LeBron James wants to be the GOAT.
To the best of my knowledge, he doesn't have any interest in acquiring horns (though they'd do wonders for his hairline), and he doesn't want a type of cheese named after him. He doesn't want to be amazing at climbing mountains and hopping from one rock to another either.
LeBron wants to be the kind that stands for "greatest of all time."
It's not inconceivable. LeBron can actually get there, but there are quite a few hurdles he must clear as his career continues to progress.
Win More MVPs
Even if the question of exactly what "MVP" stands for is still up in the air, the award represented by the Maurice Podoloff Trophy is still the premier individual honor in basketball.
Only the best of the best win the MVP, and only the historic greats win the award multiple times. Right now, only eight players have held up the trophy at least three times in a career:
- Kareem Abdul Jabbar; 6 MVPs
- Michael Jordan and Bill Russell; 5 MVPs
- Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James; 4 MVPs
- Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Moses Malone; 3 MVPs
Winning a fifth MVP would put James in the true upper echelon, especially if he became the first person ever to receive a literal handful of awards within a six-year span. But a sixth, one that would leave him tied with the ageless master of the sky hook...now that would be special.
It would also move him past Michael Jordan.
However, MVP wins themselves aren't the best measure of individual excellence. I prefer to look at MVP award shares, which awards players portions of trophies based on the percentage of the vote they received.
For example, according to Basketball-Reference, LeBron received 0.988 award shares last year when he earned 120 of 121 first-place votes. In 2010-11, even though he lost to Derrick Rose, he still received 0.431 award shares.
The basic principle is that it shouldn't be an all-or-nothing process.
Which is more impressive? Winning MVP and then having two terrible seasons that don't draw anything near a single vote, or finishing second by just one vote each of the three years in question?
I'd argue the latter, which is why I'm an advocate of award shares as a great measure of individual prowess.
Now, here are the all-time leaders:
- Michael Jordan, 8.138
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 6.203
- Larry Bird, 5.693
- LeBron James, 5.387
- Magic Johnson, 5.129
And as a reference point, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are the next active leaders, coming in at 4.261 and 4.206, respectively. No one else currently playing is on the right side of three.
If LeBron can win twice more, he'll likely add around 1.8 award shares, putting him at 7.187. And you have to figure that he'll be able to earn another award share throughout the rest of his career.
Finishing No. 1 on this leaderboard is a must.
Keep winning titles
This hurdle is self-explanatory.
Right or wrong, championships have become the ultimate tools used in player evaluation. Fall short of any rings, and your name is at risk to fall through the cracks of NBA history. Have a decent career but be on the right rosters at the right time (I'm looking at you, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher), and your name will be immortalized.
Is it fair? Nope, but it's the reality of the way we look at NBA greatness.
LeBron has completely turned around public perception just by winning a few titles. In the span of three years, he's gone from the premier choker to a clutch hero with GOAT potential. All because he's held up the Larry O'Brien Trophy twice.
He can't stop now.
LeBron has to finish with at least six titles if he's going to both match and surpass Jordan in the record books. That's the sacred number, and it has to be met no matter what.
Again, is it fair? Nope, but it's the reality of the way we look at NBA greatness.
And please, don't attempt to use the "Michael was perfect during the NBA Finals" argument. Yes, he was 6-of-6 in his appearances in the last series of the postseason, but what happened to him in 1988-89? What about all the other years he lost in the playoffs before advancing to the finals?
That 6-of-6 is incredibly misleading. Losing before the finals is worse than losing in the finals, so wouldn't it be more impressive if he was something like 6-of-10?
Right now, James has won two titles in 10 seasons, good for 20 percent. Jordan retired at 6-of-15, which checks in at 40 percent. And that includes the days with the Washington Wizards.
Our current best player in the world has to narrow that gap.
Actually win DPOY
That picture doesn't exist by accident.
The San Antonio Spurs didn't run an elaborate series of screens so that they could generate a Tony Parker-LeBron James matchup. This happened because the Miami Heat decided it was in their best interest to have LeBron cover the French point guard.
He's that versatile.
In fact, there's one sequence from last year against the Utah Jazz that is just burned into my brain.
LeBron hounded Mo Williams on one possession then got the rebound after a missed shot. He dribbled the ball up the court himself, effectively functioning as the point guard throughout the play even though his natural position has to be considered something between small forward and power forward. On the next possession, LeBron ran down the court and bodied up against Al Jefferson.
He might not be able to corral a truly dominant point guard for an extended period of time. He might not be able to guard a premier big man like Dwight Howard throughout a full quarter. But for spurts, he truly can pester all five positions.
At some point, this is going to result in a Defensive Player of the Year award.
He finished No. 2 last year, earning 18 votes to finish well shy of Marc Gasol. It was the second time in his career he's come up just shy, and he's also finished fourth on two separate occasions.
So, why is this significant?
Not only did Jordan win DPOY once, but he's one of the few perimeter players ever to do so. Only he, Metta World Peace (back when he was known as Ron Artest), Sidney Moncrief, Michael Cooper, Gary Payton and Alvin Robertson have ever won the award while spending a lot of time outside the paint.
Since Payton won in 1996, MWP is the only non-big man to win. And James could break that trend, thereby cementing himself as one of the greatest defensive players of all time.
Play well into his AARP years...but retire at the right time
Enough about awards.
Awards, much like applause, are for jugglers and singers. LeBron is already one of the greatest players of all time, so he has to focus on more than just receiving recognition. He simply has to concentrate his efforts on doing the best job possible and furthering his legacy.
He can do that by playing at a high level for a long time.
Inevitably, James will lose some of the athleticism that has given him such an advantage. And just as players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have done, he'll have to adapt. That means developing even more of a post game and some go-to finesse moves on the perimeter.
Longevity is part of what makes a player great.
LeBron is already far more than a flash in the pan, but he hasn't sustained that excellence long enough quite yet. A few more seasons would do the trick.
However, displacing an incumbent is hard.
MJ has the supreme advantage because he's been at the top of the totem pole for a while now. In order for LeBron to move past him in definitive fashion and leave no doubt that he's the new GOAT, he has to blow Jordan out of the water. And that simply can't happen without an extended career.
But at the same time, he has to know when to call it quits. LeBron can't afford to pull a Shaquille O'Neal and bounce around from team to team, playing his way into shape for the inevitable postseason run. Sustained excellence and then a timely exit is key.
If you've ever played blackjack, you know what I'm talking about. Knowing when to leave the table is just as important as the process of earning the chips in the first place.
Right now, LeBron has piled up quite the stack of chips, and he's only going to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. He's reached the point where we can have legitimate discussions about his place among the best ever.
If the Miami superstar were to retire before the start of the 2013-14 campaign, he'd do so with a de facto guarantee that he'd be voted into the Hall of Fame. He'd also be in plenty of discussions about the top 10 players of all time.
While he still has some work left to do before he can dethrone Jordan, the impossible is now possible.
LeBron can go down as the greatest of all time. Jordan is not invulnerable.
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