The Reign of King James Continues: Where Does He Stand Among the Greats?
I think it’s time we have a little chat. It’s the same chat we’ve been having since 2003 when the Cavaliers selected LeBron James with the first overall pick in the draft—the same chat we’ve been having since James was a wee lad, winning championships at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio. It’s the same chat—but now, instead of hype and speculation, we have a career’s worth of statistics to back it up. So without further ado, I’ll just come out and say it: LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players to ever grace an NBA court.
Like I said, this isn’t a novel conversation by any means. Statisticians, pundits, and fans the world over have ranked James among the best throughout his career. So what makes this conversation any different? Well for one thing, James became the League’s 10th all time scorer this past Saturday, surpassing Hakeem Olajuwon on the way to the Cavs’ seventh straight win. For another, James is in his 13th season in the NBA. He’s 31 years old. And he just so happens to be posting some of the best numbers of his career, with 22.8 points, 10.7 assists, and 8.8 rebounds a game.
Now you’re probably thinking, what does ‘greatest’ even mean? It’s so subjective. And you’re right. It is. There are simply too many facets to the game to say that one single player ranks as the greatest in every category. Although in terms of versatility, few players in NBA history match the breadth of LeBron’s game. Still, this isn’t about categories. It’s not about scoring. It’s not about MVP trophies. It’s not about championships, or all-star nominations.
The reason Michael Jordan ranks so high in our hearts, more than his ridiculous career average of 30.1 points a game, more than his five MVP titles, more than his six championships, is that he poured his entire being into the game of basketball. The iconic image of him clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy and crying still sticks out in the minds of every fan who had the privilege of bearing witness to his greatness. That image is a testament to his passion. And it was from that passion that he gave us 13 memorable, often electric, seasons (excluding, of course, his two-year stint with the Washington Wizards. Let’s all just forget that ever happened). The point is, year in and year out, Michael Jordan demonstrated what greatness looked like. And it took more than five years for the NBA to recover from his retirement.
That recovery, aided by a stacked 2003 draft, came swiftly when LeBron James skipped college and went straight to the NBA. And like Mike, he carried his team for years without any help, posting monster numbers, and wowing crowds every night. The fact that the Cavs reached the playoffs five years in a row, including an appearance in the 2006-07 Finals, and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2008-09, is not so much a miracle as it is a testament to LeBron James’ greatness. For years, he led Cleveland in the direction of the Promised Land with little help from his supporting cast. It took MJ and the Bulls seven years to win a championship—and mostly because the Bulls’ Front Office did everything in their power to build a strong roster around Jordan. During James’ first seven seasons in the league, the Cavs made little effort to put a solid team around their star. So it was no wonder that in 2010, hungering for a title and a stronger squad, James jetted off to Miami to win some trophies.
After his departure, the Cavs collapsed, which led to the selection of Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson in 2011. Then in 2014, James came back home, joined by former Timberwolves forward Kevin Love. And for the first time in his career at Cleveland, LeBron had a legitimate chance at a championship. That was two years ago. And in those two years, the Cavs have appeared twice in the Finals, clinching the title in Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors last year. Now, with LeBron averaging a near triple-double six games into the season, it looks like Cleveland has a shot at a three-peat.
So back to our little chat. James is 31 years old. He’s injury free. And he doesn’t appear to be losing any steam. In fact, if anything the versatility of his game is improving and with it every other player on Cleveland’s roster. And that, above all else, is what makes LeBron James one of the greatest players of all time—his uncanny ability to spread the ball around, to show up defensively, to play 36 minutes every night, and to elevate—in Jordanesque fashion—the performance of his teammates. Simply put, there isn’t a facet of the game in which James comes up short. He’s a titan, a juggernaut, a true renaissance man of his time. If he spoke another language and sculpted Greek nudes, he’d make Michelangelo look like Bob Ross (not to hate on Bob Ross). The point is James is a winner, a showman, and with 13 years in the NBA he appears to have a handful of MVP-caliber seasons still hiding in the sweat of his compression sleeve.