LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time.
It’s possible that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the above will be a defensible remark—not quite yet, of course, but maybe someday.
And maybe someday soon. Though LeBron’s 2013-14 season ended with him falling shy of a third consecutive title—to say nothing of a third consecutive MVP and fifth overall—it’s likely that James improved his historical standing over the course of the campaign.
First, some throat-clearing. Though rings are still, in many quarters, viewed as a proxy for greatness, that’s changing. As our understanding of player performance deepens—and, with the advent and popularization of SportVU and a host of sophisticated statistical systems, it’s deepening with remarkable speed—jewelry is becoming less central to the way we weigh the relative merits of different athletes.
We simply don’t need it anymore. It can be helpful as a tiebreaker, but during a period when we can measure with increasingly granular precision the value of basketball players, it’s becoming unnecessary. Anachronistic, even.
Baseball is instructive here. Statistics can capture nearly everything of importance that happens on the diamond. So we don’t need to resort to “count the rings”-type pabulum during an argument about the relative merits of, say, Buster Posey and Yadier Molina. The stats don’t lie.
Basketball isn’t there yet—but it’s headed in that direction. This is the context in which James' legacy will be debated and determined. The post-ring era.
So let’s talk about the numbers that will matter, or might, and how they place LeBron among the game’s greats.
According to Basketball-Reference, the best four seasons in NBA history—by measure of win shares per 48 minutes—belong to centers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar occupies three of the four slots, and Wilt Chamberlain the fourth. And then there’s LeBron.
James’ 2012-13 season, by measure of win shares per 48 minutes, betters anything Michael Jordan ever did. It also betters anything any non-center—anyone beyond Wilt or Kareem—ever offered. And that’s not LeBron’s only time on the list, either. James also owns the seventh-, 10th- and 11th-greatest seasons ever.
It’s an arbitrary cutoff point, but his four seasons in the Top 11 are more than anyone else has ever produced. And he won’t turn 30 until Dec. 30.
LeBron’s 2013-14 season did nothing to interrupt this trajectory. If anything, it bolstered it.
Despite the wear and tear of what became four consecutive Finals appearances, not to mention his stint as the leader of Team USA at the London Olympics, LeBron was superlative. His efficiency rose to a new level.
With a particular emphasis on the post game—James attempted a career-high 39.9 percent of his shots from within three feet of the basket—LeBron set new personal bests in field-goal percentage (56.7), true shooting percentage (64.9) and effective field-goal percentage (61.0).
It was a tour de force that, were it not for the apotheosis of Kevin Durant—and possibly some LeBron-fatigue on the part of voters—almost certainly would have culminated in the King’s third straight MVP and fifth in six seasons. Incidentally, with two more awards, James will tie Kareem for the most in history.
From this vantage point, LeBron’s argument for a place at the GOAT (greatest of all time) table is strong and strengthening, which is probably the best he or any other player can ever hope to accomplish.
You don’t become the GOAT as much as you enter the conversation. To become inarguably, objectively, better than Jordan, or Bill Russell, or Wilt or Kareem is an impossibility.
Their accomplishments are so broad and diverse that you can’t beat all of them. It’s a sort of historical whack-a-mole. You win more titles than Jordan, Russell still has you. You have the longevity of Kareem, people can still point to the absurd statistical heights Wilt reached. There’s no way to really win. In the GOAT race, you play for the tie.
Which LeBron is most definitely on pace to accomplish.
Statistical support for this article provided by Basketball-Reference.
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