won’t be hamstrung by the financial limitations that ultimately weakened the Heat just enough for James to decide to return home to chase championships, perhaps into the next decade.
Five years from now, it will be 2020 and James will be 35 years old. He will be threatening Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record while closing in on 10,000 assists. He also may be approaching 10 Finals appearances and five or six or perhaps seven championships.
And that discussion about the greatest players of all time? James just won’t be in it. He will be starting it.
And maybe then we will hear crickets from the critics.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor and a featured columnist for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.