How LeBron James Can Fulfill His Dream of Being NBA's Greatest Ever
James gave the proper respect to Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Larry Bird and, eventually, Magic Johnson, but in his next breath, LBJ said, "I want to be the greatest of all time. That's my goal."
Though he didn't explicitly lay out his plan to build a legend bigger than any of the four players he named, a close listen to the interview revealed hints about how King James can finish his career enthroned as the greatest player in NBA history.
Learn From Failure
Overall, James' basketball career has been highly successful. But his failures have been the true motivators.
James cited the championship loss he suffered during his junior year of high school as one example of disappointment, then predictably mentioned his tenure in Cleveland as another frustrating experience. In the aftermath of both failures, though, James triumphed.
He won the state championship as a senior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. His eventual victory on the professional level took longer—and included an additional NBA Finals shortfall in his first year with the Miami Heat—but James ultimately prevailed.
James told Reiter of his time in Cleveland: "I was successful, but I never could get to the mountaintop. And I think it basically helped me get to the point where I am today."
At some point in the future, James is going to have to face failure again. That might seem unlikely, especially given the current invincibility he seems to possess. But it'll happen.
Fortunately, James has already shown the ability to use disappointment as a springboard to success. That quality will go a long way toward helping him leap over the remaining greats in his path.
When Reiter asked James whether he'd changed in the aftermath of all the ugliness surrounding "The Decision," LBJ was quick to admit that he had become a different person.
I've changed. I've changed for the right. I've grown as a basketball player. I've gotten better. I've grown as a man. When you make mistakes or you've done something that you didn't feel was the best choice to make, it's how you come back from adversity—it's how you come back from those pitfalls that define who you are as a man and who you are as a professional athlete.
Aside from his personal growth, James has clearly taken it upon himself to improve his game since he left Cleveland.
If we throw out James' rookie season, he has shot the ball less often in Miami than in any of his Cleveland seasons. His three-point attempts are down, as well.
James has substituted quality for quantity, giving up low-percentage looks and focusing on efficient scoring chances. As a result, his field-goal percentages in three seasons with the Heat have been higher than they were in any of his Cleveland seasons.
Chalk some of that improvement up to natural growth, but don't discount the deliberate way in which James has embraced intelligent, thoughtful change over the past three years.
He understands what he needs to do to get better, which will only help him as he ages.
This one might be controversial.
One of the surest ways for James to overtake the players he mentioned on the all-time list is to hoard as many championships in his remaining years as possible. And the best way to do that is to stay on the move.
That means he'll need to take a very serious look at leaving the Heat after the 2013-14 season, at which time he'll be able to exercise the early-termination option in his contract.
Traditionalists might balk at the notion of James hitting the market as a mercenary yet again, but this isn't the old-school NBA. Players don't spend their entire careers with one franchise; even the league's very best, most iconic players tend to wind up playing for at least two teams.
And ask yourself: Is James really synonymous with any one team? Is he an icon in Miami? What about Cleveland? The truth is he's not really identifiable as a member of any one team. Instead, he's his own brand.
So James should leave the Heat before they fall apart around him. When he joined the team, it wasn't any sort of romantic spectacle. He teamed up with the best players he could find in an effort to win rings.
It worked. So why not try it again?
At any rate, it certainly sounds like James is keeping his options open. Saying he was noncommittal in nailing down his future plans for Reiter would be a massive understatement. Here's what James said when asked what jersey he'd be wearing a year from now:
"I'm a winner. That's all that matters. I want to win. I'm in a position right now where that's all I think about. I'm very comfortable in my surroundings, I love my teammates and I love the organization in Miami. So that's where I'm at right now."
I guess that could be interpreted as some kind of reassurance that James is happy in Miami.
But then he said this: "At the end of my career when I hang up my jersey, and you guys see it in the rafters—whatever arena it's in—you guys can say he made a mark on this game."
Whatever arena it's in? Now that's an interesting qualifier.
If James wants to climb over the rest of the NBA's all-time best, he's going to have to find the best situations for him to accumulate championships. Miami won't be the best option much longer, so he's got to move on.
For what it's worth, it sure sounds like he's ready to do that.
Write a New History
Confession time: I was tempted to approach this angle by taking each of the four players James mentioned and running through the ways in which he would have to improve his game to overtake them. You know, better free-throw shooting to catch Bird, more assists to equal Magic—stuff like that.
But that would cheapen both James' accomplishments and those of the greats he mentioned.
LBJ isn't Jordan or Bird or Erving. People like to say he most resembles Magic, but even that comparison feels forced.
The truth is that James is really all of those players. He takes some of their best qualities and packages them in a way we've never seen before. Frankly, he's probably the most complete player to have ever put on a jersey.
He scores at will, has the vision of the game's best floor generals, defends every position at a high level and does it all with ridiculous efficiency. We've never seen anyone with James' combination of skills. Ever.
So really, all James has to do to eventually surpass every great player on his list is "stay the course." He's done pretty well for himself so far. If he keeps it up, his history will write itself.
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