How LeBron James' Playoff Resume Stacks Up Against Those of NBA Legends
Another brilliant Game 7 performance, this time at the expense of the Indiana Pacers, did plenty to bolster LeBron James' already burgeoning legacy while moving him within four wins of his second consecutive NBA title.
But what does this latest virtuoso performance mean for LeBron's place among the NBA's pantheon of all-time greats? To better understand where and how James fits in, we must first figure out amongst whom he fits in.
The Caveats of Comparison
Realistically, there's no use comparing LeBron—or any other modern champion, for that matter—to Bill Russell. The Boston Celtics legend played in a league that merely resembles today's NBA.
When Russell retired in 1969, there were 14 teams in the NBA (11 in the then-independent ABA) and three rounds in the playoffs. The three-point line had yet to be invented, and the Finals MVP award had just been instituted, with Jerry West becoming the first (and still only) player from a losing team to take home the honor.
Compare that to the NBA of 2013, which features 30 teams, four playoff rounds, a prominently featured three-point line and a Finals MVP trophy named and molded after Bill Russell.
As such, if we're going to have a useful discussion about the historical context of LeBron's legacy to this point, we'd do well to cut off our proverbial time machine at the 1979-80 season.
That was the inaugural year of not only the three-point line but also of the pro careers of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Those two were instrumental in modernizing the game of basketball—Magic with his flashy passing, Larry with his shooting, both with their multi-positional versatility. They established a mold for all-around excellence that LeBron would not only fill but shatter on the way to carving out his own unique place in NBA lore.
The baton of basketball greatness was passed from Magic and Bird to Isiah "Zeke" Thomas in the 1980s, then to Michael Jordan in the 1990s and finally onto Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan in the 2000s, before LeBron snatched it in this decade.
If we were to compare LeBron's current playoff resume to the complete ones of those legends mentioned above, then the self-proclaimed King would be out of luck trying to measure up. LeBron currently has one ring in his collection, which pales in comparison to Zeke's two, Bird's three, Duncan's and Shaq's four, Magic and Kobe's five and Jordan's six.
However, whittle the window down to what each had accomplished at LeBron's age (28), and this exercise takes on new life.
We don't know what LeBron will do from here on out to the extent that we do with those other big names, and we can't usefully project as such. But we can compare how LeBron has fared to this point in his life to the accomplishments of his predecessors at the same juncture—thanks in no small part to the wonders of Basketball Reference.
The Numbers Game
To start, let's look at the individual playoff numbers of LeBron's potential cohort through each player's age-28 season. Here, we've included points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, "stocks" (i.e. steals plus blocks, h/t Grantland's Bill Simmons) per game, minutes per game, total games played and player efficiency rating (PER).
(Note: Leaders in each category are in bold print.)
From this perspective, LeBron stacks up favorably to some of the greatest players to set foot in the NBA over the last 33 seasons. He is tied for second in scoring and games played and ranks third in rebounding, fourth in assists, sixth in "stocks," first in minutes and third in PER.
Granted, these ranks are out of just eight players total. Still, the fact that only Jordan and Shaq had been more prolific on a per-minute basis, which is essentially what PER measures, speaks volumes of LeBron's abilities.
So, too, does his leadership in minutes played per game. It would be one thing for LeBron to be so productive over the course of, say, 35-40 minutes a night in the playoffs. It's another thing entirely for him to maintain his prodigious pace amidst such a ridiculous load to this point in his career.
And over the course of a whopping 131 games in eight trips to the playoffs, no less. Like Magic and Kobe before him, LeBron benefits in this regard from the (near) absence of time spent in college. Magic played just one year at Michigan State, while Kobe and LeBron were both "preps to pros" phenoms.
But, unlike Magic and Kobe, LeBron wasn't blessed with great teammates from the get-go. Magic could lean on a pair of Hall of Famers in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes as a rookie, and was joined by James Worthy in 1982. Kobe, meanwhile, wound up with the Los Angeles Lakers the same year that Shaq did and was paired with the Big Diesel through his age-25 season.
Bird was similarly fortunate to enter the NBA in 1979-80, when the Celtics still employed Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald, and he saw Kevin McHale and Robert Parish come aboard the very next year. Tim Duncan, too, had the privilege of learning the ropes under a future Hall of Famer in David Robinson, who did well to guide his San Antonio Spurs successor.
In this regard, LeBron finds his closest company with Zeke, Jordan and Shaq. Like James, Zeke and Shaq both missed the postseason at the outset—Zeke in his first two tries and Shaq as a rookie.
Jordan got a taste of the playoffs right from the start but didn't get out of the first round until 1988, when Scottie Pippen came into the picture. Zeke had to wait for Chuck Daly to take over on the bench before his Detroit Pistons could so much as sniff the postseason. Shaq's first taste of the playoffs came once Penny Hardaway suited up for the Orlando Magic in 1993-94.
As for LeBron, he didn't share the floor with an All-Star until his sixth season (2008-09), when he dragged Mo Williams into the spotlight for his first and only such appearance, as recompense for the Cleveland Cavaliers running roughshod over the rest of the league. Not until his eighth season (2010-11) did LeBron join forces with legitimate All-Stars and All-NBA performers, when he took his talents to South Beach to complete the Miami Heat's Big Three.
Finding the "Me" in "Team"
That bit of context makes LeBron's team-wide accomplishments to this point that much more impressive against the backdrop of his competitors at the same age.
(Note: Again, leaders in each category are in bold print. Also, "WS" stands for "win shares" and "WS/48" for "win shares per 48 minutes.")
LeBron's primacy in win shares stems, in part, from timing. The NBA didn't expand the playoffs from three rounds to four until the 1983-84 season and didn't stretch the first round from best of five to best of seven until 2002-03, the year before LeBron leapt into the league. As such, he's had more opportunities per playoff appearance, on average, to contribute to a winning cause than those who came before him.
But this doesn't take away from his contributions. Of the seven legends to whom LeBron is being compared, only Jordan contributed more playoff win shares per 48 minutes through the age of 28 than LeBron has to this point.
And, as far as team accomplishments are concerned, LeBron stacks up well with other superstars who had to either wait for help or seek it out themselves (i.e., Jordan, Shaq, Zeke).
If LeBron claims the 2013 title and earns Finals MVP honors, as so many anticipate he will, then he will have as many rings (two) and postseason MVP trophies (two) as Jordan and Shaq had at the same age and one more Finals MVP than Zeke had in his career.
Heck, another Finals double (title and MVP) for LeBron will pull him even with Bird's pace in the former category and ahead in the latter.
Does LeBron James belong among the NBA's recent postseason greats?
Of course, there's not much LeBron can do now about measuring up to Magic's prodigious postseason experience (eight conference finals appearances, seven trips to the NBA Finals, five titles, three Finals MVPs). Nor can he claim Duncan's perfect record in Finals appearances (three titles, three MVPs) up to the same point in his career or even be able to ride Shaq's shoulders to three early championships, as a young Kobe did in the early 2000s.
But that doesn't mean LeBron won't have ample opportunity to close the overall gap between him and the greats of the NBA postseason in the years to come. Of our "Postseason Seven," only Magic and Zeke failed to take home another title and MVP after their respective age-28 campaigns.
Bird added one of each in 1986, when he was 29. Shaq tallied two more titles and another MVP before he was done, and Kobe collected two and two after pushing the Diesel out of LA. Duncan picked up title No. 4 in 2007, and Jordan famously piled up four more championships and four more Finals MVPs before his second retirement from the Chicago Bulls.
On his own, LeBron may well have the chops to match (or even beat) any of those five in their post-28 showings. Physically speaking, the guy appears to be made of adamantium and has yet to suffer a major injury (knock on wood).
He's also expanded his game over the years in such a way that he should be able to dominate the league for a while longer. In particular, his improved perimeter shot (.406 from three during the 2012-13 regular season, .387 in these playoffs) and superb post game ensure that he will be a productive player long after his signature speed and leaping ability have been sapped away by Father Time.
The Road Ahead
At this point, all that stands between LeBron and primacy in the modern NBA's postseason pantheon are his supporting cast (or potential lack thereof) and the changing dynamics of the league.
After seeing the Heat slog through a seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers with a hobbled Dwyane Wade and a shy Chris Bosh, it's all too apparent that this medley of big names in Miami might not be long for title contention. Wade and Bosh can't seem to hold up amidst such taxing slogs year after year, and under the new collective bargaining agreement, the Heat lack the financial flexibility to refresh their roster to LeBron's championship satisfaction.
Unless, of course, Pat Riley pulls another rabbit out of his hat and somehow reshuffles the roster at Erik Spoelstra's disposal. Perhaps he swings a landscape-shifting trade involving Bosh or digs up another gem in the second round of the NBA draft or overseas with which to flesh out LeBron's supporting cast.
Or perhaps LeBron will pack up his wares in 2014 and begin his search for championship circumstances anew. The speculation surrounding a move out west to join the Lakers or even an awkward return to Cleveland is already rampant enough to render such a switch believable.
More importantly, LeBron will be able to compete for titles and fill out his already impressive resume wherever he may roam. That's just how good he is.
And that's how good he figures to be for the foreseeable future, beginning again with the 2013 NBA Finals.
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