LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet and, at age 28, has already been able to say that for quite a while. He's already one of the greatest players of his generation, and by the time he's done, he'll be one of the best of all time.
At age 28, James has lead the Miami Heat to their third straight NBA Finals, after five consecutive years of single-handedly dragging the moribund Cleveland Cavaliers to at least the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Though the Heat trail the San Antonio Spurs three games to two, LBJ could earn back-to-back championship rings—a legendary accomplishment.
Yet, all the talk about James is not what he's done, but what he's failed to do.
Despite some spectacular playoff performances, James couldn't quite win a championship for the city of Cleveland all by himself. James joined Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to win at least eight titles, according to James' introductory speech, but he and they will need at least six more after this series is over.
If James lacks the "killer instinct" of Michael Jordan, as Bleacher Report NBA Lead Writer Jimmy Spencer wrote, and the Heat can't close this series, James may never live it down, no matter what else he does.
Does the NFL have such a player? A player who is head-and-shoulders above his peers, a fantastic talent who made good on his potential? Does the NFL have a natural leader with a humble outlook and marketable persona?
Does the NFL have a man whose jaw-dropping ability, elite production and piles of wins made him a lock for the Hall of Fame with years left before retirement—yet is remembered more quickly for failing to win more than one ring?
Yes, it does: The NFL's version of LeBron James is Peyton Manning.
James and Manning's career accomplishments are startlingly similar:
In 15 seasons, Manning has a career .688 regular-season winning percentage, 12 Pro Bowl nominations, four league MVP awards, a league championship and a championship MVP.
In 10 seasons, James has a career .646 regular-season winning percentage*, nine All-Star nominations, four league MVP awards, a league championship and a championship MVP.
In the playoffs, James has a much better winning percentage (.632 vs. Manning's .450), though that's partly because of the NBA's best-of-seven format and the NFL's single-elimination tournament.
Both of these resumes are astounding and make both players surefire locks for their respective Halls of Fame.
Both of these players elevated mediocre-to-poor supporting casts for much of their careers: The Indianapolis Colts went from 10-6 to 2-14 when Manning missed a season due to a neck injury, and the Cavaliers from 61-21 to 19-63 when James took his talents to South Beach.
Even though both players routinely put their teams on their back and carried them to great heights, both took all of the blame when they couldn't quite make it to the summit.
Vague Doubts, Crystallized
James, like Manning, got a reputation for being unable to win The Big One. Neither clinched a championship until their ninth season in the pros, and both had already won two league MVPs at that point.
Until then, though, both players had to deal with murmurs of inadequacy, fans and media grumbling that as spectacular as they were, they wouldn't be great until they did it when it counts. These whispers and rumors both crescendoed toward definitive moments when it looked like they'd never get their ring.
In his first three playoff games, Manning completed 47.6 percent of his passes for an average of 186 yards per game, just one total touchdown and two interceptions. The Colts went 0-3.
The final loss came on the heels of Manning's stunning 2004 regular-season rewrite of the NFL record book. His Colts were then unceremoniously dumped in the first round of the playoffs by the New England Patriots, as Manning threw both of those picks.
In the wake of that disastrous loss, Kerry Byrne of Cold, Hard Football Facts christened Manning "The Picasso of Choke Artists."
LeBron James' last home game in a Cavaliers uniform was even more of a fiasco. In a crucial Game 5 against the Boston Celtics, James made only 3-of-14 shots from the field, leading some—including owner Dan Gilbert—to say James "quit" on his hometown Cavaliers.
When James left Cleveland for Miami, his time with the Cavs was eulogized by The Plain Dealer with a single iconic photo and the text "Gone. Seven years in Cleveland. No rings."
James and Manning both got the monkey off their backs with championships in their ninth seasons, but both just traded one monkey for another. Players with their incredible talent—and now, with James in Miami and Manning in Denver, incredible supporting casts—can't just rest on one title.
These two players both have the chance to be one of the greatest of all time, even the greatest of all time, in their respective sports. Whether James can lead the Heat back to a victory in this series—and whether Manning can lead his AFC favorite Broncos to a Super Bowl championship—could decide forever whether these players are remembered as the sublime players they are or as disappointments.
Is that fair?
I loathe using team records and achievements to judge individual players. With players of G.O.A.T caliber, though, those things have to be considered.
LeBron has the size, speed, strength, offensive ability and court vision to play four out of the five positions on the floor as well as anyone in the NBA—and he can guard centers in a pinch. The vacuum he left when he departed Cleveland is hard to believe.
Manning alone made the Colts playoff contenders year-in, year-out for almost a decade. When his injury revealed just how flat his supporting cast had been, the Colts executives hailed as genius talent developers were quickly sacked.
These two players are judged on whether or not they win titles because they've proven they can do it. For their sake, and ours, I hope they do—so we always remember them as the sublime players they are and not the storybook characters we imagined they'd be.
* NBA career winning percentages are difficult to ascertain. I aggregated James' teams' records to get this percentage. It's not wholly accurate, but as James hasn't missed more than a handful of games each season it's a solid approximation.
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