LeBron James: The King's Path to No. 2 Greatest of All Time

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LeBron James: The King's Path to No. 2 Greatest of All Time
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Barring a miracle, LeBron James will not be able to overtake Michael Jordan as the greatest NBA player of all time. What Jordan did for the game of basketball was something any player—present or future—will be hard-pressed to match.

In the words of Magic Johnson: “There’s Michael Jordan and then there is the rest of us.”

If he can manage to win two or three more MVP awards and five more Finals MVP awards, then maybe it will be reasonable.

But for the sake of argument and the fact that is nearly impossible unless the Miami Heat pull out a three-peat and then some, the more realistic throne for LeBron James is right below Michael Jordan.

He has a lot of work still to do, but at the pace he is going, it is more than possible.

First, let’s qualify who is in the discussion for the No. 2 slot. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons ranks Bill Russell as No. 2 but Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain are the other players oft placed right below MJ.

Statistics are the best place to start because unless you watched Bill Russell play in the '50s and '60s, you don’t have a true grasp of how he impacted the game. Looking at the numbers he and other greats put up and awards that he won is the best place to analyze.

Numbers may not give you the entire story considering the different eras of basketball, but they don’t lie.

With that in mind, here is a comparison of the five players (including James) in the running for the No. 2 slot.

 

L. James

M. Johnson

K. Abdul-Jabbar

W. Chamberlain

B. Russell

Points

27.6

19.5

24.6

30.1

15.1

Rebounds

7.2

7.2

11.2

22.9

22.5

Assists

6.9

11.2

3.5

4.4

4.3

Steals

1.7

1.9

1.0

N/A

N/A

FG %

.483

.520

.559

.540

.440

Blocks

0.8

0.4

2.5

N/A

N/A

Years played

9

13

20

14

13

MVP

3

3

6

4

5

Finals MVP

1

3

2

1

N/A

All statistics are per game unless otherwise noted. All awards are career totals.

Finals MVPs are a greater indicator of personal success on the NBA’s biggest stage, which is why I chose that as opposed to championship wins.

The only player who is at a disadvantage with this measurement is Bill Russell, but he would have won many Finals MVP awards had the award been around when he played.

He was the best player on a team that won 11 championships—and the Finals MVP trophy is named after him.

Looking at the stats, a couple categories jump out immediately: Chamberlain and Russell posted incredible rebounding numbers, Russell shot a relatively low FG percentage and every player except LeBron averaged some type of a double-double over their career.

So what does James have to do to overtake each as the (second) greatest of all time?

With regards to Magic, one or two more of both regular season MVP and Finals MVP would do it. His facilitating ability was second-to-none but even though Magic leads the NBA all-time in assists per game, scoring is a more treasured ability in a basketball player and the greatest player of all time only had 5.3 assists per game.

Looking at Kareem, again the main difference is awards. Although Kareem has a higher field goal percentage, it is a wash because big men shoot a higher percentage (which makes LeBron’s 48 percent even better considering he is a small forward).

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If LeBron wins two or three more of both regular season MVP and Finals MVP, then he will have a strong case for being better than Kareem. He will need to play roughly 15 strong seasons and James probably has about a decade left of basketball in him.

And of course, the longer LeBron plays, the better chance he has of accumulating said awards.

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are two players that statistics aren’t as satisfactory in a complete comparison of greatness. They played in a different era, and the NBA wasn’t as strong of a league as it has become.

Bill Russell may have won 11 championships in the 60s but he would not have won that many in today’s game.

So how do you compare the three? James currently has the advantage in points and assists but is nowhere near Wilt and Bill in rebounds. Again, I think awards is a good place to turn to because it offers analysis of how the player compares to the league he was in.

Although Bill’s likely Finals MVP awards would blow the field out of the water, his five MVP awards are a good standard for comparison. Like the comparison to Kareem, two or three more of each the MVP award and Finals MVP award would give LeBron a very strong argument for No. 2 G.O.A.T.

As for what LeBron has done for the game, it is already up there with the greatest of all time. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg said it best: LeBron James is the most gifted player in NBA history.

One of the many highlights in the career of the King.

And as the NBA is a much stronger league, consistent distinction today is worth more as an individual than it was 50 years ago. I firmly believe that LeBron would succeed at least as much as Russell and Chamberlain did in the '50s and '60s, and those two big men would have less success in today’s game—particularly Bill Russell, who stands 6’9” tall and played center.

Two or three more of each the MVP award and Finals MVP award in conjunction with sustained excellence in PRA (points, rebounds and assists) would be enough for LeBron to sit next to Jordan.

 

Read more of my analysis on LeBron James at Bases and Baskets including a comparison of him to Kobe Bryant and expectations for the 2012-13 NBA season.

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