Regardless of your opinions regarding LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant, at least three times every regular season the Cleveland Cavaliers star battles a player that, by LeBron's own admission, he still trails in terms of greatness.
"My motivation is this ghost I'm chasing," James recently told Sports Illustrated. "The ghost played in Chicago."
In the interview, LeBron relived his Cavs' incredible Finals run that saw the city of Cleveland win its first championship in 52 years, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to the record 73-win Golden State Warriors.
“This was bigger for me than the first and the second,” James said, referring to his third championship, “because of everything it represents.” James grew up in nearby Akron, Ohio. His first two championships came as a member of the Miami Heat.
James revealed a text message that he sent to the team after losing Game 4 at home. "Let it go, play hard, be focused, follow my lead, and I'll make sure you get home for a Game 6," he wrote.
He made sure. On the road in Game 5, James scored 41 points on 16-of-30 shooting to go with 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks, and only 2 turnovers.
LeBron also kinda, sorta took credit for Kevin Love's unexpected and now historically notable defensive possession against Curry in the final minute of Game 7.
“Kevin was struggling, but this is a mismatch," James said while re-watching the championship-deciding game. On screen, Love had just scored on Klay Thompson out of the post in the second minute of the fourth quarter. "Our 6'10" power forward has a two guard on his back. That’s the only thing I see. I’m giving him the ball. Who knows, maybe this is part of the reason he shuffles his feet 35 times against Steph in the last minute.”
With three rings to his credit, James knows he has a ways to go before he can compare himself to the man that won six with the Bulls.
“My career is totally different than Michael Jordan’s,” James said. “What I’ve gone through is totally different than what he went through. What he did was unbelievable, and I watched it unfold. I looked up to him so much. I think it’s cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.”
Fair or not, any discussion about greatness will begin with the number of rings adorning each player's hand. Although it shouldn't matter as much as it doesn, James might have a better chance at getting there than people think, despite the supposedly unholy alliance Durant and the Warriors have formed.
LeBron miraculously won't turn 32 until December. And with his size and broad skill set, if he wanted to, he could be an All-Star caliber player all the way up until age 40, particularly if he makes the full-time slide over to power forward where any decrease in speed won't matter as much as it might at small forward. And if he takes a series of team-friendly veteran's discounts for the sake of reining in those late-career rings a la Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki, he could approach, reach, or surpass Jordan's six titles long after the Dubs' super team disbands.
But after 13 seasons in the league, and almost another three regular seasons' worth of more grueling postseason games, James's body has succumbed to more use than probably any 31-year-old in league history.
For now, that hasn't slowed him down. After Durant joined Golden State, James started setting his alarm at 5 a.m. daily workouts at 6 a.m., beginning his preparations for an NBA season sooner in the summer than ever before.
“I’ll have peace when I’m done,” he said.