LeBron James is the greatest athlete to ever play in the NBA. That much is not debatable.
Michael Jordan will likely go down as the better player, but he doesn't compare to James athletically. If LeBron were to completely eliminate jump shooting from his repertoire, he would still put up All-Star numbers. He's that gifted, that special and that different.
What makes James truly great, however, is how he's maximized his athleticism to become the most versatile player in the game as well. This on-court versatility is exemplified by the way James plays transition defense, finishes in traffic, hangs in the air to create for others and closes out defensively in the half court.
LeBron is the best transition defender in the NBA
There are hundreds of highlights like this one on YouTube. There will be hundreds more by the time he retires. James has turned transition defense into an art, his signature play being the chase-down block. No fast break is ever safe with LeBron trailing the play.
As evidenced by this particular block on Matt Barnes, LeBron can never be counted out. He isn't in the picture as the Los Angeles Lakers' fast break first develops, but that doesn't matter. James meets Barnes at the rim on a full sprint to defend in transition. Upon arrival, he pins what Barnes thought was an easy layup against the glass. He then collects the basketball and heads back the other way.
LeBron converts on shot attempts that he should never even be able to get off
James' offensive versatility is on full display in this play against the New York Knicks. Initially, he should have had the ball stolen at the top of the key, but he's able to regain his dribble and continue his assault of the basket. He's eventually met there by Tyson Chandler, who was recently named NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Chandler has James covered, but LeBron's athleticism allows him to score anyway. He hangs in the air, adjusts his angle of trajectory and somehow gets a shot up. His strength allows him to take the hit from Chandler and convert the field goal despite being fouled.
LeBron can hang in the air long enough to find scoring opportunities for others
After James leaves his feet with the ball in his hands, his athleticism allows him to decide whether to score or pass before he inevitably lands back on the court. You have to hang in the air for a long time to do this successfully.
In this particular play, LeBron is met by another seven-footer in All-Star center Roy Hibbert. Steve Kerr does a good job of talking you through this one during the replay. Every adjective he uses to describe the pass James made to Joel Anthony is warranted. It's an incredible play in itself, but even more so when considering his ability to score in similar situations.
LeBron closes out on shooters, turning defense into offense where others can't
James closes out on the Charlotte Bobcats' D.J. White faster than any player I've ever seen in the half-court. It's almost as if he sees the scoring opportunity open up before he ever blocks the shot.
White doesn't even think LeBron has a chance to contest that play. When he leaves the floor, prior to releasing the basketball, James isn't even on his radar. But LeBron closes out quick, blocks the shot, then races down for the emphatic finish on the other end.