Let's clarify who has a basketball legacy and who does not.
Magic Johnson has a legacy as the ultimate point guard and the man who educated the masses about HIV. Michael Jordan has a legacy as the fiercest competitor and greatest player of all time. Larry Bird has a legacy as the clutch Indiana-raised legend who joined Magic to save the NBA.
LeBron James has no legacy yet.
Whatever LeBron does in Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs at 9 tonight in Miami will not determine his legacy. Whether the Heat win or lose could impact how we view him down the road, but no one can say that definitively.
Here's the deal with legacies: You don't own one until you're done.
That's the rule. That's my rule, anyway.
I suppose it's OK to speculate how this game, series and season will be viewed when we eventually reflect on James' career. It's OK, but it's pointless. There are people who are judging James on every play, as if every seven incredible moments are negated when he has a turnover or a missed shot.
You cannot have a legacy halfway through your career. If James goes on to lead the Heat to a couple more titles or returns to Cleveland and stages the greatest homecoming triumph in history, our views will change. If the Heat lose to the Spurs tonight and James never returns to the Finals, our view will change with that, too.
Here's where James is today: He's a great player still showing us whether he could be THE greatest player. The way he finished Game 6, playing 50 minutes, scoring 32 points with 10 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals and a monster block of Tim Duncan, was as great as anyone, anytime.
Those moments overshadowed the infuriating scene of James on the floor, complaining about a no-call, while the Spurs went on their fast break. It's those moments of petulance, when the James turns into the modern-day spoiled, me-first whiner, that mar the great moments.
In many ways, the view of James' career is skewed by the era he plays in. Instant analysis clutters all of sports, whether it's ESPN's around-the-clock coverage or Twitter, where media members, fans and, in some cases, players, provide split-second reaction to everything.
When Magic vs. Bird was in its heyday, and even Jordan, there was a built-in perspective time, a period where people gathered their thoughts and digested what they'd seen. Imagine Jordan pushing off Bryon Russell today before a game-winning shot. Better yet, imagine LeBron doing so. Instant outrage.
The problem with LeBron's “legacy” is that no one has the patience to wait for the entire resume, the full picture.
Legacies can continue to change after an athlete retires (see: Simpson, O.J.) or new facts come into play (see: Armstrong, Lance). But for the most part, it's the body of athletic work that determines the stature.
LeBron might be a little over half-done with his NBA career. If we declare something definitive at halftime, or even the third quarter, then the Spurs are already NBA champions again.
There was a time, only older fans remember, when Jordan couldn't get over the hump against the Detroit Pistons, when Jordan was a great player but not the ultimate winner he later carved as his lasting legacy. Imagine the pressure that would have been put on Jordan if today's 24/7 magnifying glass had been in effect.
James' play will never please everyone, especially those who feel the Heat were artificially constructed by James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joining forces. Yes, the Heat came together through free-agent contracts and money. Welcome to professional sports.
I'm not ready to label James the greatest of all time, but that's not because he's unworthy of consideration. It's simply this: Legacies reveal themselves only in retrospect. Sorry for the wait.