Ranking the 50 greatest NBA players of all time

The Last Dance, Michael Jordan, LeBron James (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
The Last Dance, Michael Jordan, LeBron James (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /
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Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images /

2. LeBron James

  • Resume: 17 seasons, 4 NBA championships, 4 NBA Finals MVP Awards, 4 regular season MVP Awards, 16-time All-NBA selection, 16-time NBA All-Star, 3-time NBA All-Star Game MVP, 6-time NBA All-Defensive Team, Rookie of the Year Award, 1-time NBA leader in scoring, 1-time NBA leader in assists, Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-time leading scorer, NBA’s third all-time leading scorer, NBA’s all-time leader in VORP
  • Stats: 27.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.4 APG, 1.6 SPG , .504/.344/.734 shooting splits, 27.4 career PER, 236.4 win shares

There’s no doubt about it: LeBron James is already the second-greatest NBA player who ever lived, and some would argue he has a legitimate case to be No. 1.

Kobe may be the most polarizing NBA star we’ve seen in the last few decades, but LeBron isn’t far behind. In his first seven years in Cleveland, King James was a star everyone could get behind. Unless he was playing your favorite team, it was hard NOT to cheer for the young phenom. We wanted to see him live up to the hype. We wanted to see him break through and win a title. We wanted to see him challenge Jordan for the title of GOAT.

He fell short in the 2007 NBA Finals, but nobody could blame him for losing to a superior Spurs team considering his mediocre supporting cast. LeBron had dragged a lackluster team to the Finals — albeit in a very weak Eastern Conference — in a way no one had since Allen Iverson. But when he continued to fall short, we grew anxious. And when he took the “easy way out” through Miami, he tarnished his legacy forever in the minds of quite a few NBA fans at the time.

Luckily, most have adapted with the times, as this has become an era of player empowerment when it comes to contracts and free agency. But even at its base, could we really fault him for chasing titles? After all, winning championships should be the point of playing in this league. At the time, however, the way that super-team was formed behind closed doors felt unnatural to many. It was like AAU buddies teaming up as a big middle finger to all the NBA teams who built themselves into contenders the “good old fashioned way.”

So when LeBron choked in the 2011 NBA Finals alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and lost to the underdog Mavericks, people cheered. King James would win back the support of the public with some truly transcendent seasons in Miami, but it’s worth noting Ray Allen’s shot in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals saved LeBron’s legacy — to that point in his career, at least. He won back-to-back titles before once again losing to a superior Spurs team in the 2014 NBA Finals.

However, even if you completely disregard the Heatles years, LeBron can claim he’s taken down a juggernaut unlike anything Michael Jordan ever faced, and he cemented his place among the all-time greats by bringing the Cavs their first championship in the most legendary way possible.

Facing a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 deficit against the greatest regular-season team in NBA history, King James carried his team from the brink against a 73-win behemoth. He finally made good on his promise to Cleveland, winning the 2016 NBA Finals in unforgettable fashion by closing out the series with a 41-16-7-3-3 line in Game 5, a 41-11-8-4-3 in Game 6 and a 27-11-11 triple-double in Game 7.

Sure, he got some help from Kyrie Irving, a Draymond Green suspension, an Andrew Bogut injury and Harrison Barnes going ice-cold, but that series provided us with our first vignette LeBron moment in the Finals (The Block) and the lasting takeaway of his career. No matter what happened from there, he was vindicated.

The basketball world has adjusted to the way title contenders are now essentially created by the league’s best players. But after that four-year Miami detour, his career was always going to be defined by whether he brought a long-awaited title to Cleveland. Mission accomplished.

The rise of the Warriors, the arrival of Kevin Durant and a migration to a young Los Angeles Lakers team at age 33 may have prevented King James from ever ascending to the NBA throne again, but although his new LA squad missed the playoffs in 2019, they came back stronger than ever in 2019-20 with Anthony Davis in tow, securing LeBron his fourth NBA title and fourth Finals MVP.

At this point, the GOAT debate is a matter of preference, and either way there’s hardly anything wrong with going down as the second-greatest NBA player of all time. Because even if he’s not the greatest NBA player, you could make the argument he’s the best.

After all, his 2018 playoff run was one to remember. When the Cavs were forced to trade Kyrie Irving away, their season was almost constantly derailed by the kind of locker room turmoil that’s seemingly followed James everywhere in his NBA career. That didn’t stop the King from turning on the jets in the postseason, averaging a gargantuan 34-9-9 stat line while eking out two Game 7s and supplying two game-winners en route to an unprecedented eighth straight Finals appearance.

And, of course, this all came before he led the Lakers to their first championship in 10 years in an unprecedented season of turmoil that saw the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, a global pandemic, a racial reckoning in America following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and basketball resuming in a bubble after a fourth-month pause. Sure, Los Angeles enjoyed a rather easy path to the title, but the extenuating circumstances off the court took a massive mental toll, and only someone with LeBron’s special kind of fortitude was capable of overcoming it.

We could still talk about his impeccable basketball mind, his clutch gene, his elite passing skills and court vision, his unstoppable speed and physique, his unbelievable shooting percentages and his efficiency.

We could recall his clutch playoff performances like Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals when he scored 29 of his team’s last 30 points, or Game 6 of the 2012 ECFs when he dropped 45 on the Boston Celtics to stave off elimination.

We could mention that he’s a nightly triple-double threat, how he’s on pace to break dozens of NBA records or the fact that his 51-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist performance in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals is perhaps the most dominant individual performance in Finals history, regardless of the outcome.

His current 4-6 record in the Finals is still somewhat unseemly, but context is important there. The 2011 disappearing act is inexcusable, and it may be enough to keep him a tier below MJ, but in almost every other series defeat, he was completely outmatched.

His decision to form the NBA Justice League with his super friends rubbed a lot of traditionalists the wrong way. It was something MJ, Bird and Magic would never have done. But again, context matters. The league is different now. Why is it okay for owners to trade players like livestock, but when players take their own living situations into their own hands, it’s such a scandal?

LeBron James is a living legend who’s captivated us like no one has since Jordan, but maybe that’s the point. Since Jordan. Not necessarily “ever.” His story hasn’t ended yet, and now he still has a chance to win more titles with Anthony Davis, but for now, he stays put at No. 2.