June is when legends are born.
So this June, with LeBron James coming off yet another disappointing finals appearance, one must beg the question where does he rank amongst the greatest basketball players in NBA history? Media agenda aside, it is extremely difficult to gauge such an extraordinary talent who has disappointed more than he has delivered. We are talking about one of the most polarizing players of all time… you either despise him or you simply worship the ground he walks on. Quite frankly, most of the basketball world has not been able to find a middle ground.
When it comes to LeBron the player, he is clearly one of the greatest athletes to ever lace a pair of sneakers. If Dr. Frankenstein were to create the ideal basketball player, the self-proclaimed King would physically be the mold. With the body of Karl Malone, the athleticism of Dominique Wilkins, and the skillset of Oscar Robertson, we have never quite seen anything like him.. and probably never again will. There is absolutely no denying that he won the genetic lottery.
Beyond the legend, there is something that separates the greats from the goats. Something more than ability. Something more than skill and athleticism. Something that won’t show up in your box score. That something sits within the left side of your rib cage and pumps the blood that gives you life… Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about the heart. Where LeBron James excels in talent, he lacks in the department that creates that separation. Some call it killer instinct. Some call it drive. I simply like to call it soul. Whatever you want to label it, love him or hate him, we are all witnesses to his lack of it.
On June 12th, 2017, LeBron James lost his 5th Finals in 8 appearances, leaving him 18-28 overall on the biggest stage in basketball. If not for a Game 3 that ended in a 11-0 Golden State run –as LeBron froze and became passive in the closing moments– this series may very well still be going on.
In reality, most players dream to be 3/8 in Finals play, but in this unique case, 3/8 simply won’t cut it for the hype behind “The Chosen One“.
When the media wants ratings, they do what they know best; create a mystique around something or someone and beat that topic to death. Unfortunately, the general consensus eats it up like it was their last meal. In this instance, that subject has been LeBron James’ greatness. While topics like “Is LeBron James better than Michael Jordan” are great for ESPN ratings, they insult the intelligence of your well versed basketball purists who can see past the shenanigans. To build something up to mythical status is the quintessential hook line and sinker. It creates a buzz that captivates the attention of your casual fan, making for a great storyline.
As with every great story ever told, there are always two sides. With LeBron, you have the believers on one side, and the doubters on the other.
With a larger than life figure, the only way to objectively classify status would be to put aside what you have been told and pass the judgement with your very own eyes. On paper, it would take a fool to deny the incredible statistics LeBron has accumulated throughout his illustrious career. Realistically, we are talking about a player who may retire with more points than anyone in NBA history. The assists, the rebounds, the steals, the blocks, all outer-worldly.
The issue here is that statistics are only a numerical portion of the game, where as the average basketball fan of today considers statistics the end all be all. The game is so much more complex than numbers, yet the stat lovers rely on their calculator to tell them who the best is. Mathematical lies! Those same lies told us that Steph Curry in 2015 was better than a prime Michael Jordan. In an era where advanced stats and analytics rule the basketball world, the odd men out have sadly been heart, drive, passion, and yes, soul. The “IT factor” is no longer even considered a factor in this day an age.
Is that to say LeBron James is purely stats as opposed to authentic excellence? One would have to be a complete idiot to make such a claim. You do not get to where LeBron James is purely on hype. While stats do not define greatness, they are obviously a byproduct of greatness.
Interestingly enough, there are two different types of players –those who do whatever it takes to win, and those who are just as conscious of their statistics as they are of the score. LeBron James is the latter. Now, of course every player wants to win, and every player wants to accumulate stats. But the goats sacrifice stats for team success. That reason alone is why Wilt Chamberlain is not considered the greatest of all time. Greatest statistically? By far. But with all those finals losses, Wilt is widely considered inferior to 11 time champion Bill Russell.
A LeBron apologist may call this speculation, and may even claim that there is a lack or evidence to make such bold statements.. But the proof is in the pudding.
After the disasterous Game 3 in Cleveland, LeBron James stated to the press that he is doing just fine due to the fact that he is “averaging a triple-double”. That is not something one says when winning is more important than individual success. Especially not when down 0-3. It is the same reason why LeBron still drives in for easy lay-ups and chases rebounds in games that are already decided. Some call it stat-padding, but I just call it obvious. For better or worse, it is why he has never joined an equal opportunity offense. It is the reason that everything must run through him 100% of the time that he is on the court. In order to join a ball moving offense, LeBron would need to sacrifice individual stats, thus sacrifcicing accolades, and ultimately, his spot on the all-time list… or so he thinks.
Still, 3 championships is not too shabby, no matter how many tries or how many all-stars it took. If Karl Malone won even 1, he would be in talks for greatest power forward of all time. Rings are the difference maker when assessing greats. There are those who claim that LeBron needed to form super teams by luring franchise players to join him, creating a ring chasing culture in the NBA. That is another story for another day. A ring is a ring, and LeBron has his fair share. If he played his career in the west, would he have less? Most likely. But that is neither here nor there. He has 3, and that is what matters.
So that leaves us wondering, where exactly does LeBron rank on the all-time list? The majority of sports networks have indoctrinated the average consumer to believe “top 5”. And who can blame them? The more they build him, the more they are generating off of his buzz. When we remove the marketing bias, strip the powers that be of their agenda, and look at all the factors objectively, it is easy to see exactly where he belongs; in the tier of Julius Erving, Jerry West, Isiah Thomas, etc. All legends, all champions, and incredible company to be in. Unfortunately, it is common to see him incorrectly placed in the Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson echelon. A domino effect which is unfair to him more than it is to the consumers who drink the Kool-Aid.
Is it too late for LeBron to climb the ranks? Absolutely not. He still has some good years left, and if he is able to win a couple more, we can once again revisit this topic.
Right now? He is on the outside looking in at that top 10 list.
Greatness is greatness, but in all fairness, it is going to take more to approach the goats.
…or in the statistical stratosphere, perhaps less?