Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In today’s final installment in our three-part series on James and his place in the league, we weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.
In Part One, we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. And in Part Two, we examined how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003, and how his early failures shaped the player he is today.
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Perhaps it would all be different if LeBron James had not come to our doorstep prepackaged and hermetically sealed, all but tied up with a pretty ribbon and bow.
The Chosen One.
We generally like to pick our own heroes and villains, so as the media hype machine began to serve him up when he was still a teenager too young to drive to school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, it was only natural that some would instinctively turn up their noses as if he were a heaping serving of broccoli.
Wilt Chamberlain was an overwhelming, almost indescribable giant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was towering, majestic and aloof. Oscar Robertson was angry and unshakable. Magic Johnson wore an endearing, embracing smile that could light up a thousand nights. Larry Bird was a good ol‘ boy caricature come to life. Michael Jordan was transcendent as a competitor and a cultural icon.
Yet now, almost despite all that hype, the argument — joining so many others that seem to constantly swirl around him — can be made that James is indeed on track to go down as the best of them all.
Just the mere suggestion that he could one day soon lay claim to the label of Greatest of All Time — G.O.A.T., as it’s known in the vernacular — will bring baas of protest from the anti-LeBron crowd. They’ll call him a preener, a whiner, a shrinker, a choker, a deserter, a pretender, a poseur.
And yet the resume James has compiled in his first decade in the NBA has not only lived up to the advance billing, it’s exceeded it.
Consider that if he were to fulfill the expectations of most of the experts and be voted the league’s Most Valuable Player again in 2013-14, James would join Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bird on the short list of three-in-a-row MVP winners. If the Heat play for the championship again next June and he is named MVP of The Finals, he would equal a feat only achieved before by Jordan (twice) and Shaquille O’Neal.
And if James were to claim his third straight regular season MVP, third straight championship and third straight Finals MVP, it would be a first in NBA history.
“He has four MVPs already, before he’s 30,” said long-time foe and close friend Jermaine O’Neal. “He has a lot of confidence and I think the sky’s still the limit as long as that same drive is still there. And I think it will be. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. Sometimes, after the first MVP or whatever the achievements are, people tend to cut the motor down a little bit. But I was talking to people and they said he’s better than he was last year. Pretty difficult to be.”
A desire to get better
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That drive, to constantly put down every outside challenge and thrive on the fires from within, forged Jordan’s reputation as the ultimate big game warrior, practice scrapper, teammate-fighter and I’ll-gamble-on-anything competitor. Jordan would let rivals see the perspiration on that gleaming shaved head, but he’d never shed a drop of sweat from worry or doubt.
James is different. He’ll sit in front of his locker or behind a post-game microphone and admit that he fell short and pledge to do better.
Jordan entered the league as a tongue-wagging, gravity-defying, splay-legged phenom that played with the frisky abandon of a colt that leapt the corral fence. He gave us Air Jordan and taught us to fly while he played basketball in the movies with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He sold sneakers, burgers and sports drinks. Everybody wanted to be like Mike.
James’ arrival was more of an orchestrated corporate sales pitch, pushing a man-child built like a locomotive that barreled down the tracks on the strength of a $100-million endorsement deal with Nike. It seemed a boardroom-drawn image. His game, early on, seemed more manufactured muscle than magic. No one could be King James.
Yet LeBronmania delivered in both form and function. Immediately. He became only the third rookie in NBA history — behind Robertson and Jordan — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.
“I thought he’d be OK. I thought he’d have a little bit of a learning curve,” said former NBA forward and current Chicago Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come in with that much hoopla and perform the way he did.
“Magic and Bird, similar. But they were older. Not a high school kid. He came in and hit the ground running.
“I asked Earl Monroe pretty much the same question. And he said, ‘There was a time when a high school kid coming into the NBA, physically, could just not play. Maybe he’d have a good game or two, but not sustain it.’ Where was the rookie wall [for James], all of that? He just busted right through it.’ This was Earl Monroe saying it.
“For an 18- or 19-year-old kid coming in to the league and performing the way he did, on a nightly basis with all the pressure of handling a team, I think he handled it great and he continues to.”
James’ offensive repertoire keeps expanding, and his four MVP awards in the past five seasons are matched only by Russell (1961-65). Another championship this season would give him three by the age of 29. Jordan won his third at 30.
Tuning out the noise
James has been delivering at such a high level, under such intense scrutiny so consistently and for so long, that many are expecting a fall. Surely, The Decision to jump from Cleveland to Miami and all that came with it still resonate for many who will never let go of the grudge. He is reminded of it every day in a social media world of instant and constant criticism, where every missed shot and misplay is bitterly dissected. That did not exist for Jordan.
Another debate may still rage — mostly out of Los Angeles — but the truth is, James has clearly surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the game today.
“Nobody with a brain would even begin to argue that,” said one league executive.
James’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.6 last season was more than three whole points better than runner-up Kevin Durant (28.3) and was the second-highest single season ever behind 31.7 by Jordan in 1987-88.
In the annual NBA.com poll of the league’s general managers, James was an 89.7 percent choice as the single player they would sign for their team and a 66.7 percent pick as the player that forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. He was voted most athletic and most dangerous in the open floor.
Still, James’ game has its flaws, at least according to some. In an ESPN the Magazine poll of 26 anonymous players, Jordan was named by 88 percent as the man they’d want taking the final shot with the game on the line. Bryant received 12 percent. James didn’t receive a single vote.
James, though, is universally regarded as more of a natural playmaker than those two, more able to draw defenses to him and more willing to make the pass to a teammate for a better shot. Former coach Jeff Van Gundy told ESPN:
“When I think of a closer, it’s a guy who can beat you with the pass or the shot. I’d take LeBron James to close it for me.”
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recently told Dan Patrick in a radio interview: “If there’s any player in the NBA who could come and be a complete superstar in the NFL, it’s LeBron. He would be the man.”
Jordan vs. James
If Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T. now, James can’t be far behind. The career stat lines of Jordan and James are strikingly similar. And James is only 28, perhaps just entering the meat of his career.
James has averaged 27.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, shot 49 percent from the field and 40.6 percent on 3-pointers for his career. Jordan’s numbers were 28.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 49.7 from the field and 32.7 on 3s. Jordan was a lockdown perimeter defender in his day and James is an elite defender at four positions. James is bigger, stronger, much more of a brute force than Jordan, but still can soar with a jaw-dropping 40-inch vertical leap. Jordan was the long, rangy, sinewy embodiment of the ultimate basketball player. James is an athletic anomaly, a virtual tank with the speed of a motorcycle.
As much as the anti-LeBron crowd will protest, it is probably already down to just a three-man debate. And, if you set aside Chamberlain’s gargantuan feats in terms of sheer numbers and records set from a long ago era as too far off the charts to even compare, it comes down to James and Jordan.
Jordan clearly has the edge in the ability to simply pile up points, get buckets when they’re needed. But the analytics crowd will tell you that today’s game is about being able to do more than score. James is the better passer, rebounder, has deeper range and can defend more places on the court.
Jordan dragged his teammates along to championships with the sheer force of his talent and his will. James plays a style that actually makes his teammates better.
Want more numbers? How about the Cavaliers winning three out of every four games (61-21) with James in 2009-10 and then losing three of every four (19-63) the next year without him. That’s having an impact.
For all the credit he gets raising his performance for the Heat in back-to-back title drives over the past two seasons, it may have been James lifting an otherwise anemic Cavs roster onto his shoulders and carrying them to the 2007 NBA Finals that was most Herculean.
“Jordan was never able to do anything like that with those Bulls teams before [Scottie] Pippen arrived,” said an NBA general manager.
“I would have to say Bryant and Jordan had that same ability to defend from the perimeter spots, score and make plays from that position, but they never put up the assist numbers that he has,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s more of a hybrid-type guy and you don’t normally think of all-time great players as being hybrid-type players. The truth is he’s Magic Johnson, but much faster and much more dynamic athletically. Really all that’s left to be determined is how many championships he’s going to win. That’s an honest assessment.”
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The measure of the G.O.A.T.
If it’s the counting of the rings that matters, then James still trails Jordan’s six and Bryant’s five. But again, he is only 28. At that age Jordan had just one.
And, really, should that be the measure anyway?
“When anybody says you measure guys by rings, that’s a crock of [bleep],” said Robert Horry, who won seven with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. “That’s like saying I’m better than Karl Malone, I’m better than Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing. We all know that ain’t true. You can’t go by that. You can’t measure guys by their rings. It’s just ignorant. Having said that, I don’t exactly think LeBron’s done collecting them yet.”
After settling in comfortably in Miami over the past two years, embracing more of the role of alpha dog and learning to enjoy the responsibility and reap the rewards, it is not hard to envision a more relaxed, more confident James climbing higher.
“The story is how far LeBron has come in the last two years on every level,” said TNT analyst and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr. “Where he was three years ago with The Decision, his play in the Finals against Dallas, the way he handled the post-game interview after Game 6 and the comments he made? He was really at a low point.
“What he has done the last two years is remarkable. He handles himself with grace and class. He’s elevated his game. He is now a champion, he carries himself like one. I think it’s fantastic to see the resilience, particularly in modern society with what he faces. I love what LeBron has done and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s on his way.”
Perhaps closer already to the top than so many think, or will admit.
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