LeBron’s place in NBA history

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - October 12, 2020 - 12:00am

If he wins his fourth NBA championship (and the Los Angeles Lakers’ 17th) today, will LeBron James be worthy of being named the greatest NBA player of all time? More importantly, even with his longevity and consistent, impressive output, will he ever? What will it take?

Let’s look at the names on a potential shortlist of NBA all-time greatest: Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and James. Each has his fans and campaigners; each has his flaws. Obviously, they all played in different circumstances.

Bill Russell won 11 championships with Boston, including eight in a row. But statistically, he was not that dominant, save for rebounding. That’s also why we don’t discuss Sam Jones or any of those Celtics who won eight to 10 trophies, or even Robert Horry, for that matter. Six-time MVP Abdul-Jabbar, meanwhile, gradually diminished in 20 years in the league, averaging only 10.1 points per game in his last season. For their part, Magic and Bird were incredible all-around talents and multiple champions, but LeBron surpasses them statistically and in number of finals appearances. LeBron’s teams also won two-thirds of the games they played against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers; and James has been more efficient statistically. To be fair, Kobe and Magic still lead him by one championship apiece.

LeBron is no doubt the most prodigious athlete in NBA history, with the exception of Wilt Chamberlain. Either one could set records in whichever statistical category they chose, though Wilt was bigger at 7’1”. One more thing that Chamberlain and James have in common is the high percentage of finals series lost. The Big Dipper made it to six finals, losing four (the same number as Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar). Of course, his teams also fell victim to Bill Russell and the steamrolling Celtics dynasty. (One of the reasons Jerry West is not in this conversation is that his teams lost in eight finals when he was playing.)

Number of finals losses is one of the reasons for some people to downplay LeBron’s greatness. Personally, I would not use this against James, because it involves too many other variables, and he can’t go back and fix it. However, the inverse – not having as many finals losses (or none at all) – is a big plus for other players, like Jordan, who did not lose (or even go to a Game 7) in six finals appearances. Fans place a premium on willing one’s team to a title.

Arguably, it’s a two-horse race between Jordan and James. James has been the more durable player, perhaps the best all-around player in NBA history. Statistically, each is superlative, with strengths the other does not have. But when you do a deep dive into the numbers, Jordan is the more efficient player in many aspects. Furthermore, His Airness ranks even higher among all those who played guard. And Jordan and company played in an era when the East was much tougher, at least physically.

So why do people dislike LeBron? His personal reputation is clean, he is charitable, he is a winner. A lot of it has to do with his statements and behavior off the court, like his jab at Steph Curry when the latter was named MVP; or the whole circus around LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland; or his calling himself the greatest NBA player of all time. Frankly, that shouldn’t count. As a player, one reasonable knock this writer sees is LeBron’s walking off the floor before the end of Game 3 of the Finals. This smacks of poor sportsmanship, recalling the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons at the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals against the Chicago Bulls. That act rubbed fans and media the wrong way.

Overall, Jordan is still the objective and subjective favorite between the two. In time, LeBron may eventually overcome some of Jordan’s objective advantages through sheer volume. The subjective part, though, seems to be cementing itself as seasons go by. For now, he’s in the conversation. Will NBA fans inevitably be kinder to him?

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