The Case for LeBron James as the Greatest Team USA Basketball Player Ever

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The Case for LeBron James as the Greatest Team USA Basketball Player Ever

At the age of 27, LeBron James is still a bit too young and has too much of his basketball career ahead of him to enter into most debates of historical significance.

Except for one—his place in the pantheon of NBA superstars who've competed for Team USA at the Summer Olympics.

And with the way he's played in London so far, LeBron's already making a strong case to be considered the best ever to don the Red, White and Blue on the grandest of international stages.

With 11 points in Team USA's 119-86 win over Australia, James passed Charles Barkley for third place on the all-time U.S. Olympic men's basketball scoring list, with 44 points standing between him and David Robinson at the top.

With 11 assists, LeBron moved ahead of Scottie Pippen as the most prolific passer to play for the Yanks at the Olympics.

With 14 rebounds, James moved into a tie for seventh in boards, alongside Carlos Boozer and Jim Brewer and just nine behind Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

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With another steal, LeBron inched closer to Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade, as he continues to climb up the list of American round-ball thieves.

James didn't block any of the Boomers' shots, but still finds himself in fourth in that department, one ahead of Michael Jordan and two behind Alonzo Mourning.

If the U.S. makes it to the gold-medal game, LeBron (and Carmelo Anthony) will tie David Robinson's mark for most Olympic games played by an American man.

And if the U.S. wins that game, LeBron (and Carmelo) will match the Admiral's Olympic haul of two golds and a bronze.

None of this should come as much of a surprise to anyone who's followed LeBron's career, though. Versatility has long been his calling card, in the NBA and with Team USA. It's his ability to stuff the stat sheet in every way possible—combined with size, strength, athleticism, intelligence and pure, unadulterated grace—that makes LeBron who he is as a basketball player.

And, frankly, he "should" rank as high as he does in American lore across the statistical gamut. He's one of three Yanks (along with Carmelo and the Admiral) to have participated in three Summer Olympics.

But, while LeBron's historic numbers may serve to contextualize his greatness in one sense, focusing too intently on them only trivializes it in another.

That is, if you stare at the stat sheet for too long, you'll be blind to LeBron's flesh-and-blood brilliance on the court.

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His role in the American program has grown from Olympiad to Olympiad. He began as a 19-year-old wunderkind in Athens, stuck behind the likes of Shawn Marion, Richard Jefferson and Lamar Odom in George Karl's pecking order on the wing. Whether the bronze medalists would've been better served with the precocious kid playing meaningful minutes is anybody's guess, though less of Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson couldn't have been a bad thing, could it?

At 23, he blossomed into a pivotal role with the gold medalists in Beijing, but still took a seat behind Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, particularly in crunch time.

Now, at 27 and amidst the peak of his powers, LeBron is proving in London what everyone in the NBA already knows—that he has no equal, and that his dominion over the court extends above scoring and beyond statistics as a whole.

He can control a game without hogging the ball; he can influence the outcome of a contest in any number of ways and in every way all at once.

When Team USA needed LeBron to facilitate offense and defend against France, he obliged, dishing out eight assists while obstructing Nicolas Batum on the wing and Boris Diaw in the post.

When Team USA needed LeBron to score against Lithuania, he came through with 20 points, including nine in the final four minutes to seal a 99-94 victory.

When Team USA needed LeBron to do both against Argentina, he registered 18 points and five assists, all the while holding his squad afloat long enough to let his fellow All-Stars take over in the second half.

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When Team USA didn't need LeBron to do much of anything against Tunisia and Nigeria, he willingly watched from afar as his buddies cruised to victory, combining for 11 points, nine assists and four rebounds against those two Olympic debutantes.

And when Team USA needed LeBron to do everything, with a feisty bunch of Boomers breathing down the Yanks' necks, he came through with a turnover-free triple-double—the first triple-double of any kind in Olympic history—in 30 minutes, which, according to ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, doesn't happen very often anywhere:

 

For good measure, he did that while cooling off the hot-handed Joe Ingles on the other end of the floor.

What does all of this mean for LeBron's Olympic legacy? Not much, until/unless he takes home another gold.

At that point, his only competition at the top of the Olympic ladder would come from Michael Jordan, David Robinson and Carmelo. Anthony has long been a fantastic performer internationally, but still can't quite hold a candle to what LeBron's done in the Summer Games, single-game scoring records be damned.

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As for His Airness and the Admiral, their accomplishments must be considered in a different context. Both Jordan and Robinson began their Olympic careers as collegians, back before FIBA president Borislav Stankovic led the charge, in 1989, to allow NBA players to participate in the Summer Games, thereby paving the way for the Dream Team in 1992.

MJ got his first taste in Los Angeles in 1984, when he led a Bobby Knight-coached squad that included Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing, Steve Alford, Sam Perkins, Wayman Tisdale and Leon Wood (among others) to the gold medal. Four years later, it was Robinson's turn, though a coalition of himself, Mitch Richmond, Stacey Augmon, Dan Majerle, Danny Manning and Hersey Hawkins (to name a few) stumbled to bronze in Seoul under the auspices of John Thompson.

What are we to make of the numbers put up by MJ and Robinson then? Are they devalued by the fact that some of them were piled up while playing against amateurs and non-NBAers? Are they to be given greater gravity because the men who achieved them weren't themselves always surrounded by the best of the best? Something in between, perhaps?

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What's more certain, though, is that LeBron's performances (and the stats accumulated therein) have come against a much higher caliber of global competition than what Jordan and Robinson faced. LeBron was himself a witness to America's first shortfall of the Dream Team era in 2004, when Argentina claimed gold and showed that the rest of the world's pros were pretty good, too.

He's since seen his fair share of close shaves, in Beijing in 2008 (against Spain in the gold-medal game) and in London this summer (against Lithuania), to know that the rest of the world isn't about to bow down to him just because he's supposedly the King, nor to Team USA because it once again owns the Olympics.

What makes LeBron arguably the greatest American in Olympic basketball history, then, isn't just the fact that he's played so remarkably well in pursuit of gold, but that he's done so amidst much stiffer opposition than what Jordan, Robinson and the rest of his predecessors ever faced.

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And, remarkably enough, if NBA commissioner David Stern doesn't have his way with FIBA and the IOC by 2016, and if players of all ages are still allowed to represent their respective countries in Rio de Janeiro, then LeBron, at the age of 31, might just have the opportunity to cement his legacy and end any debate over who is the greatest to ever play for Team USA.

Assuming he hasn't accomplished all of that already, or doesn't by the time he's done in London.

 

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