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Tuesday Musings: The Toll of Losing

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What does it mean to play in a league where the odds are extremely unfavorable for a player to win an NBA Championship?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I've been thinking a lot about LeBron James these last few days as it is becoming more and more apparent that the Cavaliers are not in the same class as the Warriors and the Cavs will likely be defeated in short notice. LeBron will then have a career finals record of 2-5, with the possibility of winning one more slipping further away as he grows another year older.

To speak about his career as if it is in its finality is almost arrogantly premature, but we can see the shape of its end burgeoning out of the shadows. LeBron will go down as one of the best players in the history of the game, and his physicality and dominance during his peak is without peer in his ability to effect so many distinct components of the game.

But he will still have lost all those games. It will matter when we think about his legacy, regardless of the context. In time, which only serves to further muddle our view, LeBron's legacy, his will to win, desire for the game, and impact on the NBA will all be questioned.

LeBron is a special case in this regard, although we already have several analogues in the NBA's short history for players who have primarily lost in the NBA Finals, Jerry West is always the usual example. However, in a league with so little parity among the eventual championship winners, LeBron will still stand out as a faded statue, besmirched but still holding fast.

But what is it like to be the almost superstars? The players with the hopes and dreams of cities and franchises riding upon them, but with a championship forever out of reach. These are the Melo's and Chris Paul's in our current generation of the NBA, and while the names will change throughout various decades of past and future epochs of the NBA, their situations will stay the same.

Sometimes these player's find themselves as mid-to-late career role players on championship teams, like Andre Iguodala with the Warriors, but if a player is well, too good, they will oftentimes find themselves on a max contract playing for a team that will never reach the finals without significant luck, or the result of a overachieving playoffs run like the Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.

Even further below on the totem pole are the players who seem impossibly saddled by their team's situation, like Anthony Davis in New Orleans. The odds of the Pelicans become a significant threat in the next few years are minuscule at this point and this makes Davis' odds of reaching the finals significantly lower, barring a blockbuster trade a la the Kevin Garnett trade that brought Boston a championship.

The overarching point that becomes exceedingly clear when the NBA is surveyed as a whole is that it is extraordinarily difficult to win an NBA championship, or even to contend for the finals. Are teams like Toronto really going to ever compete at the highest level or will they fade away similarly to Memphis after several years in the limelight as the "dark horse" candidate?

So why do we care so much about championship records if it is so challenging to reach the goal of winning the in the NBA finals? Why do we immediately discount historic regular season team and individual performances if they are not followed by sustained playoff success? Why do we think that players "don't want it enough," whatever "it" is? What causes us to celebrate the borderline sociopath-like obsession with winning in players like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan compared to the early knock on LeBron that he "didn't want to take the last shot"?

The more philosophical answer is likely that as humans, and especially Americans, we like the story of heroes struggling against adversity, not allowing themselves to discouraged by failure. That's why we all know the story of how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team as a freshman.

However, I believe we truly care precisely because it is difficult. LeBron has accomplished a herculean task, even amidst the relative decrepitude of the Eastern Conference. But the toll must be real as well, for any player to dedicate their career to a sport with such a small chance or reaching what we consider success (this is of course discounting all of the perks of being rich and famous) defined by NBA championships.

But that is what we require out of our heroes, deserved or not, for them to prove that they are the "best," regardless of the fact that discounting the oversized shoes and extra foot of height, they fail just the same as we do.