Over the last two seasons with the Miami Heat, however, he has redefined what that standard of excellence represents.
James' basketball odyssey is captivating and unique because he was billed as the next great superstar from an early age before eventually becoming specifically that. Every step and misstep has been publicly scrutinized and processed since his 16th birthday in order to build the modern narrative describing how great James truly is.
On his way to winning his first MVP award in 2009 with the Cavaliers, James' greatness had been unanimously defined as the most talented basketball player on the planet.
This definition intended clear praise for James' freakish abilities and individual brilliance on the court, but was also carefully crafted to omit what he wasn't. For as great as James was prior to joining the Heat in 2010, he was not an NBA champion.
The most talented player on the planet had not yet learned to become the most dominant, which is the specific evolution that James has undergone over the last two seasons.
The player who was supposed to be the very best in the world since being discovered as a high school prodigy from Akron, Ohio has delivered on all expectations. James is now the most dominant single force while leading the NBA's most dominant team and he shows no signs of slowing down.
The Evolution Of Greatness For The World's Most Talented Player
The score was irrelevant at the time; we had seen enough from James in less than 48 professional minutes to reinforce all we had heard prior to his arrival.
While earning his first All-Star appearance in 2005, before leading the Cavs to the postseason in 2006, James began to prove that his overall skill set and talent knew no equal.
This crystallized for James three seasons later, during the 2008-09 campaign, when he earned his first of four MVP awards as a member of the Cavaliers. It was at that moment, in 2009 when James' greatness was unanimously defined as being the most talented player on the planet.
It was also at that same time, however—two years removed from a 2007 NBA Finals appearance—when James also became known as the best player to never have won an NBA championship.
James' Unique Competition With Himself To Be Great
Unlike other league MVPs before him, LeBron James was required to eventually win an NBA championship to be ultimately considered great for the duration of his career.
Despite leading the Cavaliers to a Finals berth in 2007 and winning back-to-back MVP awards in 2009 and 2010, James' legacy was seemingly rewritten after struggling mightily with the Heat on the NBA Finals stage in 2011.
Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, while often remembered as great players who didn't win a championship in retirement, never faced this same level of scrutiny while they were playing. After winning back-to-back MVP awards from 2005-06, Steve Nash was never seemingly required to lead his team to a championship in order to be considered great, either.
But in order to play to his true potential as the world's most talented player, James needed to win bigger than anyone else in order to defend his place among the game's elite.
The clock began ticking on that for James during his final two seasons in Cleveland. He wouldn't truly redefine his greatness, however, until he failed during that first season in Miami.
A Champion's Response To Failure
The player that James was during his last couple seasons in Cleveland went on display for the NBA world to watch firsthand during the 2011 NBA Finals.
He had established himself as the greatest talent on the planet but was struggling with the mental pressure of equating that talent into a championship.
Rookie of the Year honors, annual All-Star appearances, leading overachieving Cavaliers teams deep into the postseason and multiple MVPs were not enough to silence his critics.
It was these requirements for championships that led James to seek refuge and support on the shores of South Beach in 2010 alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. That pressure to cash in during his first trip back to the Finals in 2011, however, proved to be too much.
After the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks, James was alone with the criticism and blame for the first time in his NBA career. While there had certainly been criticisms before, there was always an out for James previously. This time, though, in Miami, James couldn't blame the coach or supporting cast for his team's failure.
His ownership of this personal failure, however, would set James' career on a new trajectory of greatness in the subsequent seasons.
James Is Now Setting A New Standard For What It Means To Be Great
After James lost in 2011, he returned to the court free from the unknown fear of what failure might represent.
He had failed for the first time in his professional career during the 2011 Finals, knew as much and began to redefine how great he could be.
James played with a renewed passion and joy during the 2011-12 campaign which would lead his team to a championship. It also helped earn James the third MVP award of his career in a landslide.
This past season, after winning his first championship and a Finals MVP, James was even more dominant than he was the season before. He set a new career high with eight rebounds per game as well as a staggering career-high field-goal percentage of 56.5.
He lead the league in Player Efficiency Rating for the sixth straight season with a mark of 31.67 and was named MVP for a fourth time, all the while securing his second straight championship.
Coming off his first MVP award, James had entered the 2009-10 season as the NBA's greatest talent. Over the last two seasons, and for the foreseeable future, he is without question the league's greatest player.