Eight years is a long time. It’s a popular presidency and the lifespan of a third grader. In NBA terms, it’s almost double the average length of an NBA career (4.8 years). Eight years ago, Kobe Bryant was winning his fifth and final title; Steph Curry was a year away from his first ankle surgery; James Harden had just completed his rookie campaign; Chris Paul hadn’t yet played his final season with the New Orleans Hornets. Eight years ago, Jayson Tatum was still in elementary school and Jaylen Brown had just finished his first year in middle school.
That’s just a belabored way of repeating that eight years is the length of time since LeBron James last failed to make the NBA Finals. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the Herculean stamina, drive, and excellence (not to mention at least a soupcon of luck) necessary to even be on the precipice of eight straight Finals. You might not realize it, but LeBron’s streak is already more impressive than the Lakers three-peat to start the 21st century, any protracted Celtics or Lakers dominance in the 1980s, or the pair of three-peat’s by His Airness. LeBron’s run to the NBA Finals all these years is most impressive individual feat in NBA history. Maybe in all of sports.
Regardless of how weak you deem the Eastern Conference, or the ultimate result of the championship round, making the Finals in seven consecutive seasons is staggering. The last NBA player to do so was Bill Russell, who—along with coach Red Auerbach—won eight straight NBA titles with the Celtics from 1959-1966. But there were eight teams in the NBA in those days, almost no TV exposure, social media wasn’t even in the lexicon, and Bill Russell towered over almost every player as a 220-pound, 6’9'' center. LeBron is headed to his eighth straight Finals in a league with 30 teams and around-the-clock coverage from multiple cable networks and social media platforms. And he’s doing it while going against the most sophisticated teams in history with cutting-edge tracking technology, 6’10'', 230-pound point forwards, and sharpshooters who severely tilt the spacing of an NBA court by routinely ripping nylon from 30 feet.
Since the introduction of the 3-point line in the 1979-1980 season, no one––not Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, or even seven-time champion Robert Horry––has appeared in more than four consecutive NBA Finals (Magic and Kareem appeared in four straight from 1982-85).
Eight years of consistent greatness is all the more impressive with the advent of the internet and the rise of Twitter. It’s allowed every yahoo with access equal footing to spew armchair analysis and vitriol––empiricism and forethought be damned. LeBron has nearly made it to eight straight championship rounds in a world where every pro athlete faces the glare of a populace armed with a smart phone and access to share what they capture with everyone else. It’s a world fraught for celebrity, which likely would have collapsed around an earlier generation of NBA superstar.
In the summer of 1993, Michael Jordan retired for the first time. The earth stood still. He’d just won three titles in a row, but the blaze of the media inferno around his celebrity, the murder of his father, and the rumors of exorbitant gambling debts swirling in the periphery of that case all combined to lead him away from the game despite being smack dab in the middle of his prime. Three years of playing into June had robbed him of his infamous competitive drive. He’d conquered Magic, Clyde Drexler, Riley’s Knicks, and Charles Barkley. But the spotlight was too intrusive and exhausting. He couldn’t do anything in public without being mobbed by fans. He was done.
He came back a year and a half later, and after Nick Anderson picked his pocket from behind, and briefly besmirched his legacy, he went on to capture another three straight titles and a goat emoji whenever a certain generation now talks about him online. In 1998, Jordan retired for a second time. Chicago’s general manager, Jerry Reinsdorf, had expedited the end of the Bulls dynasty when he presciently spotted the next Phil Jackson, Iowa State coach, Tim Floyd, and refused to renegotiate Scottie Pippen’s awful deal. By that point, MJ had beaten the Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton Seattle SuperSonics and twice he’d taken down Karl Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz. He had thwarted all challengers, and the drag of the journey was again no longer worth the hassle. Three straight trips to June was too mentally and physically draining. His minor league baseball excursion was more so a much-needed break, bookending three-peat’s, than the fulfillment of a pie-in-the-sky childhood dream.
The Spurs won five rings during Tim Duncan’s career, but never repeated as champions, and only ever made it to the NBA Finals in consecutive seasons as retribution against LeBron’s Heatles crew following their historic collapse in 2013. The Lakers dynasty that won three straight to start the millennium couldn’t get past Duncan’s Spurs in 2003, and couldn’t get past their internal machismo to return to the Finals after losing to Detroit in 2004. Still, four Finals appearances in five years is impressive, especially with three wins. It’s hard to make it that far. Harder still to make it that far and then return. Ask Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, who thought they’d certainly be back a few more times after losing to LeBron’s Heat in 2012.
This season, there’s been a lot of talk about the grind of the regular season and how it’s affected the two teams who have appeared in the Finals the last three postseasons. Despite all this, LeBron will again finish in the top three of MVP voting, and both the Warriors and Cavs made it again to the conference finals. This time, it’s clear both teams were tired.
You can see it in Curry’s rubbery legs and sluggish Draymond Green postups. It shows itself in Tyronn Lue’s eyes and Steve Kerr gingerly stretching his back before he again takes his seat. Lethargy is why that surefire assist bonked off Klay Thompson’s dome in Game 4, and Durant’s struggling to get position on the low block on Paul. The toll is evident in Kevin Love’s hobbled gate—like a newer version of Mike Miller just trying to get down the floor in time to let it fly from 3. You can spot the grind even in Bron’s furrowed brow when Boston took a pivotal Game 5.
No one could have predicted LeBron would make eight straight Finals or even have the chance. It’s the single most impressive individual streak in NBA history. Yes, more so than MJ, and I’m from the generation that knows the crying MJ from his first title, or his fourth one on Father’s Day.