Where he will go down in history is a topic that will be debated for years to come, but the question must be asked, what would the perception of James be today if his career came to an end and he suddenly walked away from the game?
In 2003, James entered the league as one of the most highly anticipated prospects in the history of the NBA. His draft class was stacked, his high school team was famous and he had already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old kid.
The past two seasons, however, have seen him transition into one of the most scrutinized athletes in all of sports.
Leaving Cleveland and joining two superstars rubbed some the wrong way, but his hour-long special “The Decision” pushed many over the edge. His inability to win a ring before this year has also been a popular point of criticism.
But the last two years don’t tell the whole story, as James has been one of the most physically gifted athletes the NBA has ever seen.
At 6’8”, 250 pounds, James has taken his athleticism and turned it into one of the most dominating games that the league has to offer. From the outside, his shooting ability is still streaky at best, but when he’s feeling it, he can make any defense pay from behind the three-point line.
When his shot isn’t falling, James has a multitude of other weapons he can use, including his newly established post game. The small forward has always had the ability to finish at the rim, but having never had a great post game, he worked with legendary center Hakeem Olajuwon to help change that notion before the 2011-12 season.
He is also known as arguably the best point-forward in the league, as his crazy court vision has made him one of the best passers—big or small—that the game has today.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, James is about as versatile as it comes.
His popularity may not be what it used to be, but the 27-year-old is coming off the best season of his NBA career.
This past year, James put up career highs in rebounding, three-point shooting and field-goal percentage. He also averaged a career-low in three-pointers per game, showing an unprecedented discipline night in and night out.
He won his first championship and was named the MVP of both the regular season and NBA Finals, becoming the first player to do so since Tim Duncan in 2003.
He even began to dispel some of the chatter surrounding his inability to get it done when it matters the most. It’s true that his clutch gene has yet to come to surface the way Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and even Kevin Durant’s have throughout their careers, but he showed incredible improvement when he completely took over the 2012 postseason.
The nine-year veteran may have just won his first title, but don’t forget that this was not his first time making it to the big stage.
You can talk about how he disappeared in 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks if you want, and feel free to remind everybody that his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007; but don’t ignore the fact that James has now played in three NBA Finals—a feat many can never claim throughout their professional careers.
If James were to retire today, 33 percent of his NBA seasons would have ended in a championship appearance.
An appearance in the Finals may mean less without the ring to show for it, but a championship is not the only factor that lands somebody in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, now is it?.
A prolific scorer throughout his entire career, James won the scoring title in the 2007-08 season, having averaged a league-high 30.0 points per game.
Yes, it’s true that Durant has already won three scoring titles in his young career, but think about this: the entire NBA has only five active players who have ever won a scoring title—James, Durant, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.
It’s an exclusive club, and it only begins the list of accomplishments James has to his name throughout his nine-year career.
James has been one of the most dominant players the league has seen since he won Rookie of the Year in 2004. An eight-time NBA All-Star, James has also been named to the All-NBA First Team six times and the All-NBA Second Team twice. His game isn’t all offense, either, as he is a four-time All-Defensive First Team member.
And of course, don’t forget to add NBA Champion to his resume as well.
Whether or not you believe his title is watered down by having Wade and Chris Bosh on his side is for each individual to decide. But what’s indisputable is that James finally has his ring, and as a three-time NBA MVP with career averages of 27.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game, James has seemingly cemented his place in the Hall of Fame at this point in his career.
The question that everybody wants to debate—and seemingly everyone has a different answer to—is where does James rank among the all-time greats?
If you say top five, you’re not seeing the whole picture. He’s truly just become the winner that he and the rest of the league expects him to be, and he has work to do if he’s going to be considered in that group somewhere down the road.
However, if you say top 20 or below, you’re not looking at just how extraordinary a player James is. His career has been special up to this point, and his all-time ranking has to be somewhere in between the two slots.
Today, his legacy would go down as a player whose abilities on the court compete with the best of all time, and whose accomplishments are among the best individually that the league has to offer.
As for now, James has work to do to reach that point.
Will he ever be that great? If his playing days ended today, the answer would be no.
But luckily for James, his illustrious career isn’t over just yet, and he’ll have plenty of years ahead of him to find out.