Following the Miami Heat's blowout of the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson had some surprising words regarding LeBron James, his "Decision" and his status among the league's best basketball players. As I remember it, (so it might not be 100 percent accurate) Johnson stated that whatever you think about "The Decision" or how he made it, James was still the league's MVP.
He went on to say that LeBron had come in to win, and essentially Kobe Bryant let him; that Kobe's statements about this being "just another game" led the team to feel the same way, and that was a big part of the reason the team lost. In other words, LeBron led his team to victory, and Kobe led his team to ambivalence.
Now if this were just anyone saying it, it might be one thing, but this was Magic Johnson—the former Laker, the leader of showtime, arguably the greatest point guard of all time, and in many ways over the last dozen years, one of the biggest fans and promoters of Kobe Bryant.
It's not hard to see the difference in their games form a statistical standpoint. While Kobe scored 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds, shooting a somewhat less than lights out 6-for-16 from the field; James had 27 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds on a triple-double, while taking four steals on 8-for-14 from the field. LeBron also had only one turnover compared to four by Bryant. In short, James completely outplayed Kobe in this game.
Now, I know, it's only one game, but consider the following details. Here are their numbers since LeBron came into the league. The leader is in boldface in each category.
Now first, let me say what these numbers do not mean. They do not mean that LeBron James has had a better career than Kobe Bryant. That's not even arguable. If Kobe Bryant retired today he would be one of the 10 greatest players in the history of the NBA. He is without a doubt one of the all-time great players, and with LeBron, you just can't make that claim yet.
That's not to say he never will be able to. He's already had some pretty amazing career achievements. He was the youngest player to ever reach 15,000 points. With tonight's game he became the youngest player in the history of the NBA to reach 16,000 points, 4,000 rebounds, 4,000 assists and 1,000 steals at the age of 26. To put that feat in perspective the next youngest player to do it was Kobe Bryant, who accomplished the feat at the age of 29.
By the time he retires, LeBron may be considered the greatest small forward who has ever played—an honor currently (I believe, but you're entitled to your own opinion) held by Larry Bird.
Again, I repeat, LeBron's legacy right now is a very long way from Bryant's. That doesn't mean that right now LeBron can't be a better player. Consider this analogy. When Jordan came out of retirement in 2001, to compare Kobe's legacy to Jordan's would have been absurd. At that time though, Kobe was a better player than Jordan.
Since LeBron has entered the NBA, no one has scored more points. Only three players have dished more assists and only 22 have grabbed more rebounds. He is producing at an unmatched level, and he may be more dominant than ever right now, although his numbers have dropped because of the change of teams. Bryant's getting older, and James is just now entering into his prime.
In the light of all the criticism of the "Decision," Johnson is right. People have lost sight of one thing: this man can really play basketball. If we set all the nonsense about James' "selfish" assists, it's an inarguable fact—no one in the NBA has been more productive since James came into the NBA.
Of course there is the big thing that separates James from Bryant, and that's winning. There are those who overstate the distinction of this on some level. James made his first game-winning shot on March 22, 2006 when he made a jumper over Jumaine Jones to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, 120-118. Since then he has made a total of 12 game-winning shot.
Over that same span of time Kobe Bryant has made eight game-winning shots, seven of those coming last year. While over the course of his career Kobe has made more shots (and deserves credit for that), it's too much to say that LeBron isn't clutch. LeBron is exactly at the same point in his career as Kobe was at the same amount of time in his career.
The other big, nay, huge distinction between the two is on the fingers of Kobe Bryant, where he dons five rings and LeBron has yet to win one. But then, that's why this game is significant. Even Kobe couldn't win when he had no help. It wasn't until the Lakers made a trade for fellow All-Star, Pau Gasol. Unable to secure the same kind of help LeBron left for Miami.
And really, that's the difference we're talking about here, right? Kobe Bryant's team had the way to bring him a co-star and LeBron's didn't. If Cleveland had been able to acquire a co-star for him he'd still be a Cavalier. He left to play with other players that wanted to win.
Putting aside all the other things, which really have no relevance to James' ability as a basketball player, there remains this one thing: By signing with the Heat, James' chances to win a ring went up exponentially.
Again there's the internet, anti-LeBron hype surrounding if he does win, discounting any of those rings as "Wade's rings." Such nonsense didn't exist a decade ago. I don't know where it came from, but ironically it may have its origins in Kobe bashers who sought to discount legitimately won rings by Kobe as "Shaq's rings."
The tandem was hardly the first pair of superstars to win rings. People now refer to Jordan's rings as though he won them going one on five for 48 minutes, but no one thought of it that way when he won them. There was no question that Pippen earned his just as much. There was not the stigma of being the "Alpha Dog."
Going back further than that certainly with Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, there was no, "whose rings are they" conversation. The same goes to the Showtime Lakers with Magic and Kareem. Both were league MVPs. Whose rings are those?
Clearly there's a difference between Kobe's rings and Robert Horry's, but not between Kobe's and Shaq's or Kobe's and Pau's or, for that matter, between Michael and Scottie's. These sorts of "rivalries" do not exist on the team—they only exist in the world of Internet threads and nonsensical arguments. If LeBron and the Heat win, it will be because all three of the stars won them competing together.
Who went where is irrelevant. Who is leading seems a dynamic thing. On the court James is the leader; in the locker room Wade is the leader. At least that's my feel for it. The three don't have a rivalry between them. Nor, except again in the world of 24-hour network sports news and Internet drivel, do they seem to have any problems with Eric Spoelstra. In fact, Wade's postgame comments certainly implied the opposite.
Last year the Cavaliers beat the Lakers decisively on Christmas Day, but there was a huge difference. Last year Kobe went down fighting, scoring 35 points to go with 10 rebounds and eight assists. LeBron only had 26 points with nine assists and four rebounds. This year, Kobe got aggravated and frustrated, but that was about all. It probably had more to do with Wade's defense than anything LeBron did.
However in that, it showed something that indicates that maybe it's the year that LeBron ascends to the throne—properly. There are still months of basketball ahead, and this was one-82nd of the season ostensibly. Maybe to Kobe it really was, but to LeBron it wasn't. To LeBron it was vindication. To LeBron it was a statement. To LeBron it was time.
And maybe, just maybe, to the rest of us, there should be some thought that maybe it is. We've told LeBron that the best thing he can do is put this behind him, shut up and play. Well today he did.
But now, maybe it is time to let go of all the angst over a charity event and just move on ourselves. Otherwise we might miss the opportunity to enjoy another once-in-a-generation kind of player as he enters into the best years of his career.