LeBron has conquered the final frontier; he has overcome. It’s time to, uncomfortable as it may seem, consider his place in the pantheon now. That’s the rule – win a NBA title, and achieve immortality. Where does LeBron figure in the G.O.A.T debate, now that he’s finally led his team to the Larry O’Brien gold?
No matter which way you dissect it, the top ten NBA players of all time are some combination of the guys on this list: Jordan, Chamberlain, Russell, Bird, Magic, Karl & Moses Malone, Erving, Robertson, Bryant, Duncan, Hakeem, Kareem and Shaq. While all of them have at least one championship to their credit, the magic number that cleaves this list is three. Jordan, Russell, Bird, Magic and Kareem all have at least three rings; they just happen to be among the top six guys on this list. Kobe and Duncan have more than three rings as well, but their career totals and individual achievements, as well as pioneering greatness, does not put them in the same league as the top six.
For the greatest player of the 2000s, it’s a toss-up between Duncan and Bryant. Kobe, we believe, is a winner in the Jordan mould; a guy who gets it done for his team in the postseason, an ice-cold killa (Black Mamba!) especially during clutch time.
Consider these post-season averages:
Player 1: 30.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.7 spg, 48% FG shooting, NBA championship
Player 2: 30.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.9 spg, 50% FG shooting, NBA championship
Player 1 is Kobe during the first of his ‘I’m-better-than-Shaq’ championships, 2008-09. This was after Kobe won the league MVP the season before and the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals (Kobe had the exact same averages, except it was on 48% shooting – his best statistical postseason).
Player 2 is LeBron during the Heat’s 2012 championship run. At age 27, LeBron is already playing at a level Kobe never achieved. These stats don’t reflect one huge aspect of LeBron’s impact on the game: defense. LeBron played all five positions on defense in the playoffs for Miami; he’s the best perimeter defender in the league. Kobe was very good in his prime, just not this good.
LeBron’s got 3 MVP awards, the only bling apart from a championship ring that counts in the G.O.A.T debate, two more than Kobe. The greatness of Kobe Bryant in opposition to LeBron, then, is measured by the championships he’s won. LeBron’s already a better all-around player than Kobe ever was, but he perhaps lacks the consistency and burning desire to win; the competitiveness that so defines Kobe.
But here’s the thing: everything seems to suggest that LeBron will get there. Till last season, LeBron was fighting demons, within as well as without. News flash: He’s won. There’s nothing to hold him back anymore. He’s shown he doesn’t care about what people think anymore. He’s shown he’s now all about winning; no emotion, just cold-blooded professionalism. In a recent interview to the Sun Times, Oscar Robertson (to whom Bron has drawn the most comparisons over the years) said:
“He’s getting smarter, he’s only 27 and still too sensitive to what people think about him. He’ll get over that and if nothing else, it stops the ‘when are you …’ talk,” Robertson said. “Then he won’t give a damn what they say. That’s when we’ll see real LeBron come out.”
Let’s not forget that Jordan spent the 80s trying to win it all on his own and failed miserably. Magic Johnson, the greatest Laker ever, was called “Tragic Magic” early in his career because he too – and this is a trend, make note of it – failed repeatedly before the Showtime run of 3 titles in 4 years. LeBron’s roughly the age Jordan was before His Airness figured out that the ‘I’ in ‘Win’ came after the ‘W’ in ‘We’. Jordan won six titles; six MVPs. In the last three decades, no player has dominated both ends of the floor like Bron except for Jordan.
Considering how incredible (both statistically and aesthetically) Bron’s 2012 playoffs was (perhaps bettered only by Jordan), it shouldn’t take much more to put him in the Top 10. Bron’s already got more MVP awards than most in the top 10 (and he’s not done yet), and three more rings with these sort of per-game averages should land him in the top 5. Let’s not forget that LeBron has probably had the single toughest postseason experience of any superstar in any sport; he won despite all the scrutiny, all the hate in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Few athletes would have had the mental fortitude to achieve that. I doubt Jordan would have – does nobody remember his shameful Hall of Fame speech? – because Jordan was far more self-centered than Bron ever has been.
In either case, the next three-four seasons will seal the debate. Now that LeBron’s won his first ring, nobody atop that G.O.A.T list is safe. And yes, that means you, Michael.