by Chris Price
So here is the other side of the story. Ongoing discussion about LeBron James’ place in history has lead me to explore the other side of the argument. Bear with me as I take a look at three of the biggest arguments for LeBron James being the best to ever do it.
#1 – Today’s NBA is the best that it’s ever been, and LeBron James stands head and shoulders above the rest of the players in this generation.
I’ll concede the second part of this argument without hesitation. At this point, LeBron James has established himself as being CLEARLY better than the rest the guys in his generation; guys that include Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, and even the slightly younger guys like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook. I think most basketball fans would agree. Let’s explore the second part of the assertion though.
The argument for today’s NBA being better than past decades stems from the growth of AAU basketball, advancements in training and nutrition, a global talent pool, and the notion that a lot more of our talented U.S. athletes are choosing to play basketball.
Well, after just a little bit of pondering, I’m gonna call the “era argument” a wash. Since 1988 the NBA has added 6 more expansion teams. That’s 90 roster spots. At the start of the 2012-2013 NBA season, there were 84 international players on rosters. No less jobs for American players. And let’s look at those American players. We are seeing some phenomenal athletes, but how many great basketball players are we seeing? With less time today learning the game on the college level than players 20-30 years ago, are our top basketball prospects really becoming great basketball players? In many cases, yes. “One and done” guys like Durant, Love, and Kyrie are excellent, but lets look at some of our top big men. Would Dwight Howard, arguably today’s best center, be as standout a center 20 years ago playing in an era of great centers? Would Blake Griffin, a 2nd Team All NBA performer this season, be able to do what he does against more skilled, more PHYSICAL power forwards from the 1980s, under rules that allowed more physicality? That’s something to think about. I feel pretty confident in saying that LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Tony Parker would have been great playing in any era, but I also feel confident that what Michael Jordan and Karl Malone showed us a decade ago as 40-year olds was indicative of great command of the game. If you’re gonna give Shaq and Kobe credit for their 3-peat at the turn of the century, you gotta give Mike and Karl credit for having legitimate All-Star seasons at the same time, all while playing at or around 40 years of age. Now I truly respect the great players of today, but nothing I see or have seen is telling me that guys of yesteryear didn’t have serious game. Let’s call it a wash on the era argument, and therefore taking nothing from and adding nothing to LeBron James’ accomplishments in today’s NBA.
#2 – Don’t Compare Careers; Compare Peaks!
Now this is something pretty interesting that I’ve heard. It’s actually intriguing to me. Instead of trying to compare LeBron James’ career to the lofty standards of efficient legendary careers like….
Michael Jordan: 6 championships in 13 Chicago seasons, 6/6 in NBA Finals, 6 NBA Finals MVPs
Magic Johnson: 5 championships in 13 seasons, 5/9 in NBA Finals, 3 NBA Finals MVPs
…compare their peaks instead. (By the way, Larry Bird won 3 championships in 13 seasons, and went 3/5 in NBA Finals. LeBron might be knocking on that door here soon)
So the argument is this: Is LeBron today better than Mike as his best? Is LeBron today better than Magic at his best? Is he better than Larry at his best? Some LeBron supporters will say that he can do what those guys can do but he’s bigger. I would disagree. I would say each of those guys did something better than LeBron. But I DO notice that LeBron may be the second best in a lot of categories compared to these guys.
Out of MJ, Magic, Larry, and LeBron, here’s who has the edge in each category by the stats and by the eye test.
Defense: LeBron or Michael
Offensive Efficiency: Magic/Michael (LeBron?)
LeBron may be the second best scorer of the group. He is certainly second by career and peak scoring average. LeBron may be the second best passer of the group. He has the edge in assist average as well over Mike and Larry. Larry is clearly the best rebounder of the group, and Magic actually may be second. But LeBron has an argument for that too. On defense, we know Michael at one point was as good as they come on the perimeter. However LeBron has been noted as a more versatile defender because of his size. I’m not here to debate whether he is or isn’t a better defender than Michael, but either way he’s up there as one of the best defenders we have seen that didn’t play the center position. He’s either first or second in defense out of the group of 4. And finally, LeBron posted an incredible 56.5% FG percentage this year; something only Magic has matched in his career. Magic owns the higher peak assist to turnover ratio, and Michael owns the higher career Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Michael actually owns the highest PER in NBA history. But you know who is number 2 all time in PER? LeBron.
A lot of pundits will credit the older guys with high intangibles; leadership, competitiveness, toughness, basketball IQ, “clutch” factor, etc. As somebody who doesn’t consider himself a “Witness”, but rather just a basketball fan, I can acknowledge that LeBron is truly putting it all together and most, if not all, of his mental/emotional hang-ups are in the past. He’s improving in every significant intangible category in my eyes and in the eyes of many.
So maybe a guy who isn’t known for one specific skill but who can do everything very well has a good peak argument. If nothing else Lebron’s attributes and statistical achievements (as well as the fact that he is now a champion) leave the door open for debate for those who want to go there.
#3 – There has been no other player like LeBron James in history. His combination of talent, size, athleticism, and skill has never been seen before.
Now this one is one I’ve heard a lot. You probably have too. Is it true? Well, yes…it is true. But isn’t that true for all the GOAT candidates?
Kareem was a 7’2″ player with an unstoppable shot, the skyhook. Had we seen something like the skyhook before, and have we since?
Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq, Magic, Duncan, Olajuwon, Robertson are all pretty unique players to me. You can say that LeBron is bigger than all of the perimeter guys, and more athletic, but is he truly a bigger version? Meaning, the same skills but just bigger, stronger, quicker, etc? I say nah. He’s not gonna have the footwork or smooth post game of MJ or Kobe, or the quick change of direction of…you know what, it doesn’t even matter. If LeBron can continue to do LeBron and continue to create his own lane, he won’t have to worry about comparisons with anyone.
Peep this. The cool thing about LeBron coming into the league at 18, and being the exact opposite of an injury-prone player, and being very-very good, is that he has a chance to break a looooot of records. He already has 4 MVPs at age 28. Kareem has the record with 6 MVPs. Can he snag 2 or 3 or more MVPs in his career? He has a good shot at it. LeBron also has just over 21,000 points for his career. Kareem has that record also at 38, 387. If LeBron keeps up his current rate of 27.6 PPG and stays healthy, he can catch Kareem at age 36. And even if he doesn’t do that he can catch Jordan’s career number at age 33, at his current pace. Pretty wild.
Now granted, when a lot of people think about Magic, Michael or Larry, they might be thinking about championships or the special way they played the game. The big shots. The big games. Some people don’t think LeBron will ever match what those guys brought to the table. Even if that is your stance, what if you are looking at a guy who has a chance to rewrite greatness in terms of records upon records, plus high-level defense, plus mind-blowing stats, plus a few rings…
With all of the things LeBron has already accomplished in his short career, and all the potential of what is to come, at the end of the day when you sit back and look at the body of work, could it be enough?