LeBron James is like the owner of the NBA's hottest night club that everyone wants to get into. Let's call it The Larry O'B (that sounds more like a dive bar, but you'll get the point eventually).
If you're on the V.I.P. list as one of his teammates, history shows you'll be able to cut to the front of the line with a great chance of getting in. If you aren't on the V.I.P. list as one of his opponents, history shows that your chances of being allowed in drops dramatically. If you're in the same conference as James, you can wait in line, but you're better off just going home.
Of course, there are exceptions. Players have snuck past LeBron to get into the club, but the list of names from Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kawhi Leonard to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant show that you have to be an all-time great to make it happen. Not just anyone can breach LeBron's security to get in.
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LeBron has more playoff wins than all but seven NBA franchises. He has been to the NBA Finals more times (10) than every franchise in league history not named the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors. He's helped a handful of superstars get onto that V.I.P. list, sliding into the club to leave a championship legacy on their careers forever. The first ones that come to mind: Chris Bosh, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. More recently: Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard.
While there's no denying that all of the aforementioned players would have had fantastic NBA careers even without James' assistance, his presence took each and every one of them over the top to win their first championship.
Bosh was already a five-time All-Star with the Toronto Raptors, averaging nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds before LeBron, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat recruited him in the summer of 2010. He had never made it out of the first round of the playoffs, though. In his first three seasons alongside James - three Finals appearances and two NBA championships.
Love was a three-time All-Star with the Minnesota Timberwolves, proving to be one of the best forwards in the NBA when the Cleveland Cavaliers traded two former first-overall picks for him, but in his first six seasons in the NBA, he never had a winning record. Irving was making noise as one of the league's brightest young talents, but like Love, had yet to lead a team to a winning record.
In their first three seasons alongside LeBron - three Finals appearances and one NBA championship.
As for this year's Lakers teammates, we all knew Davis was a generational talent. A six-time All-Star with the New Orleans Pelicans and undeniably one of the best players in the league, AD still never made it past the second round of the playoffs. With Howard, he was unstoppable at the beginning of his career with the Orlando Magic, leading them to the NBA Finals in 2009, but came up short and never made it back.
Not until they joined forces with LeBron, which in their first season all together, resulted in a championship.
Sensing a trend here?
Well, for those guys and the many other role players that LeBron has elevated to championship status, the list of superstars that he's left standing in line, waiting to get in to The Larry O'B before being sent home is ... much longer.
Take Paul George, for example. He's faced off against a James-led team five times in the postseason. Those Indiana Pacers teams had championship aspirations and even had LeBron on the brink of elimination a couple times. In 2012, they held a 2-1 lead. In 2013, they forced a Game 7. In 2018, they held a 2-1 lead and had a Game 7. And guess what? He never made it past the gatekeeper.
DeMar DeRozan is another case. Three different times the Toronto Raptors looked like they could potentially reach their franchise's first NBA Finals. Two out of the three times, LeBron swept the Raptors, making it look easy as NBA fans began to crack jokes calling the city "LeBronto" because of how dominant he was in the playoffs against the team up North.
"People don't realize how tough it is to get past this (expletive)," DeRozan recently said of James. "To see him come to the West and be able to do the same thing, it's a testament to his greatness."
Jimmy Butler experienced it just recently, falling to James in the 2020 NBA Finals as the Heat's comeback came up just short, but it wasn't the first time he had been stopped by LeBron in the playoffs. As a member of the Chicago Bulls, the trio of Butler, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were well-equipped to win a NBA title with a deep and talented roster. However, the Bulls were never able to get past James as he added three more stars to his list of players he's denied a championship opportunity to.
That list goes on and on.
Al Horford has been swept by LeBron three separate times in the playoffs playing for a competitive Atlanta Hawks team. He's also lost to James twice in the Eastern Conference Finals as a member of the Celtics. LeBron's close friend Carmelo Anthony has been denied all the same, once as a member of the New York Knicks and once this past season as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Speaking of this past season, that should bring a reminder of two former MVPs that have twice come up short of a championship at the hands of The King in Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Their young and electric Oklahoma City Thunder team watched LeBron hoist his first-ever NBA title back in the 2012 NBA Finals. Eight years later, as teammates on the Houston Rockets, James and the Lakers got the best of them in the Western Conference Semifinals.
In an alternate universe where James doesn't exist, the legacies for nearly a quarter of the players in the NBA could be completely different - for better or worse. All those players that LeBron let into The Larry O'B may have never seen a ring in their careers. All those players that got left standing outside after years of waiting in line may have finally gotten a chance to at least have an opportunity to win a championship.
If this past season is proof of anything it's that even after 17 long seasons, the path to an NBA title still goes through LeBron James. And that doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.
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