With that elusive NBA title in hand, LeBron James is on his way to being one of the top two or three basketball players ever. Period.
And he may be the best ever when he hangs up his Nikes.
As for winning the title -- and it was nice how James did it in style, wrapping up an MVP-worthy performance by messing around and getting a triple-double -- the best comparison to an athlete completing his career and silencing his critics is Peyton Manning winning the Super Bowl.
Remember how Manning was hammered with claim after claim about how he couldn't win the big one? After winning the Super Bowl, he was mentioned among the best quarterbacks of all time. He still was the same player; he just added a piece of jewelry not available at Rick Davis' Gold and Diamonds.
So too, James is the same player he was; only now he's bona fide. In fact, before he led the Heat to the championship Thursday night, James routinely was vilified for not embracing late-game moments and looking to pass rather than shoot in crucial situations. He's still the same player with the same distributor mentality; only this time the shots fell and the scoreboard turned out in his favor.
But that's sports. Heck, that's life. Winners write history, and the fact that Shane Battier and Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers took turns whipping the Thunder reserves makes all the difference. Here's an interesting question: If LeBron and Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant were on opposite teams, who wins these finals?
Does that diminish James' accomplishment or change the public's skewed view of James, who has been crucified for "The Decision," his poor choice to break up with the city of Cleveland on national TV? (Side note: In today's morally bankrupt culture, if James' greatest shortcoming in a life spent in the center of the spotlight since the seventh grade is a made-for-TV ego-mercial that raised a couple of million bucks for the Boys' and Girls' Clubs of America, well, hopefully we are all so fatally flawed.)
No way. Nothing should tarnish the moment for James, not if we're going to be fair. After taking the river of criticism for falling short, James deserves much of the credit for finishing the deal, especially considering his fate-changing performance in the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston. He deserves this now.
James is still the same player he was before these playoffs; he just has the career-making line on his resume. Fair or not, in team sports stars are judged largely by titles, and despite the better support James received this spring, he should get at least as much credit for winning as the blame he got for not winning.
James will have to develop a mid-range game. Michael Jordan became the All-Timer because of his ability to adapt his game. He went from Air Jordan to Care Jordan to Rare Jordan, and no one added more weapons from the midway point of their career as MJ did.
In his ninth year, James' game has started to evolve. He has become an efficient back-to-the-basket player in the post, and his decision-making off the dribble in these finals was top-shelf. Plus, he accepted the responsibility of guarding Durant.
James will finish his career with multiple titles, and while he may never catch MJ in some folks' eyes, James will be in the team picture of the best players ever. And if he becomes addicted to this winning thing, look out. If you're being honest about his talents, James will be a fixture on everyone's all-time NBA team.
Don't think so? Who other than LeBron could match arguably the most complete season ever and match Oscar Robertson's triple-double average for an entire season? Who blends size and skills better and has more plus-plus qualities? And he's only 27. TWENTY-SEVEN.
Sure, there are a lot of miles on LeBron (but no college miles), and the International competition is another slew of miles. But dude is a specimen. And he's a year younger than Jordan was when he won his first title.
It may have been a year later than he planned, but this is just the beginning for James and the Heat.