All Hail the King
I feel like it is time to write a piece on the best player in basketball over the last decade- Lebron James. After his dominating performance in the NBA finals and throughout the playoffs that should finally shut up all his irrational haters I believe it appropriate to write about his greatness and try to give his career some perspective. Really I should have written this post last year to defend him when he lost in the Finals to the Warriors, to prove his greatness and timely performances; however I was in Africa and had no opportunity. So hopefully this post will be redundant and people have finally accepted him as one of the best ever after bringing home his promise and a championship to Cleveland for the first time in over 50 years.
Now I was not always a fan of the King, but I always have appreciated his talent. You could classify me as an unconventional Lebron fan. When he was initially with Cleveland I was not a fan of Lebron, not because I didn’t like his game or thought he was a bad person, but because everyone else liked him. Instead of falling in love with him like everyone else everywhere I stuck rooting for my local team the Supersonics and individual players from my Alma mater UW and hometown team Gonzaga. It was only after his infamous “Decision” that I became a fan. Immediately after choosing Miami, after seven years in Cleveland, millions of his die-hard fans flipped which began the years of hatred and vitriol slandering Lebron (like calling him a choke- which is laughable). I couldn’t understand why people switched from love to hatred so quickly and for no good reason. If there was any reason to get mad people should have pointed their anger toward the concept of free agency itself or toward Cavalier ownership who in seven years assembled a terrible team around Lebron. Think, who was Lebron’s best running mate- Mo Williams? Who could blame him for leaving? Who in their right mind wouldn’t leave Cleveland for Miami? And he left- not for more money but for less- so he could play with his friends and have a chance to achieve his ultimate goal- a championship. No reasonable human being can fault a man for doing that. Now Lebron’s only haters probably come from Florida, a state Lebron gave two championships too.
The greatness of Lebron is hard to ignore: 3- time NBA Champion and Finals MVP, 4-time MVP, 10-time All-NBA 1st team, 5-time All-Defensive 1st team, and two Olympic Gold Medals.[i] He has dominated since first entering the league in 2003 (winning Rookie of the Year), being selected to the NBA All-star team every year and becoming the best player of the last decade and the face of the NBA. He is the youngest player to reach 25,000 points and ranks 13th all-time in points (NBA/ABA), 109th all-time in rebounds (NBA/ABA), 18th all-time in assists (NBA/ABA), 26th all-time in steals (NBA/ABA), 139th all-time in blocks, 16th all-time in free throw attempts (NBA/ABA) for the regular season.[ii] His post season totals might be even more impressive, ranking 9th all-time in games played, 4th all-time in points, 9th all-time in rebounds, 3rd all-time in assists, 4th all-time in steals, 21st all-time in blocks, and 2nd all-time in free throw attempts.[iii] These are incredible numbers for any career and even more impressive considering Lebron is just 31-years-old.
His advanced or metric stats, which might tell a more accurate or at least a more holistic picture, are perhaps the most impressive as they help capture the little things that make Lebron so great- his basketball IQ, efficiency, vision, passing, and playmaking. Lebron is the only other player in NBA history besides Michael Jordan to have a PER (player efficiency rating) of 30 or higher in four seasons.[iv] For the regular season he ranks 2nd all-time in PER (behind only Michael Jordan), 48th all-time in true shooting percentage (Michael Jordan ranks 81st), 24th all-time in true assist percentage, 8th all-time in win shares, 6th all-time in win shares/ 48 minutes, 1st all-time in plus/minus (from 1973 to present), and 1st all-time in value over replacement player. These stats are mind-blowing, but just wait. Lebron has saved his best performances for when it matters most- in the playoffs. Lebron ranks 3rd in PER (behind only Michael and George Mikan who put up absurd numbers for the Lakers in 50s), 57th in true shooting percentage, 16th in true assist percentage, 1st in win shares, 3rd in win shares/48mins (again only behind Michael and George Mikan), 1st in plus/minus, and 1st in value over replacement.[v] Lebron’s playoff dominance has been incredibly consistent from year-to-year and series-to-series with him producing the highest win shares of anybody in the playoffs 7 out of his 11 trips, essentially meaning he was MVP of the playoffs in seven of his eleven attempts.[vi]
Looking at the numbers holistically and not focusing solely on scoring Lebron puts himself above his peers, even Michael. Lebron is the only in NBA history to average 28 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists.[vii] The numbers show Michael is a better scorer, but a better basketball player? The numbers give the edge to Lebron. This is an important distinction as Lebron has for right or wrong always been compared to Michael even though their games are vastly different. On paper and on court Michael is the better offensive player and is a better pure shooter than Lebron. However Lebron is more versatile, offensively and defensively, and in my opinion a better all-around player. Lebron’s game more closely resembles Magic Johnson’s- the original point-forward who always looked to get his teammates involved first. Lebron though has truly mastered the position established by Magic using perhaps his best skill set his playmaking ability. Still the comparisons will always comeback to Michael, with his supporters providing two reasons why Michael is still the best: Michael has more NBA championships and is more clutch.
I have always thought the ring comparisons unfair. Yes to be considered one of the greatest you have to win the sports crown jewel and both have- both are winners; but by simply comparing the number of rings ignores so many factors and variables it reduces the argument to absurdity. By this logic Bill Russell would be considered the greatest with 11 NBA Championship, and his is great; but that logic completely ignores a player’s whole body of work- including game and metric stats and a player’s longevity and consistency- not to mention failing to acknowledge the era of basketball played, the competition, and players’ teammates. After all basketball is a team game and it takes a team to win a good supporting cast.
For a while the haters of Lebron would concede he was good but said he always choked during important games collapsing under the pressure; however this is completely delusional. If his overall career playoffs stats don’t impress you, then let’s look at his performance when his season and career were on the line. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst Lebron has made more go-ahead shots in the end of playoff games than Michael did and from 2001 to present Lebron has been the best player on go-ahead shots in the final five seconds at the end of a playoff games generating 4.8 more total points than expected almost twice as good as the 2nd best player.[viii] Looking at entire games when Lebron is facing elimination, his stats are even more staggering, and should aptly be called Mr. Clutch. Lebron is the best all-time with his back is against the wall holding a 9-8 record and ridiculous stats- 32.9PPG, 10.8RPG, 6.9APG, with a 47.3FG%. By comparison Michael holds a 6-7 record with 31.3PPG, 7.9RPG, 7.0APG, with a 44.5FG%.[ix] So Lebron is the best of his generation in the final minutes of important games and the best all-time in games when facing elimination. Clearly he not only handles the pressure but excels when it matters most. This should come as no surprise after his performance in this year’s Finals.
The Cavaliers were the first team in NBA history to comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals and did it against the best team in NBA history the Warriors who went 73-9 during the regular season. The reason Cleveland came back to win the series is the amazing three game sequence Lebron had in games 5, 6, and 7. In games 5 and 6 facing elimination Lebron combined for 82 points, 24 rebounds, 18 assists, 7 steals, 6 blocks, and only 3 turnovers with a +37 plus/minus. Those are godly numbers few have replicated in a two-game stretch at any time. He continued his heroic play in game 7 producing a triple-double for the 16th time in his playoff career posting 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, 3 blocks, and 2 steals.[x] Lebron finished the series averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.6 steals, and became the 1st player in NBA history to lead his team in all major categories (the ones listed above).[xi] With his team seemingly eliminated Lebron shouldered the entire burden, put the team on his back and lead them on and off the court to become NBA champions. His raw emotion immediately after winning showed how much he gave to his team and hometown.
Lebron’s remarkable success should finally be appreciated. His has been a top player for more than a decade and the best player of his generation. What makes his success even more remarkable is where he has come from, something he eludes to quite frequently in interviews. As Lebron says he should just be “another static”- an inner city black kid who group up poor with a single mother who was more likely to be in prison than a success story- but what a static he has become. Even more impressive to me, Lebron has not only survived but conquered the hype that has followed him when he was coined “The Great One” when he was still in high school. For someone to come under that amount of pressure and scrutiny at such a young age and overcome it- stay driven and humble- to achieve his ultimate dream is truly remarkable. So many of these young talented athletes flame-out or succumb to the hype but not Lebron- he has risen above it all, to reach heights few could even fathom, and slammed it down on the haters silencing them once and for all, just like one of his many iconic slam dunks.
(Still don’t want to believe me? Here is a complete list of Lebron’s basketball achievements which is simply breathtaking: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_career_achievements_by_LeBron_James )