Few players inspire the level of debate that LeBron James has and still does. From the lofty expectations that were hefted on his shoulders as a high schooler, to the constant comparisons to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. During his 17 year career, James has combined longevity and greatness in a way that is truly unprecedented.
As the first overall pick in the now legendary 2003 NBA Draft, James’ entry into the league symbolized a passing of the torch as Michael Jordan had retired for the final time in the season prior. Despite enduring the first seven years with the Cleveland Cavaliers and a meddling line-up, LeBron’s individual greatness still shone. From his sophomore season onward, he would make the both the All-Star and All-NBA team every year he was in the league*.
An often over-looked aspect of LeBron James’ greatness is the versatility of his greatness. Many players are singularly great, e.g., James Harden’s scoring, Stephen Curry’s shooting. Other players are multi-talented but not truly elite in any area, e.g., Andre Iguodala, Scottie Pippen, Paul George. However, LeBron James is great at so many facets of basketball that measuring his impact is almost hopeless.
More interestingly, his greatness is not contingent on being the best at any specific skill, but rather a combination of an outlandishly high basketball IQ and a thorough understanding of how to use his body to his advantage. As an elite scorer he is neither the best shooter, has the fastest drive to the basket, or have the most extensive lay-up package. As an elite playmaker he is in fact an excellent passer, but he relies more on his court vision and IQ than on his ability to thread tight passes from unexpected angles.
In his career thus far, LeBron has led the league in scoring once, assists per game – also once and minutes per game twice. Contrast this with Kevin Durant who is a four time scoring champion or Chris Paul who has led the league in assists per game four times and steals per game on five occasions. Neither player can be confused with being in the same stratosphere as LeBron James, but those accomplishments – or lack of for LeBron is telling.
“If I really wanted to,” James said, “if I really wanted to be the scoring [champion] every single year — every single year — I could really do it. But it doesn’t matter.”
Even though such braggadocio is not uncommon among professional athletes, it is a completely believable threat coming from James. Having multiple superstars on one team usually means that even if they play well together, they will cannibalize each other’s stats to some degree. It just comes with the territory. LeBron James basically creates this problem for himself. He is an elite scorer, elite passer, and a great rebounder. This level of versatility forces him to throttle his own abilities. He can be the best at getting his teammates involved, or he can be the best at scoring, but realistically those goals are diametrically opposed to a degree. The fact that he excels at both speak volumes to his greatness.
Being an all-time great of LeBron James’ caliber means that every aspect of his career is scrutinized and criticized. Not only was James’ decision to join the Miami Heat much aligned but even how he did it. Criticism of the now infamous Decision often overlooks the fact that the program raised 6 million dollars in ad revenue, which was donated to several charities and $2.5 million dollars going to The Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Even beyond this, James would be criticized during his time with the Miami Heat. The first strike held against him was for failing to win a championship in his first year of Miami. Once he did win back-to-back championships in Miami, he was lambasted for needing Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win a championship.
These myopic critiques miss the fact that no superstar, not even the revered Michael Jordan, can win an NBA championship without help. Basketball is a team sport after all. Secondly the first iteration of a team put together specifically to win it all rarely accomplishes that task immediately. The 2019-2020 Los Angeles Clippers can certainly attest to this.
After returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers under much quieter circumstances than The Decision, James went to work proving his worth once again, bringing the championship to The Land in just his second year back. His championship as a Cavalier is arguably his most impressive, defeating an all-time great Golden State Warriors team that broke the record of regular season wins that year.
His most recent and final move saw him shipping west to Los Angeles where he again won a championship in his second year with the franchise. Anyone noticing a pattern?
LeBron has played a significant role in guiding his own basketball destiny. A privilege afforded to him by being the best player in the game. Despite his many detractors and attempts to downplay his legacy by ridiculing his Finals record – LeBron has consistently made the playoffs for most of his career. He is a staple in the NBA Finals, has faced historically great competition and dominated in away that has never been seen before.
Ultimately only time will reveal what will become of LeBron’s legacy. One thing is glaringly obvious in the interim – we are witnessing greatness.
*Accurate as of the end of the 2019-2020 NBA season.
Clint is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and contributed to various sports publications prior to his work with Upside Hoops.