LeBron James Is Officially the Peyton Manning of the NBA
“It’s about damn time.”
It is also likely a response to many of James’ critics, who believe “King James” should have won multiple titles already.
LeBron should've won 2 or 3 titles by now. He should wind up with at least 3. Will be favored again next year.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 22, 2012
In his ninth season, James captured that elusive title. It is the same number of seasons Peyton Manning endured before winning Super Bowl XLI and Super Bowl MVP with the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.
The two superstars have more in common than you might think. As generational talents, no one else in their respective leagues is more prone to such a mixture of adoration and criticism. No other players are held to the same standards, and no one has more expectations upon them on a yearly basis than Manning and James.
If you think winning a title is going to rewrite the narrative for LeBron James’ career, think again. The next volume is only beginning, and it will nitpick every mistake James makes on his way to more rings.
You can look at Manning’s career since 2007 as proof of that. In fact, you can compare the entire careers of both players and find a lot of the same things.
Both entered pro sports as a No. 1 overall draft pick
Peyton Manning was selected by the Indianapolis Colts as the No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 NFL draft. He likely would have been the first pick in the 1997 draft, but he returned for his senior season at Tennessee to win an SEC championship and set a then-NCAA record with 39 wins as a starting quarterback.
The son of New Orleans Saints legend Archie Manning, Peyton was considered one of the best quarterback prospects in years—perhaps the best prospect since (current boss) John Elway in 1983.
Hype would be taken to a new level just a few years later, when a 16-year-old LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, was featured in a SLAM magazine article proclaiming him “the best high school basketball player in America.”
Already reaching star status before his senior year of high school, it was apparent James would be the next player to forgo a college career and head directly to the NBA. That worked well for players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, but they did not receive even a fifth of the attention James received.
In the 2003 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers used the No. 1 pick to select James in a talent-laden class that also featured Carmelo Anthony (No. 3, Denver) and future Miami teammates Chris Bosh (No. 4, Toronto) and Dwyane Wade (No. 5, Miami).
Though Kwame Brown in 2001 was actually the first high school player to be selected No. 1 overall, he never had the expectations that awaited James. That would be impossible when no other player was being called “The Chosen One” on the cover of Sports Illustrated while he was still in high school.
Both immediately put up some stats as a rookie on a bad team
Usually when you are picked first in the draft, you go to the worst team in the league to be their savior. That is exactly what each player faced.
In his first professional game, Manning passed for 302 yards, setting a record for rookie quarterbacks for most passing yards in a debut (Cam Newton broke it last year with 422 yards). By season’s end, Manning had set new NFL rookie records for pass attempts (575), completions (326), passing yards (3,739) and touchdowns (26).
Though Manning threw 28 interceptions and the Colts only repeated their 3-13 record from 1997, he made them a more competitive team and improved as the season went on. He also helped decrease their sack total with his quick release from 62 in 1997 to just 22 in 1998.
For James, the Cavaliers were 17-65 in the 2002-03 season. They would more than double that win total to 35 in 2003-04, and James became the youngest player ever to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, averaging 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game.
Like Manning, the 18-year-old James reached a record in his very first game, scoring 25 points, which is the most any prep-to-pro player ever scored in his debut. Later that season he became the youngest player to ever score at least 40 points in a game.
You could see that with a better team around them, both players were destined for great things.
Both are prolific, generational talents in their sport
You do not have the kind of success a Peyton Manning or LeBron James has on a consistent yearly basis without being one of the most talented players the game has ever seen.
Manning’s ability to control the offense at the line in an era of “green dot quarterbacking,” with all sorts of communication from the coaches, is second to none. Manning is like another coach out there, and we have seen him literally coach the team on the field (see 1:22 mark).
The constant use of a no-huddle as a base offense was taken to unseen heights in Indianapolis, as was the consistent execution of what is not one of the league’s most complicated offenses. Manning’s use of play-action passing, even without any threat of a running game, is legendary.
While some quarterbacks may struggle when they have “happy feet,” Manning has used it to his advantage, as he can quickly set his feet and throw from awkward angles. This also helps to prevent injury, which he managed to do for 227 consecutive starts before the neck surgeries ended his 2011 season.
If not for that neck injury, Manning may have easily surpassed all of the NFL’s career passing records, and he still has the opportunity to do so.
You can spend a long time listing all of Manning’s records, but let’s simplify it: Before 2011, you could count on Manning to give you, year after year, a full season with at least 3,700 yards, 26 touchdown passes, double-digit wins, a playoff berth, elite situational play (red zone, third down, fourth quarter) and a chance to win almost every game your team plays.
No other quarterback in NFL history has been as consistently great for such a long period of time.
For LeBron James, we may have never seen another basketball player with his size, athleticism and versatility as a scorer, rebounder and passer. Not many forwards can attack the rim the way he does, and he can pass like an elite point guard.
James is the third-leading scorer in NBA history in points per game (27.64), trailing only Michael Jordan (30.12) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07). He is the only player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, six rebounds and six assists per game in his career.
James also has a huge list of records after nine seasons. His name often shows up in records alongside players like Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson, because those are about the only players in NBA history that could match his all-around production.
In each of the last eight seasons, James has averaged a minimum of 26.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. In the history of the NBA, only seven players have had a season averaging at least 26.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. They combined to do it 26 times. James has eight of the 26, and no one else has done it besides Michael Jordan and Larry Bird (three times each) in the last 40 years.
Increase the averages to 26/7/7, and it is just James (5), Jordan (1), Bird (1), John Havlicek (2), and Robertson (6).
Unlike Manning, James also gets to play defense for his team. We have often seen the spectacular blocks and steals that end up on ESPN highlights, but he has earned four straight NBA All-Defensive First Team selections as well.
About the only thing missing from James’ game is the consistent perimeter shot. But even Jordan took many years to find that shooter’s touch. Lest we forget, James is still 27 years old, even though he has had the same physical appearance for many years.
Each player’s talent has produced incredible results that we sometimes take for granted. But few players can ever sustain this level of play for so long. That is why they are generational players.
Both players have won and defined MVP more than their peers
While some people confuse the MVP award as the “best stats” award, each player has deservedly won his share of this prestigious hardware, and some could argue the number should be even higher.
Peyton Manning is the only four-time MVP in NFL history. The only player to receive more MVP votes than Manning’s 160.5 is Brett Favre (161). However, there was nearly twice the number of votes cast during the first two years of Favre’s MVP three-peat (1995-97).
While each player has incredible stats, what has put them in position for being the most valuable player is the way they carried flawed teams to such success.
Whether it was Jim Mora, Tony Dungy or Jim Caldwell, Manning has never had a coach that was considered a genius such as Bill Belichick in New England, and offensive coordinator Tom Moore always received more of the credit for the offense than any of the head coaches.
Then you have former GM Bill Polian’s asinine method of building a smaller, faster defense to “play with the lead,” despite the fact that even the greatest offenses are going to be involved in tight games. Most NFL games are close; that’s just how it is.
As Manning continued to get better, the talent around him continued to deteriorate, which is as good a reason as any for why he won the MVP in both 2008 and 2009. Those teams had no business going 26-6 (with two “rest for the playoffs” losses), yet that’s what Manning led them to on the strength of 14 wins decided in the fourth quarter.
No matter who was starting for or coaching the Colts, Manning remained the one constant from 1998 to 2010, and the team won at least 10 games and made the playoffs in 11 of those 13 seasons.
While James seemed to disqualify his MVP ballot by joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, there was no doubt he was a one-man show in Cleveland for seven years.
After just missing the playoffs in his second season, James led Cleveland to a 50-32 record in 2005-06, while averaging 31.4 points per game on a team with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, Flip Murray, Drew Gooden and Eric Snow. Not to mention Mike Brown was the coach.
A year later he took a similar team—maybe even worse with the likes of Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao playing over 22 minutes a game—all the way to the NBA Finals. They did not win a game and were swept by the San Antonio Spurs, but it was probably the worst team to ever reach the NBA Finals.
After nearly leading an upset win in Game 7 against a dominant Boston team in 2008, James came back in the 2008-09 season to lead Cleveland to a 66-16 record—best in the league—and win his first MVP award. This was a team where the next-best player was Mo Williams.
Cleveland would repeat as regular-season champions with a 61-21 record, and James would win a consecutive MVP in 2009-10, but the Cavaliers were once again exposed as a one-man team in the postseason.
That is when James packed his bags for Miami, and despite the presence of future Hall of Fame guard Dwyane Wade, James became the new face of the Heat and the team’s best player. With Wade missing 17 games this past season, James thrived once again as the clear No. 1 option, and the Heat were 45-17 in the games he played.
That earned him this third MVP award in four years. That may not be the last time he wins one.
In the last four seasons, no player has more Win Shares or Win Shares Per 48 Minutes than James, according to Basketball-Reference’s stats on the advanced metric.
It is one thing to be the best player for one year and have nice stats, but when your team absolutely needs you to be a dominant force to win games, then it takes a special player to fill that role successfully. It is no surprise Manning and James have dominated the MVP award in their sports. No one compares to their value in winning games for their teams.
Both used a Boston team in their ninth season for a championship breakthrough
This one is really interesting because of the timing. Each player had their best shot for a championship in their eighth season, but each ended in excruciating failure.
The 2005 Indianapolis Colts started 13-0 but took things easy down the stretch after their first loss. They came out rusty against the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers and fell behind 21-3 in the fourth quarter. Manning tried to lead a furious rally, but Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard game-tying field goal in the final seconds. The Colts’ dream season ended one-and-done.
After the game, a frustrated Manning, who was sacked a career-high five times, said, “I’m trying to be a good teammate here…let’s just say we had some problems with protection.” As you can see in this ESPN article, these words were not accepted as Manning being a good teammate.
The 2006 Colts started 9-0 but stumbled to a 12-4 finish. But their defense and running game finally showed up in the playoffs for Manning, and they got a home AFC championship game with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and their nemesis, the New England Patriots.
After falling behind 21-3 in the second quarter, Manning would go on to lead the biggest comeback in championship game history, putting 32 second-half points on the board, including a game-winning 80-yard touchdown drive with a minute left. He finally got over the hump—against his top rival, even—and two weeks later beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI and won Super Bowl MVP honors.
Meanwhile, LeBron James’ first year in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh looked like an easy path to a championship. The Heat went all the way to the NBA Finals, with James having huge series against Boston and Chicago. But a big comeback by the Dallas Mavericks evened the finals at 1-1, and the Mavericks would pull away in six games with James looking very passive and just generally unproductive in the series.
Miami came back this year with James focused on attacking more, and they again earned a No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. After reaching the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, the Heat fell behind 3-2 and would have to win Game 6 on the road in Boston.
It was one of the biggest games of James’ career, and he delivered one of the very best performances, making tough shot after tough shot. He scored 30 by halftime and finished with 45 points on 19-of-26 shooting in a blowout win. Miami won Game 7 and returned to the NBA Finals.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, James shook off his past demons of never scoring more than 25 points in 10 career NBA Finals games by surpassing that mark in all five games. For the series, he averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game on his way to winning his first championship and NBA Finals MVP. He even ended Game 5’s runaway win with a triple-double.
James also got his share of help in the playoffs, with Chris Bosh’s unlikely Game 7 performance against Boston, Shane Battier’s blistering three-point shooting (.577) in the finals and even Mike Miller sinking seven of eight threes in the clincher.
Their long journey to a championship was complete. While it may have taken some individual improvements, the fact is it is a team game and each player needed that championship effort from his teammates.
For season nine, their teammates came through.
Both are wrongly criticized for being a “choker”
Without taking a 5,000-word tangent on this one (could easily be done), let’s just identify the whole “clutch vs. choke” problem in simple terms, and how it relates to these players specifically.
1. There is no “clutch gene” in a player, contrary to what someone at ESPN says.
2. There are clutch situations in a game, and how you perform in these situations should dictate your reputation as a “clutch player” (or a “choker”).
3. However, instead of keeping a track record of these situations, people selectively remember which times the player failed if they think they are a choker, and they selectively remember the successes the player had if they think they are clutch.
4. The common way for these reputations to be built is based on how early you win in your career. Players like Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant won championships early in their careers, so they were “clutch.” LeBron James and Peyton Manning needed nine seasons, which makes it a lot harder to wipe out that “choker” reputation.
5. There are “big games” that do not necessarily mean a player was clutch or had to be clutch. He could just have had a great performance in a very important game. Blowouts, whether you are on the winning or losing end, really complicate the clutch analysis.
I have been putting in the work to present some sort of track record for NFL quarterbacks. Peyton Manning has 35 fourth-quarter comeback wins and only needs one more to tie the all-time record (Dan Marino has 36). But because of poor record keeping and selective memories, the average fan would not even know that.
This reason alone is how a list of clutch quarterbacks like this is made. Manning’s name is not even on it, and Marino is 10th.
It is amazing what rational analysis can do for something like this.
Clutch NBA situations are much harder to define because of the fluidity of scoring and the shot clock. What is enough time, and how much of a deficit is manageable in the NBA? Those fourth-quarter situations work best in the NFL, because one possession means you are always one play away (or two if you need a two-point conversion).
But the saddest part of it all is that the “choker” reputation was never warranted for Manning or James.
Again, without going full-blown, year-by-year, game-by-game into the topic, you can start with the fact that both players are among the all-time leaders in playoff statistics in their sport. LeBron has especially been dominant. His first playoff game was a triple-double, after all.
You should recall that they were often taking some of the weaker teams—teams who overshot their expected win-loss mark in the regular season—into the playoffs. Even if they were the best player, the playoffs are much more about the best team.
Also, the Colts have had a lot of historical oddities, or bad luck, in their postseason defeats. These are things other quarterbacks just have not had to deal with as much, or at all. To brand someone as “9-10 in the playoffs” without even acknowledging what they faced is just being lazy and pushing an agenda.
When the Saints’ Tracy Porter jumped Reggie Wayne on the route for the pick-six in Super Bowl XLIV, this set off the “Manning always chokes” mantra, yet it was the first time he had ever turned the ball over via interception or fumble in the playoffs in such a crucial, one-score situation.
The present turned into the past, and nothing short of future brilliance can erase that. It is the perfect example of revisionist history.
Just as when Manning threw four interceptions and struggled in the 2003 AFC championship game at New England, it was long forgotten how incredible he was in the playoff games against Denver and Kansas City leading up to that day.
In those games, Manning had eight touchdown passes, and the offense never punted once. That is what you call a “big game” performance that is not necessarily clutch.
Similarly, Manning’s performance in the 2009 AFC championship game right before Super Bowl XLIV was a big performance. Down 17-6 to the best defense in the league, Rex Ryan’s New York Jets, Manning led a second-half rally that saw him finish with 377 yards and a 123.6 passer rating. But since the Colts always led in the fourth quarter and won 30-17, it did not help Manning in the clutch department.
Even Manning’s Super Bowl run is attacked, because he had subpar statistics. The irony is he came through in all the clutch situations for which he is often criticized.
Against the Ravens’ top-ranked defense, Manning faced a big 3rd-and-5 play that could really help ice the game. He delivered a pass even Ray Lewis considers one of the best ever, as the coverage was perfect and the window was impossible. That was a clutch play.
For James, it is incredibly hard to pin down fourth-quarter comeback stats for the NBA, though this piece by Bruce Blitz is extremely enlightening. Blitz concludes that James (excluding this past season) has led 23 overtime victories and 82 fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season.
Again, it is hard to compare without data for others, but I personally remember seeing graphics for James’ days in Cleveland that noted they were among the league leaders in fourth-quarter comebacks, and James is often one of the top fourth-quarter scorers in the league.
While it is true he had really bad series in the NBA Finals against both San Antonio and Dallas, that is not looking at the full scope of what James has done.
How about the fact that in seven straight postseasons, James’ teams have always advanced past the first round? More than that, his numbers match up very well with his regular season, as his scoring and rebounding even increase per game.
The biggest crock is the amnesia that takes place each year to forget some of the truly remarkable playoff games James has had for his teams.
Who did not see the 25 straight points James scored for Cleveland against the Pistons in Detroit in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals? Cleveland won by two points in overtime.
In 2008, James went into Boston for a Game 7 against the best team in the league, and he scored 45 points. It was a close loss where only Delonte West (seriously) came close at showing up for Cleveland to help James.
A year later, a 66-16 season went down in six games to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals. James was incredible in the series (38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists per game), willing Cleveland to their two wins by hitting a miraculous three-pointer at the buzzer and then going back to that “one-on-five” type of offensive run he displayed in Detroit two years earlier.
Apparently these games—and all the other ones that combine to give James such lofty postseason numbers—did not happen, because they did not produce a ring. Were they not still clutch though?
What did the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats (7-59 record) shoot as a team in the fourth quarter/overtime when tied or trailing by one to three points in the last 24 seconds? With seven wins all season, did they even have any such field-goal attempts?
That is the problem players like Manning and James face. They are so good that more often than not, you are going to have a chance to win the game. But no one comes through every time, so there will be failures.
Then some people can compound the lack of rings to selectively pick out those few times we remember them losing, and that makes up the narrative of the “choker,” folks.
Both had a famous departure from their original franchise
If he could do it all over again, LeBron James likely would not go through with “The Decision,” which was an hour-long ESPN special soap opera said to be aimed at charity as James made his free-agent choice on live television.
After finally announcing he would “take his talents to South Beach,” the feedback was swift and angry to this PR disaster, especially from Cleveland fans. They had every right to be upset, as this was about the biggest middle finger a player could give a city they were leaving.
Perhaps learning from “The Decision,” Manning approached his “biggest free agent ever” tag with even more class, going on visits with several teams before he made his decision of the Denver Broncos in low-key fashion.
It was hard to imagine a few years ago that either player would ever play elsewhere, but that is just the reality of sports today.
Both saw their teams fall apart without them
It did not take long to see why each player was so beloved in their franchise’s city.
Without James in 2010-11, the Cleveland Cavaliers went from having the best record in the league to the second-worst record, at 19-63. That 42-win drop is only the biggest in NBA history. The Cavaliers lost an NBA-record 26 consecutive games during the season.
After nine straight seasons with at least 10 wins, the Indianapolis Colts had to play the entire 2011 season without Manning. They started 0-13, including a 62-7 plastering by New Orleans on Sunday Night Football in Week 7. Two wins came late in the year, but the 2-14 finish is the worst the team has had since 1991.
Fortunately, such terrible seasons usually lead to the top draft pick and a chance to start over with a great prospect. The Cavaliers drafted Kyrie Irving with the top pick a year ago, and he won the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year. The Colts were able to get the best quarterback prospect since…well, since Peyton Manning, in Stanford’s Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
Add a new head coach (Byron Scott in Cleveland, Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis), and each franchise at least has some hope to rebound soon.
But in their heart of hearts, they each probably know this new era will not be as successful as the last, when they had their superstar/face of the franchise leading the way.
Both are held to the highest of standards with unrealistic expectations
If anything positive comes from having the most absurd of expectations, then it must be the fact people think you are pretty damn good. There is no other explanation for why Manning and James are held to the standards they are.
When Aaron Rodgers turned an MVP season in 2011 into a one-and-done playoff exit to the New York Giants, there was not a huge backlash for his performance, which was the worst of his otherwise brilliant season.
In fact, just last week on NFL Network’s Total Access, Jamie Dukes even said the 17-point loss at home was the most impressive game Rodgers had. Dukes cited how the receivers dropped numerous balls, but Rodgers still threw for 264 yards and rushed for 66 more. Apparently that was not the first time Dukes expressed admiration for Rodgers’ performance, saying he “put on a one-man show in a loss.”
The problem is, Dukes is one of the loudest voices in the “Peyton Manning is 9-10 in the postseason” crowd. He would not hold Manning to the same standard he used for Rodgers.
When the Colts lost in the 2004 AFC divisional game in New England—Manning’s record-breaking season—consider some of the similarities it had with Rodgers’ performance against the Giants:
- Each team’s receivers dropped at least six passes (drops are not official, so this number could differ depending on the source).
- Each quarterback threw his one interception in the final two minutes with a 17-point deficit (garbage time).
- Each quarterback had his skill players fumble twice.
- Each quarterback fumbled, with Rodgers losing his.
- Manning threw for 238 yards on 42 attempts (5.67 YPA); Rodgers threw for 264 yards on 46 attempts (5.74 YPA).
About the only difference is Green Bay scored two touchdowns thanks to the referees blowing a fumble call on Greg Jennings and a horrific roughing-the-passer penalty to extend a late drive for Rodgers.
James may get it even worse. His incredible Game 4 performance against Indiana to tie the series saw him go for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. No other player had done that in the playoffs since Elgin Baylor in 1961.
Yet right after the game, there is ESPN’s Michael Wilbon asking why we can’t see that more often from LeBron. If Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant never needed that type of performance to win 11 titles for Phil Jackson, then why should James have to do it again?
The real kickers came in the NBA Finals. After Game 1, which would be the only Miami loss, ESPN used a math-bending graphic showing how James was “not finishing how he started” the game.
In Game 2, Oklahoma City’s star player Kevin Durant tried to cap off an incredible comeback. Off the inbounds play, Durant quickly pulled up for the game-tying field goal with James defending him, and the shot came up short. Miami won 100-96 and tied the series.
Did we hear how Durant choked in the clutch the way we are constantly reminded about the Heat’s clutch shooting? Of course not. The focus was on an apparent foul not called on James.
What’s the saddest part? If the situation was reversed, and it was James coming up short on an easy game-tying shot, we would hear for the next several days about how “LeBrick came up short again!” and someone would probably give Durant credit for his defense. “Foul? What foul?”
How about a graphic for Durant’s fourth quarter in Game 3? Shot 2-of-6 on field goals, missed both free throws and had two turnovers. What about Durant’s two rebounds in Game 4 or his 2.2 assists per game in the series?
All these NBA Finals taught me is that Durant, a three-time scoring champion, still is not on James’ level, or else he would actually be criticized as such.
He would be held to an insane standard.
Peyton Manning and LeBron James: Enjoy them while they last
LeBron James (28 in December) is still in the prime of his career, and the Miami Heat will likely be favored once again for the NBA Finals next year.
The 36-year-old Peyton Manning should return to the field this year with a new team in Denver and some real excitement about how he will finish his career.
While we do not know how much longer these players have left in their careers, we should appreciate them while we still can. You never know when you will see another like them.
Players that are very successful are often among the most hated, which comes out of jealousy. It is normal to root against such players, but you should at least respect their game.
Of course it will be impossible to stop fans from making comments like “even little Eli has two Super Bowl rings” or “LeBron needs three more rings, not seven, just to tie Tim Duncan, let alone match Kobe or MJ.”
If the biggest satisfaction you get out of an NBA season is watching James disappear in the final moments of an elimination playoff game, then that is fine. That is your right as a fan.
But do not be one of those people that pretend this is what that player always does when the factual evidence proves otherwise.
I only ask for people to remember that a narrative should have a good structure that does not mislead the audience. When it comes to “clutch versus choke,” we are living in a fairy-tale world when it should be all non-fiction.
Do not forget that these players have been clutch. Do not forget that they have won a championship.
Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has moments where they choked. But not everyone has a career that can compare to the likes of Manning and James.
People that understand sports can see two of the all-time greats. Everyone else sees what they want to see.
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