Lebron James is the greatest player to ever play the game. Yes, the day has come. It happens with all of the greats. A few years ago when die-hard Patriot fans started claiming that Tom Brady was the greatest quarterback ever, the counter to that was that he was not even the greatest quarterback of his generation, Peyton Manning was. After all, Peyton had more passing yards, more touchdowns, and outdid Brady in all the major stats. Then, as time went on, Manning fans gave up the argument and the argument turned to Joe Montana’s four-for-four in the Super Bowls and how that made Montana the greatest. Today, most NFL experts would say that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time. Well, the day has come that NBA fans and experts will begin crossing the road to join the Lebron James camp and the Michael Jordan camp will soon be left to only those few remaining die-hards that will cling to the six-for-six argument. Just watch, a few years from now, those in the Jordan camp will be viewed like those few remaining outliers who still claim that Bill Russell is the NBA’s greatest because of his 11 championships in 13 seasons. That’s right, the process has started and soon, Lebron will be viewed by most as the greatest basketball player of all-time.
I don’t love that I am writing this. Lebron James is not my favorite player. I think he’s a bad teammate. I don’t agree with how he passive-aggressively takes over teams and holds his franchise hostage and gets his buddies inflated contracts even when it’s bad for the team. I didn’t love how he quit on his team in certain Finals games. I don’t love the arrogance and I hated “The Decision.” That said, I cannot let my own pettiness stop me from admitting what is true. Lebron James is simply the greatest and most complete basketball player to ever live.
On Tuesday, Lebron became the first player to ever score 30,000 points, dish out 8,000 assists, and grab 8,000 rebounds. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about Larry Bird and how he was in the elite group of players with 20,000 points, 8,000 rebounds, and 5,000 assists. At the time, the club included just five players: John Havlicek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, and Larry Bird. I talked about how Bird was the outlier because of how many fewer games he had played and how this was evidence of Bird’s greatness. I considered Bird’s career averages of 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 6.3 assists as further evidence that Larry Bird was the greatest Small Forward of all-time and that he was somehow underrated when considering the greatest to ever play the game. Eventually, I had to admit that Bird was no longer the greatest at his position and that Lebron had passed him in that category. Today, I take that a step further.
Think about the numbers in that last paragraph. There are 5 players other than Lebron to amass even 20,000 points, 8,000 rebounds, and 5,000 assists. Lebron has collected 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds, and 8,000 assists and he’s the only one in that club. His career averages are 27.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game over his brilliant 15-year career in which he has played 1,121 games. Michael Jordan’s career averages are 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.3 assists over his 15 seasons and 1,072 career games. Lebron owns career-shooting percentages of 50.3 percent from the floor, 34.3 percent from three, and 74 percent from the line compared to Jordan’s 49.7 percent from the floor, 32.7 percent from three, and 83.5 percent from the line. The only advantage MJ had on Lebron was free throw shooting. These shooting numbers look even further skewed to Lebron when you consider that Lebron has made almost as many threes (1,570) as Jordan attempted (1,778). Jordan’s percentage on two-point shots was 51.0 percent, while Lebron’s is 54.6 percent.
He did more to help his teams and did it in more ways. MJ spent the first several seasons of his career, racking up outrageous stats for mediocre teams. Kobe did the same thing the season after he lost Shaq (the same season he scored 81 points in a game). Lebron was leading his team to the Playoffs when he was 21 and to the Finals as a 22-year old kid. He didn’t have time to rack up meaningless numbers while playing on a bad team. Think of it this way, Lebron has never missed the Playoffs in a season where he could legally buy a beer and has never missed a Finals since he could rent a car. Lebron has also never lost a First Round series. Think about that for a minute.
Lebron is seventh all-time in points, the youngest to 30,000 points. He is eleventh on the all-time assist list, the only non-Guard in the top 31 spots. He is 71st on the all-time rebounds list, ahead of the likes of Chris Webber, Kevin McHale, Truck Robinson, and Alonzo Mourning. He is fifth on the all-time points-per-game list, not bad for a guy never labeled as a “scorer.” He is 19th on the all-time steals list. And the scary thing is, this month he averaged a triple-double, the oldest to ever accomplish that feat. In other words, despite being 19th on the all-time minutes played list and having major mileage from all of the consecutive trips to the Finals, Lebron is showing no signs of slowing down. By the time most players reach 43,000 minutes, they look like Joe Johnson, Jason Terry, and Pau Gasol. They look like Wizards MJ. They look like Raptors Hakeem. Look at it this way, Manu Ginobili has played in 26,504 minutes. David West has played almost 29,000 minutes. Tyson Chandler just over 30,000. See what I’m getting at? Players with this many minutes are usually done, just holding on for one more chance to win a title, coming off the bench in a limited role. What Lebron is doing is freakish. Only Karl Malone has ever maintained such a high level of play this many minutes into his career without experiencing a major drop off.
Lebron has led his teams to the Finals eight times (including the last seven), winning three titles. One big knock on Lebron has been his Finals record (3-5). Should we hold it against Lebron that unlike Mike, he didn’t have a Bad Boys Pistons team keeping him out of the Finals? Should we hold it against Lebron that he led a team out of the East when Larry Hughes was the team’s second best player? Should we hold it against Lebron that he lost to the dynastic Spurs twice and the dynastic Warriors twice (once when Matthew Delavadova was the second best player on his team because of injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving)? Yes, he lost to the Mavericks, but that was when Dirk was in his unstoppable prime and people forget who else was on that roster. That Mavs team had Dirk, future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, future Hall of Famer Jason Terry, five-time All-Star Shawn Marion, Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, sharp-shooter Peja Stojakovic, and two-time All-Star Caron Butler in his prime. That team swept a 57-win Lakers team on its way to the Finals and went 16-5 in that Championship run. That team was not chopped liver.
Did Michael ever beat a team that approached dynasty status? How about when he beat the Lakers for his first title? That Lakers team was not the same Lakers team that had won 5 titles in the 80’s. Kareem was gone by then. James Worthy was injured in Game 4 and sat out Game 5 (both losses). That Lakers team had no bench and Magic played 45.6 minutes per game. The “Showtime Lakers” never won a title without Kareem, so I don’t consider this win as a win over a dynasty. This is like beating the Spurs after Duncan retired. The Houston Rockets? Nope, MJ was off playing baseball when Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and the host of shooters dominated the league on their way to their first title and MJ’s Bulls stumbled in the Second Round the next year when the Rockets repeated as champs. Do we hold it against MJ that he never beat the Rockets? Do we hold it against MJ that his Bulls failed to get out of the Second Round in the 1995 Playoffs? In Game 1 against the Orlando Magic, MJ shot 8-for-22 for 19 points and 8 turnovers. In the deciding Game 7 he shot 8-of-19 and had 6 turnovers. Maybe had Jordan performed and led his team to the Finals to lose to the Rockets, Jordan’s perfect Finals record would have been tainted. Instead, we have a tendency of rewarding MJ by conveniently forgetting the 1995 Playoffs. Sure, Lebron’s record in the Finals is three-and-five, but there is more to the story when comparing his 3-and-5 to Jordan’s 6-for-6.
At Lebron’s size, there is no reason why he should be as fast and as quick and as athletic as he is. Think about how dominant Karl Malone was at 6’9” 255 and then think of how completely unstoppable he would be if he were leading the fast breaks and breaking ankles on wicked cross-overs and hitting off-the-bounce-step-back threes, was a good enough three point shooter to actually be a threat at the end of the game when the Jazz needed a three, and could switch on picks and more than competently guard any player on the floor without creating a mismatch. That is Lebron James. It’s remarkable everything he can do on the floor.
Don’t get me wrong, I am never going to be in a position to tear down what MJ has accomplished with the objective to make Lebron look better than him. That said, I will point out facts. MJ did have Finals games of 9-of-35 and 5-of-19. He had 7 turnovers in a Playoff game, when the games meant the most. Jordan wasn’t always out of this world. I have a feeling that had social media been around, Jordan’s low-lights would have gotten a little bit more attention from the Jordan-haters, like we see every time Lebron has an off-game. The point is, I think sometimes we are blinded by time and we romanticize that Jordan was the perfect player, who was always clutch, never came up short, never burned out, never stepped out of line, and as a result we immediately dismiss any suggestion that he is not the greatest player of all-time. In reality, it is becoming more and more evident to me that in a time when we scrutinize our athletes like never before, we are watching the greatest player of all-time, right now and his name is Lebron James. And the rest of you will come around to this fact soon enough.