People toss around absolutes with such incredible ease these days that you wonder if they comprehend what they’re actually saying. My 16-year-old daughter is a frequent offender. She’ll describe a teacher as the best woman ever, somehow overlooking Mother Teresa and her own mother.
We need to think long and hard before making such determinations, especially when it comes to sports. Fans aren’t the only people who have a tendency to lose perspective and exaggerate the truth. Sports writers have overstated accomplishments once or twice over the years, too.
So where does LeBron James fit among the NBA all-time greats? Is he better than Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson? He’s the best player of his generation, certainly, but is he the very best in NBA history? It’s worthy of discussion.
LeBron is the likely choice for most valuable player in the NBA Finals even if the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in the next two games and win the title. It would mark the third time he won the award and, assuming Cleveland falls, the second time it was given to a player from the losing team. Jerry West was the other, in 1969.
King James has been nearly unstoppable in the series. He had 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the first half Sunday night before the Warriors ran away with the victory for a 3-2 series lead. He finished with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his third triple-double of the postseason.
If Cleveland somehow wins the final two games and brings home a championship, it would be the greatest individual performance in the Finals history. He scored 122 points in the first three games, a record for the Finals. He’s scoring 36.6 points per game, an averaged lowered by his 20 points in Game Four.
LeBron has 44 assists, seven more than his teammates have combined, in the first five games. He has scored or assisted on 271 points in the series, accounting for 59 percent of their offense. The Cavs deserve credit for their grittiness against a superior team, but the series would be over if not for LeBron.
Still, that alone doesn’t make him the best ever.
Wilt Chamberlain averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game for his career, but many thought Bill Russell was better because he won 11 titles in 13 seasons. Wilt scored 50.4 points a game in 1961-62, the same year Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists) for an entire season.
In my book, Magic and Michael are the standard for best ever. Deciding between them is difficult in itself. Magic was a better passer. At 6-foot-9, he redefined the point guard position. He was terrific on the fast break and could penetrate any lane when needed. He was a great leader but an average shooter and defender.
Jordan was the most electric player and considered by many as the best player in history. He was a better shooter than Magic and LeBron, a pure scorer and great defender who won six championships with the Bulls. But he didn’t have the passing or rebounding skills of Magic or, for that matter, LeBron.
Johnson and Jordan had considerably better players around them than James ever did, even when LeBron won two titles – and was named MVP after both – with the Heat. Magic had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy in Los Angeles. Jordan had Scottie Pippen and a solid surrounding cast with the Bulls.
Bill Cartwright won three titles in Chicago. He was an average big man at the time, but he would have mopped the floor with Andrew Bogut or Timofey Mozgov. Dennis Rodman was a beast on the boards. Matthew Dellavedova is a nice story in Cleveland, but he couldn’t carry John Paxson or Steve Kerr’s jock.
Time has distorted reality when it comes to Jordan’s career. He was a fantastic player, a larger-than-life figure and an all-time great to be sure. But he wasn’t a one-man show and never withstood the duress LeBron has experienced .
Cleveland lost its top forward in Kevin Love, which forced James to make up the difference on the boards and shoot more from the perimeter. Kyrie Irving was slowed by injuries before being lost for the season in Game One against Golden State. It forced LeBron to handle the ball more from the point.
Magic was hailed as a savior in 1980 for playing all five positions and scoring 42 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in the deciding game as the Lakers beat the Sixers. It’s still considered one of the best performances in Finals history. LeBron has played that way all series, leading Cleveland to two wins.
James has been running the point before moving to shooting guard on one possession, switching to power forward on another and center on another. He scored inside and out. He penetrated and found his teammates inside and out. He has rebounded on both ends. He’s been doing it all because he had no other choice.
LeBron is a better scorer, rebounder and defender than Magic. He’s a better rebounder and passer than Jordan. He doesn’t have Magic’s magic or Jordan’s flare, but he’s bigger and stronger than both and has accomplished more with less. He’s a four-time league MVP. It should be five, maybe six.
James has been making only 39.8 percent from the floor in the Finals, but the statistic is skewed because he has been forced to throw up so many shots. Sure, he’s a whiner. But he has worked for every bucket because the Warriors have had two and three defenders draped over him while ignoring LeBron’s teammates.
And he’s had very little help.
Who else among Cleveland’s current starting five would have cracked the Lakers’ lineup with Magic or the Bulls’ with Jordan? Nobody. They had a tough enough time starting for the Cavs with LeBron. For all the superlatives showered upon James, he actually was underrated going into the postseason.
Magic and Michael and Wilt and the others were great players, but they would not have carried the Cavs this far the way LeBron did. Does that mean LeBron is the best player ever? After much consideration, yes, it does.