LA Lakers forward LeBron James is arguably one of the five greatest NBA players of all time, a fact that any basketball pundit or critic will find hard to dispute. Heading into his 19th season in the league, James continues to add to his impressive resume that boasts a plethora of achievements and accomplishments that have never been matched in league history.
But when did the four-time MVP become an all-time great?
A 2005 video interview with Bill Walton was unearthed by SI.com’s Sam Yip where the Hall of Famer and former ESPN analyst responded to how LeBron James compared with other legends of the game. In response, Walton emphatically and unequivocally declared that James was already an all-timer during his second season in the league.
“LeBron James is there right now and what he’s doing is just so spectacular," Walton said.
At the time, LeBron James was averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game. But is Walton correct in his assessment that James became an all-time great during his sophomore campaign?
LeBron James next few seasons
While Walton was correct in thinking that LeBron James’ performance at the time was at the level of the greatest players to ever lace up the game, it wasn’t until later in his career that he joined them in the conversation.
More than likely, Walton was a victim of recency bias as James was doing everything for his team - the Cleveland Cavaliers - at the time, and he was doing them all spectacularly indeed. James should have played a few more seasons, however, before basketball experts began considering him an all-timer.
When did it happen then?
Could it be during the 2005-06 season when the rising star averaged a career-high 31.4 points per game? Was it during the 2006-07 season, James’ fourth season in the league, when he carried the Cavs to the NBA Finals despite getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs? Perhaps it was during the 2007-08 season when he nabbed his first and only scoring title with an average of 30.0 points per game.
The season when LeBron James put it all together
To be a legend in the NBA, one needs several seasons worth of accomplishments to be part of the discussion. But for LeBron James, it took just six seasons in the league for him to become an all-timer.
During the 2008-09 season, James led the Cavaliers to the league’s top mark while helping the team register the best record in franchise history at 66-16. He also took them to within two wins of reaching the NBA Finals again.
For his efforts, and for averaging 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game, the 6'9" forward captured the first of his four MVP Awards.
By then, LeBron James had amassed the following awards and accomplishments:
- 2008-09 MVP
- 2003-04 Rookie of the Year
- 2003-04 All-Rookie 1st Team
- 5x All-NBA Team selections (4x 1st Team and 1x 2nd Team)
- 2008-09 All-Defensive 1st Team
- 2x All-Star Game MVP Awards
- 5x All-Star Team
As if these individual honors weren't sufficient, James also became the Cavaliers' scoring leader by his fifth season in the NBA with 10,689 points at the end of the 2007-08 campaign. He was second to Mark Price in career assists at the conclusion of the 2008-09 season as well.
But the clincher for LeBron James becoming an all-time great was taking home the regular season MVP for the first time. The award cemented his place in the pantheon of legendary players.
Consider that by 2009, esteemed NBA players such as Walton, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant had only won the award just once in their careers. James was already on that prestigious list after only six years in the NBA.
The NBA MVP award is such an elusive award that it’s rare for a player to win it even once. The fact that James secured the best individual award in the league so soon proved that he belonged in the all-time greats list.
Perhaps Walton was thinking of potential when he thought LeBron James was an all-timer in the latter's sophomore season itself. But no one in their right mind would put him under that category after just two years in the NBA.
Four seasons later, LeBron James would finally justify Walton's words no matter how outrageous the latter's statements were back in 2005.
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