Sizing Up Lebron James: Assessing the Mount Rushmore of the NBA

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Here we are on the other side of another NBA Finals and another Lebron James loss, bringing his record in the Finals to 3-5. In conversations about LBJ I’m reminded — often — that the record only indicates how often he has made the Finals. I’m also reminded that he actually averaged a Triple Double during this most recent appearance and how his team just couldn’t compete against a foe so loaded as the Warriors. It’s all true.

For me, Lebron James has always been a peculiar case. He is the best single player of his era as long as Kobe and Tim Duncan belong to somebody else’s era. He is likable and has made mostly all the right steps in his career. He seems to be a solid character guy and puts up numbers like you wouldn’t believe. Even if his what may be called “basketball skills” get put in the less-than-great category, he more than makes up for whatever deficiencies he has with physicality that basketball, or maybe any game, has never seen. Beyond rim-rattling drives to the basket he doesn’t do any one thing great, but he does all things at all 5 positions well and heaven help the man that gets between him and the rim in an open lane or open court situation.

What I wrestle with — and has become multiple ongoing conversations threads — is the Mount Rushmore of the NBA. It seems that my professional sports-loving, social media community is split right down the middle on where LBJ goes on the all-time NBA players list. I have several within my circles that not only put Lebron James on their NBA Mount Rushmore, that is, the 4 greatest players of all time, but see it as nothing less than ridiculous that someone may not. While choosing 4 has been challenging for me, choosing not to include James has not been up to this point. For the record, I’m going to go with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Kobe Bryant. That’s a representative from the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and 2000s, taking titles, tenure, leadership, and place in basketball history into consideration. Next in line are, but in no order, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Akeem Olajuwon, Shaq, Julius Erving, and Wilt Chamberlain. That’s 10 ahead of LBJ and it’s an incomplete list. No Jerry West, Bill Russell, Isaiah Thomas, or Elgin Baylor. No Curry or Durant. But that’s not the point of this post.

This is purely entertainment and, admittedly, splitting hairs. James is awesome and has been since the day he stepped onto an NBA court to score 25 in his first game against the Kings. And he’s definitely among the game’s greats. Apart of this, however, he is probably the most interesting player in my lifetime. So, yes, he flops. But it’s the only way he would ever get a favorable call. He’s also the most scrutinized player ever, hands down. Everything he does is analyzed and over-analyzed. Here are a additional few thoughts on the peculiar case of Lebron James:

The Lebron James Era. Since Lebron James was selected #1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA draft we have been in the Lebron James era. Back in 2003, of course, we just didn’t know it yet. What was interesting to me during the recent NBA finals was the debate about Kevin Durant as possibly the best player in the league right now, unseating LBJ. Maybe Durant is. But if he is, it’s still the Lebron James Era of the NBA and will be until Lebron tells us that it isn’t. This would mean that if Kevin Durant is currently the best player in the league, it makes him the best player in the Lebron James Era, which is just weird. But Durant isn’t. In my opinion this is just a natural reaction to the collective “numbness” we experience watching Lebron do what he does well, so often. But to have his own era of league history (and who can dispute this) also helps the argument of those who want to put Lebron among the top 4 players of all time and even the best player of all time. If you want to name the “eras” of modern-day NBA basketball, there is the Bird/Magic Era, the Jordan Era, and the Lebron James Era, with all due respect to the Bad Boys, the Spurs, and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. This alone supports the Lebron apologist greatest-player-of-all-time claim. But here is the difference. Even in the reality of the era, Lebron James hasn’t necessarily “dominated” the Lebron James Era. He hasn’t three-peated like Jordan and Kobe. He has lost in the Finals to Golden State and San Antonio twice and the Dallas Mavericks. Even thought the Durant/Curry-LBJ rivalry has emerged in recent years, there hasn’t been a decade-long foil to James. For comparison, Magic Johnnson has 5 championships in 9 appearances. Larry Bird was 3 -2 while Jordan of course went 6 for 6. Tim Duncan’s Spurs have 4 rings in 6 Finals. What we’re seeing in LBJ is the power of charisma, on-court awe, an ability to control the story line and remain a media fixture, and an extremely keen sense of brand — something that Magic, Bird, and Duncan just didn’t care as much about. And even Jordan, in my opinion, despite being a huge brand, was still a basketball player first. This brings us to …

Brand. This is what separates Lebron James most significantly from the likes of Bird, Kobe, Magic, Jordan and anybody else. James is much less than a player than he is a brand. By no means should this be taken as a shot at James as a player, but it does speak to just how big of a brand he is. Even in Finals losses he is the story. For example, when Kevin Durant hit the 3 in Game 4, the story was James’ defense. He can go from Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland and it doesn’t matter. He could go to LA in 2018 and it wouldn’t matter. Lebron James isn’t a mercenary player always following the money or a specific group of players, he is simply Lebron James. Always. Right now, regardless of whether you are a fan or not, he is bigger than the NBA. He is bigger than Magic, Bird, Shaq, or Jordan ever were. Another difference is how important this is to LBJ, which isn’t to be held against him. He has done everything right, avoided missteps (mostly), and has completely controlled the narrative which is a wonder in our cynical culture. You have to give him credit for understanding cultural ethos at such a high level. “Lebron James” the icon is absolutely climate controlled. If his record in the Finals has proven anything, it’s that he doesn’t have to win to be the story. Actually, he can lose and possibly be a bigger story.

Elevating Teammates. As I’ve watched James over the years I have concluded that LBJ doesn’t elevate his teammates in the same way Magic, Bird, Jordan, and others have. But somehow I can also couch this as something less than critical. In this way I think James is akin to Peyton Manning. For instance, I think Manning is the best ever at playing the quarterback position. Even so, if I were to draft a quarterback for my all-time team I’m not sure he would be in my top 5. The problem was that Manning was so good that he became his own system. That is, the Broncos on offense looked a whole lot like the Colts on offense all those Manning years. So, if a team could find a way to beat the system, there was no where else to turn. Lebron is also his own system. Regardless of where he plays or who he plays with, it’s still Lebron. He’s just that good. But because he is essentially his own system, a system unto itself, it’s really hard to maximize what the other players bring to the team. It’s the anti-Spurs. Again, Lebron James is the ultimate outlier. He’s so good that it stifles those around him, even if it’s only to a small degree, enough to keep them consistently falling short. Which brings us to …

Finals Record. What do you do with this? Out of 8 tries, LBJ has 3 titles. My questions is this: What changes in the Finals? Are his teams truly inferior to the West so much of the time or are is the East, which he has dominated, just inferior to the West. It’s certainly not James’ statistics nor his effort. The sum of it is that it’s a very strange — and rare — statistic. It’s rare among the elite at any level simply because so few players makes it to the World Series or Super Bowl as often as James heads to the NBA Finals. Tom Brady would be the closest approximation, I suppose, and you might also consider Derek Jeter. I don’t have any answers to these questions, of course, but in my opinion this statistic mars the “greatest of all time” argument. Yet these losses must be accounted for. Can the greatest player of all time continue to lose in the Finals? Granted, the Spurs and Warriors are really good teams, but the Spurs will be remembered for their consistency not their flash. Given this, they would seem beatable by the greatest player of his generation. So is it a coach or management scenario? And if so, why weren’t the Bulls, Celtics, Spurs, and Lakers plagued by a similar circumstance. I don’t have any answers to these questions, of course, but in my opinion this statistic mars the “greatest of all time” argument. Like so much of this, it just defies explanation.

This post isn’t an anti-James rant. It is, I think, an attempt to size up a player that is quite a bit different than those that have come before him both in physical stature and approach to career. His is a peculiar case, at least for me. While I think Lebron wants to win, I don’t think Lebron is necessarily desperate to win. When you’re as good as he is, heck, it’s still great. Perhaps not all-time great, but good enough to make the Finals and even win a few. He scores high on likeability. He’s super intelligent. He is mindful of his place as a role model of sorts and there seems to be a sense of humility and gratitude. There is a lot to like about Lebron James.

 

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