A Closer Look at the Greatness of Lebron James
The NBA Finals get under way tonight. It’s the matchup we all wanted: King James and the Cavs vs. the showstopping Warriors with MVP Steph Curry. Guest writer Rob Gray has a unique perspective on the greatness of King James and his fifth straight Finals appearance:
Lebron James is a physical specimen. With the physical tools that would make even Hercules jealous (6’8”, 260 pounds) and the quickness and agility to allow you to forget just how big he really is, Lebron can overpower or go around any player he faces in the NBA today. Since Lebron came into the NBA with an unprecedented amount of hype, critics have always cried that he is all hype and isn’t able to actually ‘bring home the bacon’. However, with two NBA championships, to go along with two NBA Finals MVP awards, four NBA Most Valuable Player awards, eleven NBA All-Star selections and now five straight NBA finals appearances Lebron has been able to silence those critics. As a basketball fan who has had long time reservations about Lebron James I can now say Lebron is probably the greatest player of his generation, and one of the greatest players of all time. However, I am not ready to label Lebron the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time), and I am not sure that Lebron will ever be able to claim that title.
Much is being made right now about Lebron making his fifth straight finals appearance. Only nine players in NBA history have ever made five straight NBA finals appearances, and the other eight were all part of the great Celtics teams of the 1960’s. I have a real problem with this statistic. As great as Lebron is, I feel like this stat is more of an indictment of the pitiful state of the Eastern conference than it is a bragging right. The Eastern conference has been bad, historically bad, for several years now, at least for the last five years if not longer. The first year of Lebron’s finals streak began in 2010-2011, it may have been his hardest playoff run to date. In 2011 Lebron had to beat an injury free Derrick Rose and his Chicago Bulls as well as go through the Celtics ‘Big 3’ of Pierce, Garnett and Allen. That was quite an accomplishment for the newly minted Heat big three, and was enough to keep a positive spin on the season even after the Mavericks pounded them in the finals. Essentially since then Derrick Rose has been injured, and the Celtics got old in a hurry while the rest of the conference has seemingly been in a perpetual state of ‘rebuilding’. The two toughest playoff matchups for Lebron since that 2011 season, have to be the Pacers in 2014 (featuring 7’2” Roy Hibbert who managed to score 0 points and get 0 rebounds in the deciding game 5 of that series) and the 2015 Atlanta Hawks (arguably the worst 60 win team in NBA history… another bi-product of an historically awful eastern conference).
While teams in the Western finals have had to fight tooth and nail to advance, Lebron has benefited from a relatively smooth path to the finals every year. Over the last 10 years or so the Lakers and Spurs had several ‘heavy weight’ fights on their path to seven NBA finals appearances and five championships. Unlike the Eastern playoffs where teams with losing records essentially give top seeds a ‘bye’ – in the West, in addition to dominant Spurs and Lakers teams you have dangerous Mavericks, Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazer, Clippers, Suns and Nuggets teams over the past five year that each had legitimate title aspirations. Often by the time a Western Conference champion was determined, the team had played almost an entire extra playoff series compared to the Eastern Conference champion, and their bodies showed the abuse.
I believe Lebron is great, even an all-time great. One of the hardest things to do as a sports fan is to compare players from different eras, because of the lack of a common denominator. Michael Jordan never made it to five straight NBA finals (it could be argued MJ may have gone to five straight if he’d not taken a baseball break in between his two three-peats). Karl Malone made all-NBA first team 9 times in his entire career, while Lebron has been all-NBA first team 11 times already. Kareem has now been matched by Lebron in NBA finals MVP’s. However each of those greats played in an NBA with clear and definite rivals, other undisputed greats who they had to play and go through on a regular basis. In today’s Eastern Conference Lebron can take two weeks off in the middle of the season and not worry about how it will affect his season or his career statistics.
Lebron is routinely praised for his great basketball I.Q., which he has obviously shown off by choosing to play his entire NBA career in the Eastern Conference. I have to remind myself sometimes that I still believe that a basketball or football player in a small (or lesser) division/school can be an all-time great player, and be remembered for what they accomplished. I honestly do believe that, but I also think you have to ask yourself: If he really is that great, why does he choose not to play the best competition available? Do I think that a weak Eastern conference precludes Lebron James from being an all-time great? No. Do I think that it is the difference when comparing Lebron to Jordan, Wilt, Kareem, Russell and maybe even contemporaries like Duncan and Kobe? Absolutely.
Follow Rob Gray on Twitter: @trebor36