He first arrived on the national scene as a teenage star, leading St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to multiple state titles, being named Ohio Mr. Basketball three times, and even gracing the covers of Sports Illustrated and SLAM Magazine before ever donning an NBA jersey.
Criticism has followed James throughout his career: the media deemed him "unclutch" for his disappointing playoff performances in 2009 and 2010, tore him apart for spurning his hometown Cavaliers in The Decision in 2010, mocked him for his subpar 2011 Finals performance, and said that he still didn't have enough after finally claiming that elusive title in 2012.
But by rooting against him, we only put ourselves at a disservice, missing his greatness.
We tend to evaluate the success of NBA careers on championships. It’s what players work towards their entire lives, so why not judge them by how often they achieve their goal? Of course, the primary flaw in this mode of assessment lies in the fact that a single player cannot win a championship by himself. 2007 LeBron can attest to the importance of having quality teammates.
This doesn’t mean Robert Horry’s seven rings puts him ahead of Michael Jordan, who “only” won six. But we’ve always said that if LeBron wants to be measured against the Michael Jordans and Magic Johnsons of the NBA, he needs to back up his case with titles.
He’s already achieved all the individual accolades he needs; his 4 MVPs in the last 5 years prove that he’s been the best player in the world for quite a while now. They put him in a class with just Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain. Not bad company. And if you throw in the 2 Finals MVPs, he stands alone with Kareem and Mike (the award was introduced the year Russell retired).
Now I understand that LeBron set up the expectations for himself a bit, with his now infamous “not one, not two…” promise to Miami fans. Nevertheless, to reach the finals three times and win twice in just three years is impressive for anybody.
We can start to seriously consider LeBron with Michael, Magic, Larry, and Kareem as the greatest ever to play the game now that he has multiple titles. The crazy thing is that LeBron is just 28 years old. With a developing jump shot and otherworldly court vision, he’s not going away anytime soon (sorry, Kevin Durant).
While it’s impossible to properly evaluate his career with so much time left, the fact that we can judge him with the greats after just 10 years in the league proves how much he’s accomplished. There’s no way we can dismiss his achievements, considering how quickly he’s succeeded, but we can still see where he stands among the greats.
Every promising perimeter player since (and even during) Michael Jordan’s career has been considered “the next Michael Jordan.” We’ve looked at Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter, among others, through this same lens. It’s not a perfect comparison for any of these three elite scorers, and it’s even more amiss for LeBron James.
What’s so unique about LeBron is the way that he dominates games. As one of the most versatile athletes to ever put on an NBA uniform, he’s proven that he can win in so many ways. He’s always been an insane athlete, able to run the floor like John Wall with the physique of Karl Malone, and in his early years, his game was predicated on using his athleticism to cut to the rim. James is still an elite slasher, but he has added or enhanced some parts of his game to dominate in all aspects.
He can see the floor better than anybody his size since Magic Johnson, and he loves demonstrating those passing abilities, hitting teammates for passes that nobody saw coming. When he has an off night shooting the rock, he makes sure to get teammates involved by feeding the ball into their hot spots, whether that’s the corner three for Shane Battier and Mike Miller or a lob to the basket for Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen.
As the most unselfish superstar in the NBA today, he understands the importance of setting teammates up early, trying to get Dwyane Wade going in Games 5 and 6 (and it worked—Wade scored 32 and 25 in those games, respectively).
He has thrived when Spoelstra allows him to handle the ball and simply surround him with shooters. During the regular season, Miami's most productive lineup that averaged more than 10 minutes a game featured James playing at the power-forward, with three-point assassins Battier, Miller, and Mario Chalmers by his side, per NBA.com. That lineup, which sported Haslem holding down the paint defensively, scored 8.5 points more than its opponents on average.
Despite being known as just a slasher when he was younger, James has worked to improve every facet of his game. He now sports a dependable jump shot and efficient post game, making it even tougher for defenses to scheme for him.
With these new offensive abilities, opposing coaches have to pick their poison on him. San Antonio Head Coach Gregg Popovich instructed his defenders to pack the paint, daring James to take jump shots. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard were certainly successful in making him take outside shots, but he made them pay for gambling on his perimeter abilities, showing the world the results of his hard work.
LeBron normally tries to conserve his energy for offense, but he seems to have a switch that he can turn on at will to dominate defensively. In the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, Spoelstra assigned James to cover reigning MVP Derrick Rose, who then shot 35% for the series and bowed out in five games.
James defended Parker for stretches in Games 6 and 7, and his performance paid off. The Frenchman shot 6-of-23 in the penultimate duel; only Kobe Bryant, in his 6-of-24 Game 7 performance against the Celtics in 2010, has taken more shots and converted at a lower percentage in the finals than Parker (statistics only available since 1985-86 season). Similarly, Parker shot an abysmal 3-of-12 in Game 7.
James is the undisputed most versatile defender in the league, capable of defending four positions (he can’t handle NBA centers for an entire game)—there’s a reason he finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting this year and has been voted to the All-Defensive First Team five times.
And all the talk about not showing up for big games can be thrown away after his performances in Games 6 (32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, including 18 in the 4th quarter and overtime) and 7 (37/12/4). I'm looking at you, Skip Bayless.
LeBron’s Game 7 performance sums up his 2013 postseason perfectly: he’s a versatile player, both offensively and defensively, who is capable of setting his teammates up, scoring himself, and even shutting down the opponent’s best perimeter weapon.
Legacies are defined by playoff—particularly finals—performances, and LeBron only enhanced our perception of him this year. With four fewer titles than Jordan, he has some catch-up to play, but at 28 years of age and a fantastic skillset, that won’t be too hard. If he maintains this level of performance, there’s no telling what James will do.
Can LeBron be the greatest of all time? Only time will tell.