HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — LeBron James is a student of the game, has always been aware of his place in the history of the game and is engaged in the ongoing saga that is his life in basketball.
And yet, when the Miami Heat star plays the way he did Monday night against the Charlotte Bobcats, his actions flow as if he’s in “The Matrix”, free of anything else but his maniacal desire to do whatever it takes to make sure his team wins.
Placing his work in the proper historical context is simple, given how few have done what he’s done and are capable of doing what he can do any night.
LeBron isn’t the first player in NBA history to have a 30-plus point game with eight or more rebounds and assists while also shooting 90 percent or better from the floor, the way he did against the Bobcats. But he is the first to do so since Wilt Chamberlain did it this month in 1967 (Wilt actually pulled it off twice before that, in January of 1967 and February of 1966).
Think about that line for a second … 31 points on 13-for-14 shooting, eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals and five turnovers. And his numbers could have been even more ridiculous had he been more aggressive with his own shot instead of playing with his usual court awareness, as he explained to Michael Wallace of ESPN.com‘s Heat Index:
“I’m aware,” James admitted. “But I’m more aware of time and score, team fouls, who has it going, who doesn’t have it going. I’m aware of all of that kind of stuff, too. So with myself, I just let the game flow. I’m not one to — even though I had one of those games tonight — I always look at it afterward and say, ‘Why didn’t I take more shots?’ But that’s just who I am. I had some more looks, but my teammates had better looks. That’s what it’s about.”
That 46-year gap represents more than just several generations of NBA stars and fans, it also signals the gulf between perhaps the two most dominant physical specimens at their respective positions (Shaquille O’Neal was a similar physical freak of nature during his era, though there were more skilled 7-footers around during Shaq’s glory days than what Wilt faced during his).
History will determine LeBron’s place and overall impact, same as it did for Wilt, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and every other NBA great.
If LeBron hung his kicks up today, he would still belong somewhere in the conversation of the game’s true greats — wouldn’t he?
I argued about that this morning with an old head who was raised on Wilt and has managed to stay plugged into the game the past four decades. He agreed that LeBron, Shaq and Wilt are the most physically imposing players he can remember seeing in the NBA at their respective positions.
“I won’t sit here and tell you I’ve watched as much NBA basketball as the folks who are paid to do so,” my old head said. “But I’ve been watching for a lot longer than you and some of these other loudmouths I see on TV and I’m telling you, [LeBron] is something I’ve never seen before. He’s got the size and all the skills. The athleticism is what’s just off the charts. I’ve been courtside before at games, years ago and here in recent years, and I’ve just never seen anything like him. Magic was the last player I remember seeing move like that and play like that at LeBron’s size. It’s unreal.”
Funny, James describes performances like the one he delivered against the Bobcats as basically routine. Surely, he stopped surprising himself a long time ago.
What LeBron has done in the past few years of his career is round out of his game in ways that even his biggest critics have to admit they weren’t sure he could. His ability to play inside and out, when needed, combined with the raw physical advantages he still has over any foe presents a pretty impossible package to stop.
“I’m an all-around player,” James told the Heat Index. “I can do whatever the game presents. I can make shots from the outside. Of course, I can make shots from the inside. But I don’t let the game determine my game. I go out and figure it out and just play the way I need to play to help our team win. So, I don’t know, I’m very confident in my ability and I just go out and try to make things happen.”
Criticize him all you want, and Naismith knows he has an abundance of haters. But make no mistake that there is one player, and only one player, in the NBA capable of making the sort of “things happen” that LeBron does.
And that might be the case for another 46 years.