LeBron James is one of the most polarizing sports figures we’ve seen in the last 50 years. Love him, hate him, respect him, whatever you’re opinion is, it’s hard to NOT feel strongly about LeBron James to some capacity. The most uninformed of basketball fans either hate LeBron for leaving Cleveland and challenging Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant‘s legacies or they love him and prematurely refer to him as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). At its core, maybe the LeBron debate is that simple: MJ vs. Kobe vs. LeBron. But if you take time to consider all the facts, all the numbers, all the great players of the past and all the future possibilities, you know the debate isn’t so simple.
There’s no doubt in my mind that LeBron James has a chance to go down as one of the top five players in NBA history. He’s already won two titles, two NBA Finals MVPs and four regular-season MVP awards. He’s clearly the alpha dog of the entire league by now and as I’ve said before, if you dispute that fact you’re either an irrational Lakers fan or a 12-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder fan. But now it’s time for a little brutal honesty, both of LeBron James and ourselves as sports fans.
Looking at LeBron:
“How can you criticize LeBron?” is what you might be thinking. “He just won back-to-back titles and came up clutch for his team in a Game 7!” That’s entirely true. LeBron was absolutely magnificent in the clincher, racking up 37 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals to win his second ring. But is our memory so poor that we immediately forget how many quarters he breezed through in the first six games of this series? How he reverted back to 2011 LeBron James at times, being way too passive and disappearing for whole quarters at a time? Do we forget that two costly turnovers in the final minute of Game 6 probably should have cost his team another championship?
I’ve already written about how the Spurs were a play here or a play there away from winning their fifth title. And on Twitter, it was evident who was going to be blamed for the Game 6 loss and the series loss if San Antonio had just done their job by making a free throw or grabbing a rebound. It was all but decided. They had a five-point lead with 28 seconds to go for crying out loud! LeBron James was the driving force in leading the Heat back from the brink of elimination at the start of the fourth quarter, but are we really going to ignore the fact that he was 28 seconds away from losing his third NBA Finals thanks to two critical turnovers? Are we going to forget that the blame would’ve been on him for falling apart once again when he needed to be clutch? And can we deny that 10 years from now, when we remember this series, we might remember how the Spurs choked in Game 6 as much as how great Game 7 was?
LeBron knew how close he was to being eliminated. Because in Game 7, there was no debate about who the best player on the floor was. He made the most of the Spurs squandering their opportunity to close the deal and that’s what champions should do. But anytime a team is a single rebound or a free throw away from finishing off your title hopes and you immediately go from goat to potential G.O.A.T., there’s something wrong with that logic.
LeBron’s the greatest I’ve ever seen. Unless Kawhi Leonard hits a free throw on Tuesday.
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) June 21, 2013
And this is only in respect to his most recent Finals appearance. No one will ever question the results of the 2012 NBA Finals; LeBron James dominated and the Heat won in a convincing five games. But are we so quick to crown a new champion in NBA history that we forget he’s already failed twice in the Finals? Do we brush aside a sweep in the 2007 Finals and his dismal 2011 Finals? It’s understandable that he fell short in 2007 because his surrounding cast was pretty underwhelming. The San Antonio Spurs were simply the better team. But can we really refer to LeBron as the greatest player of all time if he was swept in the Finals, playing with a team that won 50 games that season? Can we really overlook how his postseason production fell from 25.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game in the first three rounds to 22.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists (along with an atrocious 5.8 turnovers per game and 35.6 percent shooting) on basketball’s biggest stage?
In 2007, LeBron had to do everything himself against a superior team. No player has ever won an NBA championship without help. But he had plenty of help in 2011, so there are no excuses there. That devastating loss to the Dallas Mavericks is the biggest argument against his candidacy for the title of “greatest of all time.” How can we crown him as the best player we’ve ever seen after losing to an inferior Mavericks team when he had a top five shooting guard of all time and one of the top 10 power forwards in the league that year? The only person that could have beaten LeBron James in that Finals was LeBron James and that’s exactly what happened. Not to take anything away from the Mavs or Dirk Nowitzki, because they played their hearts out and were better in the end. But is there any doubt that, on paper, Miami was the heavy favorite to win the championship and LeBron James disappearing was the reason why?
So I ask you again, can we really call LeBron the greatest we’ve ever seen when his first two Finals appearances were a sweep and a loss to an inferior team? I say no, but again, he still has plenty of career left. Which brings me to my second point.
Looking at ourselves:
I really hate to be the one to write this kind of contrarian article just two days after LeBron James won his second title. My goal is not to be a “LeBron hater” or anything like that. We should be enjoying his career and not constantly chastising him every step of the way just because he’s not Michael Jordan. But because of the second part of my criticism, the oh-so-annoying bit about our short-term memories and overreactions as sports fans, it has to be said for the sake of basketball knowledge: Realistically, LeBron James is only on the cusp of being a top-10 player of all time at this point in his career.
The problem with sports is we get so caught up in the present that we have a short-term memory problem. We see something exciting, something we think we’ve never seen before and we try to give it context by throwing around terms like “best ___ EVER” or “greatest ___ of all time.” Whether it’s a game, a player, a dunk, a fadeaway 3-pointer, a Finals series or a playoff run, we like to think that what we’re watching that very second trumps everything that came before it and everything that will come after it … until next year, when we’re forgetting about something great all over again.
There’s a certain audacity to that mindset and we sometimes give in to the understandable inner desire we have to see something extraordinary each and every time we sit down to watch a game. It’s not necessarily our fault; what sports fan would want to watch a game if they already knew it would never measure up to the best game ever played? Would we care about LeBron James and Kobe Bryant if everyone agreed they’d never measure up to MJ? No, we wouldn’t. It’s that realm of possibility and excitement that makes sports such an entertaining and wonderful thing.
But when our desire for something new turns into a sense of pride that we’re watching something that’s never seen makes us forget the past and the legendary players and games that came before, we have a problem. And it’s that exact kind of short-term memory that makes the LeBron James debate so fascinating and frustrating at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he’s stuck where he’s currently at or that he’ll never climb his way into the top five. That’d be stupid and extremely presumptuous of anyone to say when the man’s only 28 years old. But right now, at this point in time, here’s my personal list of the 15 greatest NBA players of all time:
1) Michael Jordan
2) Bill Russell
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabaar
4) Magic Johnson
5) Larry Bird
6) Wilt Chamberlain
7) Tim Duncan
8) Kobe Bryant
9) Shaquille O’Neal
10) Hakeem Olajuwon
11) LeBron James
12) Oscar Robertson
13) Jerry West
14) Moses Malone
15) John Havlicek
It’s entirely possible for LeBron to climb that list with a few more stellar seasons and a few more championships. But before we start projecting, let’s consider the facts and only the facts before we start making bold and premature declarations of “greatest of all time.” LeBron has a promising career ahead, but he’s only won two championships and he’s lost two championships so far. It’s easy to get swept up in what LeBron’s legacy will be when his time is done, but that’s the point: he’s only a little more than halfway done with his career. Let’s let him finish it out and consider only what he’s accomplished up to this point before we start projecting. Especially since this man’s legacy seems to change every year.
LeBron’s legacy forever and ever is tied with the Spurs 14-14 early on.
— Sean Highkin (@shighkinNBA) June 19, 2013
Michael Jordan never teamed up with Magic Johnson or Larry Bird to win a title.
That was probably one of the most common criticisms of LeBron James when he decided to leave Cleveland. When LeBron famously made The Decision and joined another star’s team, there were LeBron haters who criticized him for it and still hold it against him to this day. It’s unfair to say he’ll never measure up to Michael Jordan solely because of the loyalty factor, but I’m also not ready to ignore his departure from the Cavaliers.
Yes, he has found success in Miami with three Finals appearances and two championships. But should we expect anything less when two of the top 10 players in the league (and three of the top 30) are playing on the same team? Jordan had Pippen, Kobe had Shaq and Bird and Magic had a number of Hall of Famers, but I think it’s important to note that those dynasties were built the natural way (smart trades and good draft picks) and that’s a huge reason some people still hold a grudge against him.
LeBron supporters have a legitimate gripe against LeBron haters when they bring up how his every move is scrutinized. How he’s never good enough for those old-school Jordan supporters who can’t open their minds to the possibility that LeBron can ever be on his level. But at the same time, the over-reaction we have every time we see something new and exciting in basketball is the reason behind it. The over-reactions on both sides of this debate are the reason an article like this exists two days after he won another championship. People started saying he could be the greatest of all time before he even won a championship! After he had lost two Finals series, social media debates raged about where he’d end up in history. If LeBron comes out next year and the Heat lose the championship, do you really think people will let that slide? And if he does three-peat, how many people will declare him the greatest of all time despite only having three rings?
The point is, we need to stop over-reacting to the present and stop trying to contextualize everything right away. We don’t need to label the 2013 NBA Finals the greatest Finals series to make it more special. The true champions and the truly memorable games of all time will stand out on their own without Twitter declaring it five minutes afterward. We don’t need to project where LeBron will end up because we don’t know yet. He could win next year and move into the top 10 (if he’s not already there) or he could lose and “tarnish his legacy” until 2014-15. All we know to this point is that LeBron does not compare to Michael Jordan just yet. MJ just has too many titles, accolades and accomplishments to be passed up by a mere two rings, not to mention the edge he has over LeBron for his competitiveness, leadership and ability to always come up clutch. But when we keep all the facts in mind and stop looking ahead to the future, that should be good enough for everybody.
Topics: Is LeBron James A Top Ten Player Of All Time, LeBron James 2013 NBA Finals, LeBron James Greatest Of All Time, LeBron James Legacy, LeBron James Two NBA Titles, LeBron James Vs Kobe Bryant, LeBron James Vs Michael Jordan