I first saw LeBron James play basketball early in his junior year of high school when I was working on a case in Akron, Ohio. That afternoon, before a big crowd at the Akron University arena, James couldn’t hit an outside shot to save his life (my local counsel attributed this to the fact that he had been playing football all fall). Nonetheless, he scored around 25 points, must have reached double figures in rebounds, played outstanding defense, and led his team to victory over a nationally ranked opponent.
I became a believer.
Pretty early in James’ pro career, I tried to show in a yearly series of posts, that he already was performing at least as well in the post-season as Kobe Bryant, then considered the best player in the sport and the epitome of a clutch performer. This, at a time when it was being whispered that James couldn’t deliver in prime time.
The whispers would develop into a yell when James still hadn’t led a team to an NBA championship by the age of 26. Unfortunately, the analytical capacity of many sports columnists, talk show hosts, etc., does not extend beyond the ability to count “rings” (i.e., championships won). These ringologists (and their nasty cousins the choke detectors) couldn’t stop pounding on LeBron.
The pounding halted briefly when LeBron led Miami to the NBA championship last season. But it picked up new steam every time Miami lost a playoff game this year.
During the semi-finals against the Indiana Pacers and the finals against the formidable San Antonio Spurs, every Miami loss (and there were three of them in each series) precipitated earnest discussion about LeBron’s legacy. Would he be remembered as the man who couldn’t deliver, commensurate with his talent, in big games? Would he fall short of the standard set for him by the ringlogists?
Forget the absurdity of trying to assess a player’s legacy while he’s in mid-career. James had already established his big-game bona fides by, among other accomplishments, posting some of the best offensive numbers in NBA history in “elimination games” (those in which a team is bounced from the playoffs if it loses).
To make matters more ridiculous, sports pundits (indeed some of the same ones described above, or so it seemed) would change the legacy question after James sparkled in Miami victories. Now the issue was whether he was, or would soon be, the equal of Michael Jordan.
In the end, Miami prevailed over San Antonio in an all-time classic series by winning the last two games. In these elimination games, James averaged 34.5 points, 11 rebounds, and 7.5 assists. He also basically took Spurs star Tony Parker, a future Hall of Famer, out of the game during the long stretches when James guarded him. In Game 7 Parker scored only 10 points on 3-12 shooting, with just 4 assists).
This ends the LeBron bashing, until next season when Miami (or whichever team James plays for) loses a playoff game or two.
As for LeBron’s legacy, it’s still too early to discuss. But I will say this. He’s already one of the top 10 players in NBA history (and would have been if Miami had lost to San Antonio or Indiana this year). Soon, he should be comfortably in the top five.
As for ringology, James already has won more titles than Oscar Robertson and as many as Wilt Chamberlain, both of whom played when there were many fewer teams. He’s won as many titles as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird had at the same age. He’s won half as many as Tim Duncan who has played almost twice as long.
Is James as good as Michael Jordan? No. The problem (if it’s fair to call it that) goes back to what I saw in that high school game in Akron. James still doesn’t have an outside shot he’s willing consistently to rely on. This means that, to carry his team to victory in big games, he feels the need to drive into heavy traffic. Often, this leads to points, whether via a bucket, free throws, or an assist. But too often, it leads to turnovers — like the two he committed late in Game Six that nearly led to elimination after he had single-handedly brought Miami back into the contest.
But in Game Seven, James was willing to call on his outside shot in crunch time, and it answered. If this becomes the rule, then James will challenge Jordan. After all, it wasn’t until mid-career that Michael became a great clutch outside shooter. And Jordan was never the rebounder or assist man that James is.
But let’s wait five years or so until we seriously compare the two. For now, just enjoy watching a once in a generation talent in its prime.