LeBron James: How Does He Compare to the Greats After Eight Years?

Jesse WhiteContributor IIIJune 16, 2011

LeBron James: How Does He Compare to the Greats After Eight Years?

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    MIAMI, FL - JUNE 12:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Six of the 2011 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 12, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    LeBron James just finished his eighth NBA season. In those years, he has accomplished what would be an impressive résumé for most young basketball players: two NBA MVPs, seven All-Star selections, seven All-NBA selections, three All-NBA Defensive choices, a scoring title and two trips to the Finals.

    However, LeBron has been given such high expectations by basketball fans around the country that these accomplishments are no more than a disappointment, and there is already talk of LeBron being one of the greatest wastes of talent the league has ever seen.

    LeBron is, of course, a marvelously talented player, and there is little question that he has the ability to own the league; if he has failed to do so thus far, perhaps he just needs a few more years to mature. Then again, his preordained legacy has always been to become one of the greatest.

    When I realized this, I began to consider how we might compare LeBron to those people we always believed we would one day associate with him, players like Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson. However, most of those players are retired or at least have mostly finished accumulating accolades.

    Therefore, it seemed to me that the only fair way to compare them to LeBron was to look at what some of those all-time greats had accomplished after only their first eight years in the NBA.

    Here’s what I found.

Tim Duncan

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    SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 27:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antionio Spurs looks on against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2011 at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER
    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Time Frame: 1997-2005

     

    What He Did

    By the time Duncan finished his eighth year, part of his résumé resembled LeBron’s, to a degree: two MVPs, seven All-Stars*, eight All-NBA selections (all first-team) and eight All-NBA Defensive selections. Although Duncan was clearly an elite defender for all of his career, most of the rest of his résumé seemed to mirror LeBron’s.

    However, after his eighth year, Duncan had also won no fewer than three titles, in 1999, 2003 and 2005. Furthermore, he had been named Finals MVP in each of those series. (It’s worth noting that even if the Miami Heat had won the title in 2011, LeBron almost definitely wouldn’t have been named Finals MVP.)

     

    Which Résumé Is Better?

    Duncan’s is more impressive than LeBron’s, without a doubt. Not only was he clearly a better defender for his entire career, while LeBron is only starting to develop his defensive talents, but Duncan also won an amazing three titles in his first eight years, while LeBron hasn’t even been to three Finals and has yet to win one.

     

    *There was no All-Star Game in 1999, so seven All-Star selections was the maximum Duncan could achieve.

Kobe Bryant

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives on DeShawn Stevenson #92 of the Dallas Mavericks in the first quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 4, 2011 in
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Time Frame: 1996-2004

     

    What He Did

    Despite what his many detractors would claim, Kobe began his career in incredibly impressive fashion: Although he started out slowly, by 2001 he was a leader and arguably the most important player on the Lakers, and by 2004 he had assembled a résumé that by itself would qualify him for Hall of Fame consideration.

    By the end of his eighth year in the league, Kobe had gathered six All-Star selections*, six All-NBA selections, five All-Defensive choices and three consecutive titles (as well as one loss in the Finals) as an integral part of one of the most dominant teams in history, the early 2000s Lakers.

     

    Which Résumé Is Better?

    Again, Kobe wins this over LeBron easily. Sure, LeBron may have started off his career faster, and he may rake in the triple-doubles and MVPs, but he has yet to achieve the only thing that really matters to him, and to Kobe: a ring. By Kobe’s eighth year, he had three.

    Some would argue that Kobe’s rings are invalidated by the presence of the dominant Shaquille O’Neal at center. This is, of course, ridiculous; after all, would we be saying that about LeBron’s title if he had won it as the Heat’s second option in 2011? Some of us, perhaps, but not I. Besides, a ring is a ring, and Kobe was inarguably a vital part of those Lakers teams.

     

    *Again, there was no All-Star Game in 1999, so six All-Star selections in Kobe’s first eight years means he missed only one game.

Larry Bird

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    1990:  Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird shoots a layup during game against the Golden State Warriors at the Oakland Colesium Arena in Oakland, California. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule Jr.  /Allsport
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Time Frame: 1979-1987

     

    What He Did

    Now we have come to the first player on this list universally accepted as one of the greatest of all time. By the end of his eighth season, Larry Bird had already accomplished almost all of the feats that he ever achieved as a player. In fact, shortly after 1987, his game began to decline.

    In Bird’s first eight years, he gathered eight All-Star selections, eight All-NBA First Team choices, three All-Defensive choices, three consecutive MVPs, three NBA championships and two Finals MVPs. By this point, he had also played in an astonishing five Finals, in which he faced his rival Magic Johnson and the Lakers three times.

     

    Which Résumé Is Better?

    Considering that almost everything Larry Bird did is encompassed in this eight-year period, it seems clear that he gets a significant edge over LeBron. In fact, Bird may have the single most impressive eight-year résumé in this list, although that is highly debatable.

Magic Johnson

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    Guard Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers driibbles the ball down the court during a game at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Time Frame: 1979-1987

     

    What He Did

    Magic’s eight-year résumé is also extremely impressive.

    In that span of time, Magic won one MVP with six Finals appearances, four titles and three Finals MVPs, as well as being named to seven All-Star teams and six All-NBA teams.

     

    Which Résumé Is Better?

    Let me just say this one more time: By the time Magic finished his first eight years in the NBA, he had played in six Finals, winning four. That’s simply insane. Considering that LeBron hasn’t even yet won a single ring, it seems clear that Magic got off to a much faster start.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    Mar 1988:  Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers in action during a game against the New Jersey Nets at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell  /Allsport
    Mike Powell/Getty Images

    Time Frame: 1969-1977

     

    What He Did

    At last we have come to a player whose main successes didn’t come until after his first eight years had passed.

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly known as Lew Alcindor, did, however, start out his NBA career in an impressive manner. He was an All-Star in each of his first eight seasons and an All-NBA choice in seven of them. He was also named to an All-Defensive team six times in this span.

    However, by 1977, Kareem had only won one of his eventual six rings, which came in 1971 when he was on the Milwaukee Bucks (he was named Finals MVP). He also lost in 1974 to the Boston Celtics.

    Kareem did have a tremendous impact on the league in his first eight years, though, which is shown most clearly by his astonishing five MVP selections in that time.

     

    Which Résumé Is Better?

    This comparison could actually be considered debatable. Kareem was, after all, not as successful in winning titles early in his career as he was later on. It is possible that LeBron will also enjoy the bulk of his victories in the next portion of his career.

    However, as talented as LeBron is, he has never dominated the league to a level that would merit five MVP awards. For that reason, as well as Kareem’s 1-0 advantage in titles, I’m giving the big Laker the edge.

Wilt Chamberlain

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    7 Feb 1997:  Former Los Angeles Laker Wilt Chamberlain addresses the media at a press conference before the NBA All-Star Game at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Time Frame: 1959-1967

     

    What He Did

    Wilt’s early-career success is difficult to evaluate, because his journey through NBA history follows a unique path. Early in his career, he dominated the league in a way that Michael Jordan can only dream of, averaging about 40 points per game through his first seven years.

    However, it wasn’t until his eighth year, when he became a much better team player and focused on passing and defense rather than scoring, that he finally beat out Bill Russell’s Celtics and won his first title.

    In his first eight years, Wilt was named to eight All-Star teams and eight All-NBA squads. He also won one title and three NBA MVPs. Perhaps more impressively, though, on an individual level he put up eight seasons of 22-plus rebounds per game and seven seasons of 33-plus points per game, including a 50.4 PPG season.

     

    Which Résumé Is Better?

    In a way, Wilt and LeBron are similar players: Each had a hard time winning championships despite amazing individual ability, and each spent much of his energy focusing on statistical achievements rather than team success.

    The main differentiations are that Wilt did manage to win a championship in his first eight years, he dominated to a far greater degree than LeBron has and his statistical achievements were far more impressive than those of LeBron. Therefore, I give him the advantage.

Bill Russell

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    BOSTON - JUNE 17:  NBA legend Bill Russell smiles before Game Six of the 2008 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics on June 17, 2008 at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Time Frame: 1956-1964

     

    What He Did

    Mainly, Bill Russell won championships.

    From 1956-1964, Russell won no fewer than seven titles, losing once in the Finals to the St. Louis Hawks. He also won four MVPs and was named to seven All-Star teams and seven All-NBA teams.

     

    Which Résumé Is Better?

    All LeBron has ever wanted to do, according to him, is win a title. This exact statement defines Russell’s goal as well. The difference between them is that Russell achieved this goal—seven times in his first eight years in the league.

    It is true that Russell played with countless Hall of Famers and that he won those titles in a contracted league with very few other teams. However, the depth of talent on his Celtics teams was due in large part to the small size of the league, which also meant that the teams he competed against were also extremely talented.

    It is worth noting that Russell’s Celtics won their seven titles between 1956 and 1964 in seven, four, seven, five, seven, six and five games, respectively; obviously, there were other talented teams in the league.

Michael Jordan

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 1984:  Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls moves the ball against Bill Walton #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers during a December 1984 season game at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty I
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Time Frame: 1984-1992

     

    What He Did

    Everything.

    Michael Jordan is widely considered the greatest basketball player in history, and his achievements back up this claim.

    In his first eight years, Jordan made eight All-Star teams, seven All-NBA teams and five All-Defensive teams. He was also named NBA MVP three times in that span, and he even won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1988.

    Furthermore, Jordan won two titles in his first eight years, earning Finals MVP honors in both series.

    Most importantly, however, Jordan dominated the league in a way only a handful of players have ever done. This handful does not include LeBron James.

     

    Which Résumé Is Better?

    Even though Jordan’s accomplishments occurred mostly after his first eight years had passed, he still achieved more in that time than almost anyone else in NBA history, including LeBron.

    More significantly, Jordan showed the public from the beginning of his career just how talented he was and what he was capable of doing. When he started winning titles, he had already dominated the league for years. LeBron appears incapable of this type of dominance.

Conclusion

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    MIAMI, FL - JUNE 12:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat answers questions after the Heat were defeated 105-95 by the Dallas Mavericks in Game Six of the 2011 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 12, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expr
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Some players on this list accomplished more in their first eight years than almost anyone else could do in a lifetime.

    Others started slow, revealing only hints of their true potential until they were already veterans.

    None, however, started as slowly as LeBron James has.

    As talented as he is, James has simply not shown himself to be a player whose greatness is comparable to the all-time pantheon.

    Perhaps someday LeBron will retire with a résumé as impressive as those belonging to the players named on this list, and when that day comes, I will willingly place him among the greatest to ever play the game. Moreover, even if he never achieves this status, there is a very good chance he will see the Hall of Fame someday.

    However, as it stands now, LeBron’s career is moving at nowhere near the pace required to one day be considered one of the greatest.