LeBron James is on top of the sports world these days.
Or close to it, anyway.
He's a former scoring leader, an NBA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, the MVP of his league in three of the last four years and—partly by extension of the aforementioned qualifications—the best basketball player on the planet.
But as massive a star as King James is within his own realm, he hardly stands alone as far as professional athletes are concerned. After all, basketball, widespread though it may be, isn't the most popular sport on this big blue orb of ours.
That distinction, instead, belongs to soccer—or as it's called most everywhere else in the English-speaking world, football.
And in the world of soccer (or football), Lionel Messi reigns supreme. The talismanic striker for FC Barcelona of Spain's La Liga has led his club to five league titles, two Copa del Rey (Spanish Cup) tournament championships, five Spanish Supercups, two FIFA Club World Cup trophies, two UEFA Super Cups and, above all, three UEFA Champions League crowns. Along the way, the Argentine has guided his country to Olympic gold and been named the world Player of the Year on three occasions.
Oh, and he's only 25.
Clearly, Messi's resume is stacked, to say the least, and in some respects, it puts LeBron's to shame.
Where the chasm between the two shrinks, though, is in the extent to which each currently dominates his respective sport.
The current argument over who is the best player in basketball is a rather dull one, if only because LeBron has been so brilliant for so long. He's about as close to "The Prototype" as his sport has ever seen, and that includes Michael Jordan. At 6'8" and 250 pounds, James blends speed, athleticism, grace and intelligence like no player of his physical profile ever has.
Those gifts, both given and earned, have allowed LeBron to establish himself as an all-around, versatile playmaker, the likes of which had never before been seen. He's always been a fantastic ball-handler who can attack the basket and create for others with spectacular passes.
More recently, though, LeBron has become a dangerous perimeter shooter (36.2 percent from three last season, 43.8 percent from three so far this season) as well as an unstoppable force in the low post. In essence, LeBron is a jack-of-all-trades offensively, but rather than being a master of none, he's already supremely skilled at some and quickly working his way toward the elite in others.
And that's to say nothing of his exploits on the other end, where he's been a first-team All-Defensive selection in each of the past four seasons. James has shown himself capable of guarding all five positions on the floor if need be and excelling in every case.
Whereas LeBron is good (if not great) at everything, Messi's elitism is limited to but a few skills, including scoring goals, dribbling and passing.
Not that there's any shame in that whatsoever. He owns the record for goals scored in a single season across all competitions (73) and, with six more goals before New Year's Day, will hold the mark for most scores in a calendar year.
Soccer, too, is a much more specialized sport than is basketball. While one basketball player can literally do everything if he so chooses, even the world's best footballers (like Messi) must rely on the abilities of their 10 teammates to defend and move the ball. A standard pitch is far larger than an NBA court and, as such, imposes a greater collective strain on simply moving the ball.
In that respect, LeBron is naturally the more dominant of the two simply because he does more to impact his squad's odds of success. Mathematically speaking, the average NBA player accounts for anywhere between one-fifth and, say, one-ninth of what his team accomplishes in any given game, depending on substitutions.
Realistically, LeBron's contributions are even greater than that. According to Basketball Reference, James averages .233 win shares per 48 minutes for his career—a number that's jumped to .267 since he joined the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010.
Roughly speaking, then, James is typically responsible for about a quarter of his team's success.
Messi's impact is tougher to quantify, if only because soccer itself is tougher to quantify statistically. One could argue that because Leo has scored 43.9 percent (25-of-57) of Barca's goals this season, his impact should be measured as such.
One could argue that he deserves even more credit than that. Add in his eight assists, and Messi has had a hand (foot?) in 57.9 percent (33-of-57) of the Blaugrana's scores on the campaign. And even those percentages don't account for his ability to create with the dribble or the way in which opposing defenses have to account for him at all times.
On the flip side, one could argue that goals and assists are poor indicators of impact, that they're merely the easily quantifiable end-product of a diligent team effort. Messi gets the goals and the glory, but his final touch would mean nothing without the efforts of his teammates to gain possession, move the ball around the pitch and set up a framework from which a goal can be gained.
But again, such comparisons between sports are akin to those that occur between apples and oranges. To understand the extent to which each "dominates" his sport, it's imperative to consider those who would challenge LeBron and Messi atop their respective sports and how "close" those competitors are.
At present, James' chief challenger is Kevin Durant. The star forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder has finished as the NBA's leading scorer in each of the past three seasons and currently finds himself in the mix for a fourth.
In the absence of James Harden, who was traded to the Houston Rockets prior to the 2012-13 season, Durant has expanded his game to become a more complete player. His scoring—24.5 points per game, good for second in the NBA—is down slightly, though his shooting percentages (.511 from the field, .469 from three, .885 from the line) are all up, as are his rebounds (10.5), assists (4.6), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.4).
Of course, LeBron's stats are nothing to sneeze at—24.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 block. And while KD compares favorably to LBJ head-to-head, James is the runaway winner in the most important statistical category of all—wins and losses.
James' teams have won seven of their nine regular-season meetings with Durant's. More importantly, LeBron's Heat ousted Durant's Thunder from the 2012 NBA Finals in five games.
Durant is nearly four years James' junior and, as such, figures to surpass LeBron atop the basketball hierarchy at some point, if only as a matter of age. That is, LeBron's dominance will likely diminish somewhat as the mileage begins to take its toll on his body and Durant enters his prime.
For now, though, LeBron is the obvious "Alpha Dog" in his sport. He's earned all the relevant accolades of late while leading his team to wins, many of which have come in crucial contests.
Messi, meanwhile, has hardly gone unchallenged in soccer. He remains in the mix to extend his world Player of the Year streak to four. However, Messi came up short to Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta for this year's UEFA Best Player in Europe Award balloting.
Furthermore, Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has long been a worthy adversary of Messi's. Ronaldo's 66 goals and 19 assists in matches in 2011-12 compare favorably to Messi's 73 goals and 37 assists in 60 matches. So far in 2012-13, the race has been similarly tight—19 goals and an assist in 18 matches for Ronaldo against 24 goals and eight assists in 19 club tries for Messi.
Stats aside, Cristiano is considered by some to be the better football player of the two. He's bigger, stronger, more athletic and, in some ways, more skilled than the runty Messi. If anything, Ronaldo is much more akin to "The Prototype" in his sport that LeBron is in his than Messi will ever be.
In a grander scheme, Messi's Blaugrana are no longer the biggest and baddest bullies on the block in Spain, much less in Europe. Last season, Barca came away with Spain's domestic cup, the Copa del Rey, but was ousted from European competition by an undermanned Chelsea side and saw its streak of La Liga titles stifled at three by Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid side.
Messi and Barca have bounced back so far this season. They currently sit atop La Liga, with nary a loss to bemoan, and lead their Champions League group.
Then again, losses to Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup and Scottish power Celtic in the Champions League would suggest that Messi and company remain vulnerable to comeuppance.
LeBron's Heat have had their fair share of struggles in the early going this fall. They've dropped three games out of their first 11 and rank among the worst defensive squads in the NBA, albeit with Dwyane Wade sidelined by foot problems of late.
But where the argument begins to favor LeBron is in tasting the top prizes. This year alone, James has claimed his first club championship (the Larry O'Brien Trophy) and his second on the international stage at the 2012 London Olympics with Team USA.
Messi, meanwhile, has won every club trophy under the sun but has lent that victorious touch to Argentina but once—at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
And truth be told, Olympic competition is hardly the most prestigious in the world of international soccer. Since first suiting up for the Albiceleste in 2005, Messi has seen his side finish second in the 2007 Copa America and fail to advance past the quarter-final stage at two World Cups and at the 2011 Copa America.
Granted, international soccer is far more competitive than is international basketball. But unlike in basketball, pre-eminence (if not outright immortality) in soccer is measured more in work for one's country than achievements at one's club, in part because there are so many different leagues around the world. In that regard, Leo still lags and, thus, can't quite pull away from his peers.
At least, not to the extent that LeBron can in relation to his.
To be sure, there's no perfect metric with which to measure dominance, even less so across different sports. But if LeBron continues to stack his CV as he has in the last calendar year and if Messi isn't quite able to keep pace (or vice versa), then this murky discussion may well clear up in a hurry.
For now, each megastar can take comfort in knowing that he's the master of his own domain and the face of his own field.
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