One thing that drives a lot of the conversations about sports is how to put people and events into historical perspective. The NFL and MLB are notoriously difficult in that regard because of the large differences among the historical eras of both of those leagues. In baseball, there is the period before integration; the times before and after the mound was raised to aid pitchers, World War 2-when many Hall of Famers lost multiple seasons in the prime of their careers, the dead ball era, the steroid era and so on. Football is similar, with the modern game bearing very little resemblance to the sport that was popularized at the college level over 100 years ago. Changes in equipment, the sophistication of coaching and the evolution of the human body render many comparisons of historical greats to modern stars moot. It is hard to imagine Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense trying to stop Colin Kaepernick’s pistol offense or the 250lb offensive lineman of the 1960s trying to block a 340lb behemoth like Haloti Ngata.
Basketball is a different matter altogether, with the only real innovations of the last 50 years being the advent of the 24 second shot clock and the three point line. There are only so many different things that five guys can do on a court with a basketball. My position is that almost any truly great player from the NBA’s history would be great in today’s game. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Bob Pettit, Jerry West and George Gervin would all be All Stars. The overall level of athleticism in the NBA has increased, but there are plenty of examples of players without exceptional leaping ability or quickness being at the top of the league due to their extremely high skill level. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in the ‘80s, Karl Malone and John Stockton in the ‘90s, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki in the ‘00s and guys like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol today, have all succeeded because of their work ethic and high basketball IQs. This allows us to make reasonable and relevant comparisons between players of different eras.
Which leads me to my next statement: LeBron James is the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan and by the time he is finished, the conversation about who is the greatest of all time will only include those two names. And if you are a basketball fan you should be watching LeBron every chance you get.
I am not a Miami Heat fan, but as someone who has been lucky enough to have seen the end of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s primes and the whole of Michael Jordan’s career, I feel like I know what true greatness looks like when I see it. With All-Star weekend coinciding with Jordan’s 50th birthday and LeBron’s recent historic run of consecutive games with 30 points and 60 percent shooting, the comparisons between the two are inevitable.
I have watched thousands of hours of basketball over the course of my life and I have never seen a player who does everything that James does on a night in, night out basis. Currently he leads the Heat in points, rebounds, assists and steals while also averaging a career low in turnovers. Oh, by the way, he is also shooting better from the floor and the 3 point line than at any other time in his career. On offense, he is the league’s most versatile weapon; being able to score from the post, the perimeter, off the dribble and from deep while also constantly involving his teammates and getting them wide-open shots. He is the rarity who is both his team’s best player and also it’s most unselfish. On defense, LeBron can guard every player on the floor effectively and during crunch time he will often end up defending the other team’s best player, no matter what position they play. In the playoffs two years ago when the Heat were playing the Chicago Bulls, after losing the first game, in the fourth quarter of each subsequent game in this tightly contested series, LeBron James moved from small forward to defend the newly crowned NBA MVP Derrick Rose who is a lightning-quick point guard. Rose was so frustrated by James’ defense that he and the Bulls’ offense completely broke down and the Heat won four games in a row to clinch the series.
Aside from his obvious skill and physical abilities, LeBron James’ play is characterized by the amount of effort he expends. A prime example is that one of his trademark plays is where he runs a player down from behind to block a dunk or lay-up attempt. It is rare to see anyone on the court who is playing harder or carrying a heavier workload than he is. Maybe his greatest attribute is the ability to elevate the play of his teammates. For the first seven years of his career he played on teams in Cleveland that had very little in the way of complementary talent, yet he consistently took them to the playoffs; winning at least one series in every postseason appearance. The 2007 Cavaliers are maybe the least talented team I have ever seen make it to the NBA Finals. Looking back on that roster of cast-offs it boggles my mind that anyone could have made that team a winner.
The clearest delineation between Michael Jordan and LeBron James; aside from the fact that Jordan has six championships to James’ one, is that Michael Jordan had a will to win that made him play with a passion that may be unmatched in NBA history. Jordan was a stone cold assassin on the basketball court, who didn’t just want to beat you; he wanted to look you in the eye while he was beating you so he could see you break. Jordan raised his teammate’s level of play with his intensity and his uncompromising dedication which forced others around him to raise their standards. He was driven to the point where often times his teammates hated him, but he believed in the philosophy, “Steel sharpens steel.” While Jordan entered the NBA with that edge, it is only in the last few seasons that we have seen a more mature and focused LeBron James who has been hardened by criticism from both the media and his peers and by his failures on games’ biggest stage. The LeBron James of the last 18 months has won the NBA MVP, the NBA Finals MVP, the NBA Championship and an Olympic Gold Medal while having two of the most efficient statistical seasons ever. If he can maintain this level of play for the next 4 to 6 years then the seat at the top of the NBA Mountain occupied by Michael Jordan may just become a table for two. It would be a shame if you missed the chance to watch it happen.