King James: Can He Wear the Crown?

By: Dan Grant

The 2013-14 NBA playoffs rage on, with the Miami Heat one win away from making their fourth consecutive trip to the Finals. That is something never accomplished by Jordan’s Bulls, or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. It was last achieved by Bird’s Celtics from 1984-87, with those teams only winning two of their appearances. Ditto for the Showtime Lakers from ’82-’85, who won bookend victories but lost to the 76ers and Celtics in the middle.

The feat has been a team effort of course. Dwyane Wade has played very well and Chris Bosh stepped up with a huge first half in Game 4. Ray Allen was a key contributor in Game 3 and the Heat would really be nowhere without Chris Andersen, while the Norris Cole/Mario Chalmers combination has been tenacious. All are key pieces to a team looking to become the first three-peat winner since the aforementioned Shaq-Kobe teams.

The most important piece, of course, the engine that makes the Heat go, is the man they call King James.

As LeBron moves towards his third ring, at age 29, it begs the question: does LeBron have the chance to be the greatest player of all time?

LeBron can see where you're going with this

LeBron can see where you’re going with this

During our Three for 3 feature last week, I ranked the top forwards of all time, trying to figure out where current MVP Kevin Durant would rank. I purposely listed the players in helter-skelter fashion, as I didn’t have the time to sit down and actually rank them. However, after the article ran, I found myself trying to do so in my head.

‘Is Bird still the best?’

‘Who comes next?’

As I went through the list, it became increasingly clear that ranking LeBron would be the most difficult. It became a problem of longevity. Obviously LeBron’s heights have been higher than many of these players but his career hasn’t yet been nearly as long. When I did my rankings I decided to assume that LeBron would perform at a level close to where he has been for at least another three seasons, with a gradual decline after that. If you’ve got beef, well, go get a bun. I actually think this is quite conservative. The fact is, we’ve never seen an athlete like LeBron before. The guy has only missed 42 games in 11 seasons, and many of those were games of rest near the end of a dominant season. He is a freak of nature and if there’s anyone who could perform past a regular peak, it’s a guy like LeBron.

That said, we need to remember that he came straight out of high school. He’s a guy who’s played in Olympics and World Championships. He’s a guy who’s played the equivalent of almost two extra seasons of playoff games in his career. So while he’s 29, he might not be the 29 we’re used to. He has a lot of miles on his body.

So where to put him?[1]

Better than Barkley, Malone and Baylor for sure; none of them ever won a championship. Better than Rick Barry and Dirk Nowitzki, with their single MVP’s and titles. With due respect to history, I’ll take LeBron over John Havlicek and Jerry West; they’re really guards anyway and they’re from a different era. I left Tim Duncan off my list, which has some people huffing, but I consider Timmy D a centre. He’s played that way since David Robinson retired and he’s not what I think of when I’m considering a forward. So sue me.

So who’s left? Dr. J, Larry and LeBron.

Better than Dr. J? It’s a tough question.

The good Doctor popularized dunking, was a spokesman for black athletes and was really the first face of the league in the television era. He’s a pillar of league history. But in terms of his accomplishments? His career was split between the ABA and NBA and he was never as good once the leagues merged. Because of that split, he doesn’t appear on many ‘career leader’ lists. He also couldn’t shoot from further than 15 feet away – at all. He won one championship and one MVP award.

It might be blasphemy, but even if his career ended tomorrow, I’d take LeBron James over Julius Erving.

That leaves the Hick From French Lick.

Larry Bird was the most dominant player of the 1980’s. He’s pigeon-holed with Magic Johnson because of their history together (drafted the same year, met in the finals in both college and the pros, traded MVP’s, bridged the black-white gap for the league) but if you just go 1980-89, you have to choose Bird. Three titles in 81, 84 and 86. Three consecutive MVP awards, something that nobody else has achieved except Bill Russell. Ever. Two finals MVP awards, and should have had three. Nine straight All-Star appearances, missing only the ’89 game due to injury. (Bird finished with 12 appearances for his career.)

That last part is where the problem lies. Bird was injury prone late in his career and eventually retired after only 12 seasons in the NBA. The last few, he was a shell of himself. I don’t foresee that being a problem for LeBron. He’s a physical marvel and, barring disaster, he’ll be capable not only of playing for a long time but of playing at an extremely high level for that entire time.

I’m going to blaspheme again. If LeBron and the Heat win the title this season, he is officially, unequivocally, the greatest NBA forward of all time.

Don’t think so? I bet you didn’t know that LeBron already has more career points and assists than Bird had for his entire career. He’s closing in on blocks and steals (80 and 112 short respectively, about another season or two of play away). He’s well short in rebounds (only about two thirds of the way there) but should get there in his career. His four MVP’s already beat Bird’s three. The third title would put him equal to Bird in that category as well. If you go international? LeBron has two gold medals and a variety of other awards, while Bird has his lone Dream Team appearance.

It seems weird, but it’s true. LeBron is on the cusp.

Just where does LeBron rank?

Just where does LeBron rank?

And if he gets there? Before age 30? Who’s to stop him from making a play for the Greatest of All Time? Well, besides Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that is.

Magic Johnson defenders are screaming right now. You know what? Magic was fantastic, an athlete we’ll never see again. But he was a terrible defensive player who had the good fortune to play the first half of his career with Kareem in his late prime. You can’t be the GOAT if you spent 50% of your career as the 2nd best player on your own team. This applies to you too Kobe!

It’s hard to compare LeBron to the two behemoths at this point. Jordan won five MVP awards and six titles; Kareem won six MVP’s and six titles. That’s next level. LeBron simply isn’t there yet.

It is fun, however, to check out the per game averages:

Regular Season

(Points, Rebounds, Assists, Blocks, Steals)

LeBron James – 27.2, 7.2, 6.9, 0.8, 1.7

Michael Jordan – 30.1, 6.2, 5.3, 0.8, 2.3

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 24.6, 11.2, 4.3, 2.6, 0.9

Playoffs

LeBron James – 28.1, 8.5, 6.5, 1.7, 0.9

Michael Jordan – 33.4, 6.3, 5.7, 2.1, 0.9

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 24.3, 10.5, 3.2, 2.4, 1.0

Not so crazy a comparison now is it? LeBron obviously needs to stick around for a long time to come close to the career numbers – he’s still 9,000 points short of Jordan and 15,000 short of Kareem, for starters – but the averages tell an interesting tale.

Kareem is a bit of a victim of having stuck around too long. His best seasons are far superior to his career averages. But that’s all valid when discussing the GOAT; it’s also the reason he’s the NBA’s all-time scoring leader with 38,387 points, so if you take one, you have to take the other. They also didn’t keep track of blocks and steals in his first four seasons, probably because employees of the league were too busy eating donuts and/or sampling cocaine. Either way, they were busy!

MJ, for me, is still number one. A quick look at the numbers, coupled with his title and MVP wins and he’s an easy sell there.

However, LeBron is poised. A telling stat?

Playoff Games with 30 points, 10 Rebounds, 5 Assists:

LeBron James – 22
Larry Bird – 11
Michael Jordan – 10

Despite the knocks against him early in his career, LeBron is clutch. You can’t get to where he is and not be. Has he had help? Well, who hasn’t? It’s such a lazy argument that people make. ‘LeBron couldn’t win without Wade and Bosh!’ You mean, he couldn’t win a title with Ricky Davis and Jamario Moon? What an asshole!

LeBron has Wade and Bosh, Michael had Scottie and Grant/Rodman. I’ll argue any day of the week and twice on Sunday that Jordan’s supporting cast was superior; Scottie over Wade and the Grant/Rodman combo over Bosh. Different skills sets sure, but LeBron is simply asked to do more. Like Jordan, he’s an elite defensive player but he can guard more positions; because of his size, he’s often asked to guard everyone from point guards to power forwards. He’s a runaway freight train on the court at times. His sheer combination of size and speed is not a weapon Jordan ever possessed. He’s a better three point shooter than Jordan ever was (35% career to Jordan’s 32% – the difference being that LeBron has worked to make it a weapon, whereas Jordan didn’t do that until his return from baseball and it eventually fell off a cliff in his final Bulls season and Wizards years).

If LeBron’s career ended tomorrow, you couldn’t call him the best ever. He’s still behind Michael, Kareem, Bird and even Tim Duncan for me. He needs to win this year to even grab that best forward title from Bird. But if he gets it?

Look out MJ, the King is coming.

—————

[1] I enjoy the history and respect the hell out of Russell’s Celtics, but I can’t include anyone who played solely in that era. There were only eight teams, the style was completely different, half the players were in a different league and it just doesn’t make sense to me.

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