We do not need a 10-part miniseries to remind us of the greatness of LeBron James. We have the entirety of the 21st century.
From his formal introduction to the basketball world at the 2001 ABCD Camp to his two years as the preeminent high school basketball player at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary to the NBA career that began in the autumn of 2003 to his 68 games as a member of the USA Basketball senior men’s national team, James has been on a court, somewhere, demonstrating to the legions of non-believers there never has been anyone who played the game at such a level.
Saturday night, James recorded a triple-double for the 27th time in an NBA playoff game — 38 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists — in guiding the Lakers to a 117-107 victory over the Nuggets to complete a 4-1 series victory in the Western Conference finals of NBA Playoffs.
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When the Lakers tip off this week in the NBA Finals, it will be the 17th championship series in the league since the day James debuted. He’ll have taken part in 10 of them. Bill Russell can look at that astonishing achievement and chuckle, but pretty much everyone else should be floored.
The great Magic Johnson reached the Finals in nine of his 13 seasons, but, upon entering the league, he joined a team already featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar made it in 10 of his 20 seasons, Michael Jordan in six of his 15.
James has gone from Cleveland to Miami back to Cleveland and then to LA, and Finals appearances follow him wherever he goes.
And still there are those unwilling to cede the point: He’s the best there’s ever been.
His presence in the Finals presents another occasion to engage in one of the most common and frustrating debates of the decade, at least in the non-political category. The debate probably ought to have been settled when James turned the city of Cleveland into a champion for the first time in five decades, but it persists.
Why? MJ was a childhood obsession when many prominent media voices came of age. Oh, and the shoes. The refusal to acknowledge the evidence subsequently presented by James contains the nostalgic obstinance of those who claim to have walked a mile to school, uphill both ways.
Well, I actually did that for a dozen years — three-quarters of a mile, to be precise, to catch the school bus — and I learned enough to trust the facts.
The stats and accomplishments mostly are in James’ favor, now.
Regular season? James has more career points (34,241 to 32,292), rebounds (9,405 to 6,672), assists (9,346 to 6,672) and blocks (957 to 853). James is superior in field goal percentage (.504 to .497) and 3-point percentage (.344 to .327). Jordan is superior in steals (2,514 to 957) and free throw percentage (.835 to .734).
Jordan won five MVP awards to James’ four. James made All-NBA first-team 13 times to Jordan’s 10.
Playoffs? James has played more games (253 to 179), accumulated more conference final appearances (11 to eight), more playoff points (7,274 to 5,987) and is superior in every field goal accuracy category, including effective field goal percentage (.531 to .504).
That’s the basic stuff. In advanced stats such as VORP — value over replacement player — James’ lead over Jordan (133.67 to 116.08) is roughly twice as large as Jordan’s over third-place John Stockton (106.50). Abdul-Jabbar leads in win shares, but again James (236.44) stands superior to Jordan (214.02).
When Jordan was 35 he was … retired, for the second time, albeit temporarily. Shaquille O’Neal no longer was a 20-point scorer. Neither was Wilt Chamberlain. Abdul-Jabbar was productive and essential, but Johnson was the Lakers’ foremost player. James just finished second in MVP voting for the second time in the past three years.
Certainly, James has needed help from his teammates to 10 times accumulate the dozen playoff victories necessary to reach the Finals, but it hasn’t always seemed to matter so much who those teammates might be.
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In his six championship series appearances, all with the Bulls, Jordan helped 28 different players appear in the Finals. He was surrounded by one terrific core group from 1990 to 1993, then another from ’95 to ’98. James has been accompanied there by 65 different teammates, presuming only the Lakers’ primary rotation players appear in the Finals. If Jared Dudley or Quinn Cook gets in a game, it’ll be that many more.
James is the common denominator.
“As much as I love Michael Jordan, man, LeBron James is the one,” Hall of Famer Allen Iverson told “The Fat Joe Show” in August. “He’s the one, man. That (man) is the one.”
Iverson did not use the word “man” in that last sentence.
Two-time NBA champion Bill Laimbeer of the “Bad Boys” Pistons took the same position in an April interview with ESPN. His wording did not require any euphemistic adjustment.
“I’m very vocal on this: I think the LeBron is the best player who has ever played the game,” Laimbeer said. “He’s 6-foot-8, 285 pounds, runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. … At the end of the day, I firmly believe he’s the best basketball player in the history of the game.”
One beauty of the NBA postseason structure is that we will not have an entire week for James’ habitual antagonists to use their amplified voices to take the errant position against him. The NBA Finals start Wednesday, so there are only two days for them to spread disinformation.
We already get enough of that from day to day.