LeBron James has consistently exhibited throughout his career a level of greatness that has been reserved for few.
Prior to breaking through and winning a title, there was a faction of the basketball world that believed he could not be considered a truly great player. There was a sentiment that his résumé was lacking.
It was an interesting dialog given that Jerry West appeared on most of experts’ all-time top-15 lists despite numerous failures on the championship stage. James was judged by different and harsher standards given his contemporaries and predecessors.
The former Cleveland Cavalier was battling the legacies of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. In those comparisons, many felt it was blasphemous to mention him next to them given their accomplishments despite the fact that most NBA players fail to meet their standards. Heck, one can argue that Bryant’s credentials fall woefully short of Jordan’s.
James joined the league in 2003 as one of the most hyped rookies in NBA history and came in with three above average skills: getting to the basket, finishing at the hoop and passing. Those talents allowed him to do things on the basketball court that few believed a first-year player could accomplish.
His game evolved with age, which turned him into a more sophisticated player. He learned to anticipate defensive rotations and also morphed into one of the best defenders in the league during his last few seasons in Cleveland.
He scored the basketball with great efficiency but ultimately his team’s failures were placed squarely on his shoulders. Pundits began saying he did not have enough heart and that his apparent inability to improve from year-to-year would prevent him from reaching championship glory.
With history staring at him, James famously took his talents to South Beach and joined the Miami Heat. Since joining the franchise in the 2010 summer, the former Olympian has appeared in three straight NBA Finals and won back-to-back titles.
In addition, he has collected two consecutive NBA Finals MVP trophies. James was already on the heels of certain all-time greats in his last few seasons in Cleveland, but right now he is all up in their business.
Since the 2011-12 campaign, he has enhanced his strengths and turned his weaknesses into potent weapons. In the Heat uniform, James has become a more aggressive post-up player and converted 48.4 percent of his shots in that setting according to Synergy Sports.
He has displayed his low-post skills during the course of the 2012 and 2013 playoffs and looked dominant at times in doing so as Paul George of the Indiana Pacers can attest.
Once maligned for his erratic jump shot, James has morphed into one the league’s best overall shooters. He converted 40.6 of his treys during the 2012-13 season and was in the top 15 in mid-range shooting during the same time span (minimum of 400 mid-range jumpers) per NBA.com’s advanced stats tool.
Furthermore, with questions arising about his ability to deliver in late-game situations, James responded by placing himself in the top-15 in scoring, rebounding and assists in the clutch (defined as last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points) during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons per NBA.com’s advanced stats tool. Just in case the numbers fail to capture how good he has been on this front, just watch this.
These advancements in his abilities were on full display in Game 7 of 2013 NBA Finals. James scored in the post, from mid-range and from 3-point land. When the game needed a hero late, he gave them one by sinking a jumper from the right elbow to clinch the title.
The all-around brilliance is one of the reasons celebrated author Bob Ryan has catapulted the two-time champion into his famed pantheon of players that have mastered the art of team basketball; a place reserved for only a handful of athletes.
When Sports Illustrated’s own Jack McCallum attempted to rank James amongst other great perimeter players, he initially had him as the second best ever, right behind the incomparable Jordan.
That puts the small forward in an intriguing place as it pertains to the history of the game of basketball. James is no longer chasing contemporaries; he is now firmly entrenched in the discussion revolving around the greatest to ever pick up a ball.
The two-time Finals MVP has collected more MVP awards than Bryant and Tim Duncan combined. The only players fortunate enough to win the Maurice Polodoff trophy more times than James are Jordan (five), Bill Russell (five) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six).
He is currently tied with Larry Bird, Willis Reed, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bryant and Abdul-Jabbar for most Finals MVP awards ever. In addition, he is already in the top-10 all-time playoff scoring list. It seems pertinent to mention James will be 28 years old by the time the 2013-14 season tips off.
The four-time league MVP has embraced his talents and now bends defenses on a whim much like Neo did in The Matrix. Because of the work he has put in, he now has an exceptional grasp on the timing of the game of basketball.
James dominates games as a facilitator, scorer and disruptive defender. His teammates often take a page out of his book and play in concert with each other, knowing all too well how their movements alter the geometry of the court.
The Akron native is comfortable hitting the open man with a pinpoint pass or simply rolling to the basket after setting a screen and creating an open shot for a teammate. He gladly defers to members of his team in the face of extreme pressure because he spends an inordinate amount of time — most of the regular season — building up their confidence.
James is the best player in the league and perhaps the best this generation will see. As impressive as that sounds, it pales in comparison to what his second title has done for him and the sport: Like Jordan before him, he is redefining the standards by which we measure success in the NBA.
Tell me that’s not an all-time great…
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