Noyzes – November 15
Volume 16, #11
“Some Rational Perspective on the Remarkable Career of Mr. LeBron James” (AKA: A Message to the Dick Riders)
The start of a new NBA season is always an exciting time in cities across the land as hope springs eternal, even for Knicks fans. Well maybe not Knick fans but you get my point.
One thing that even loser-ass Knick fans can partake in is the water cooler and bar room debates that make sports so exciting. Who is the league’s best coach? Can the Warriors repeat or were they lucky like Doc Rivers said? How many games will it be into the season before Kobe makes Roy Hibbert cry? 10? 20? The All Star Break?
One thing that should not be quarreled about too often is who the league’s best player is.
That’s because LeBron James is the unquestioned best player in the Association. He probably single-handedly adds 10 to 15 wins to any team he plays for. He’s an efficient scorer, an outstanding team leader, adept passer and perhaps the league’s best defender. (Tony Allen, don’t bumrush me for that if we ever cross paths in the Chi) LeBron’s ability to do it all makes him the indisputable top talent in the league presently.
It’s important to reinforce this point because we live in an attention-deprived society where at various points in the season this fact may be forgotten. I feel confident that Anthony Davis will continue his assault on the throne. As if he wasn’t good enough already, now his coach will have him floating out to the three-point line more often. Of course Steph Curry wouldn’t be out of line to put in his claim, considering his status as reigning MVP and best player on the league’s defending champion. And even with explosive as Steph is; there is no better scorer on the planet than a healthy Kevin Durant. Each of these cats; and many more, are sure to have their moments during the season and many onlookers will suffer from warped amnesia in wondering who the top dog is. But for at least a few more years, LeBron has that title; no matter what you may have just seen 5 minutes ago. And as a diehard Bulls fan, I don’t say that easily. I despise LeCon (no typo) and largely view him as a phony, calculating cornball with a god-awful hairline. But as a true fan of the game, it would be ridiculous to deny him his props. He’s earned his status and it should not be given away easily just because you and your crew can only focus for a SportsCenter highlight at a time. I defend LeBron’s position as a true fan and historian of the sport, not as one who is emotionally invested in his success.
It is in this same emotionally detached spirit that I beg all you dick riders, 10-year-old kids and media whores to calm down on placing LeBron on a pedestal he hasn’t quite ascended to yet as the greatest not just of his time, but of all times. During LeBron’s brilliant run to losing yet another championship last spring I actually had to endure some of this talk at times as if Michael Jordan had never existed.
I won’t lie. I am very much emotionally attached to the Jordan legacy. I was raised on that shit. But I have always prided myself on submitting to truth. Emmitt Smith is my favorite NFL player of all time and the league’s top rusher ever. But I’m not so blinded by love that I’d rank him as a better back than Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson or Jim Brown. If one day, someone truly passes Jordan in overall quality of play I won’t front. But that day hasn’t come yet. And it is a long, long, long way off no matter how much people are looking for the next big thing. Anyone who has been watching the NBA for longer than 5 years who describes LeBron James as being the league’s greatest player should be punched really hard in their face, put in prison or both.
Eliminating LeBron from this exclusive conversation on the GOAT is no dis to Mr. James. LeBron James is an outstanding basketball player. Putting LeBron’s career in context is done in defense of greatness, not as a slight to him.
First off, let’s start with where I began. There may be some real debate on who the current best player is in 2015. Though I still think it’s LeBron, strong cases can be made for the likes of Steph, Durant, Chris Paul, Russ Westbrook and Anthony Davis. When Jordan was playing, after 1988 there wasn’t much debate on this. Jordan was the best, no question. There wasn’t even a close 2nd. And there were some bad boys in Jordan’s day. Conversely, during LeBron’s first years in Miami, he wasn’t the best player on his team.
Secondly, LeBron has lost four titles already where Jordan has lost none. Can’t undo that from the resume, especially when you got outplayed by J.J. Barea in one of them.
And while greats like Bird lost some too, Larry Legend was losing in the playoffs to the Lakers, the Bad Boys and Doc’s Sixers. LeBron hasn’t faced anywhere near that level of competition. That’s not his fault, but it’s also something that shouldn’t be omitted from the discussion as it is far too often. There are few things that demonstrate just how watered down LeBron’s era is than the fact he’s been able to make it to 4 championships to lose. Unlike Jordan who had to deal with the Bad Boy Pistons, Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers before getting his bling, there are no historically great teams in the east that the Cavs or Heat had to face off with. Shit, I don’t think the Heat team that challenged the Lakers 33 game win streak would have toppled Reggie Miller’s Pacers, Pat Ewing’s Knicks, Malone’s Jazz teams, Drexler’s Blazers, Payton’s Sonics, Barkley’s Suns or even the Cavs teams lead by Mark Price and Brad Daugherty. And all of those teams would have positively destroyed the two Cleveland teams LeBron led to the finals. LeBron is great, but that greatness has not been chiseled under the kind of intense pressure that Jordan, Magic and Bird had to go through.
Fourth, and ok you lose championships. It’s a team sport so that’s not all on LeBron. Honestly he was vastly overmatched with both of his Cavs team. Not quite overmatched like Jordan in Boston Garden in 86, (Dave Korzine and Kyle Macy started in that game opposite Hall of Famers Robert Parrish and Dennis Johnson. SMDH) but overmatched nonetheless. What is more of an indictment on LeBron is that the man he was responsible for checking won the Finals MVP two years in a row. And although Kawhi Leonard and an aging Andre Iguodala are outstanding players, I’m not sure either is going to receive a bust in the Hall of Fame. LeBron’s duels with those two top-level wing players wasn’t exactly Larry Bird going against Dominique in 88.
One day this summer the Bird vs. Dominique game was on TV. What I was most struck by was not only the ball movement and the ability of all the players on the floor to score in a variety of ways; but more than that I was totally blown away by the sheer physicality of the game. There was unabashed hand checking for 60 feet. There were hard fouls that would get players suspended for 10 games today. There were fully grown men in the paint to greet ambitious athletic guards, not teams full of 20 year old kids who should still be preparing for midterms in Chapel Hill and East Lansing. Nor were there a bunch of 7-foot stiffs from Bulgaria whose role model for physical play is Toni Kukoc. One of the common qualifiers for LeBron’s excellence is his ability to guard all five positions because he can guard everyone from John Wall to Al Horford. And that’s commendable. What it is not is the same thing as guarding Bob Lanier or Ralph Sampson. LeBron would have had a much more difficult time imposing his physical will on the game way back when. He’d likely still be an all star, but no one would seriously have him in discussions as the league’s best player in the late 80s. No one. First off, he’s never experienced a true hard foul in his life no matter how much he cries from even the slightest contact. He wouldn’t be able to bulldoze down the lane like he does now. He would be consistently laid on his ass, making him more prone to rely on his inconsistent jump shot. Not only would he be playing against grown men who could match his physicality, there were far fewer teams back then so the talent wasn’t nearly as watered down as it is now. Each NBA team today has no fewer than 3 or 4 guys that wouldn’t have even sniffed the NBA in 1990. That’s because the players back then weren’t nearly as one dimensional. LeBron’s NBA is full of guys who only have one skill. Three point specialists like Kyle Korver and Steve Novak. Guys who just set screens and grab rebounds like Josh McRoberts and yes, my dude, Tyler Hansbrough. Spectacular scorers like James Harden and Carmelo Anthony who refuse to play any defense at all. Point guards that (still) can’t hit open jump shots like Rajon Rondo. In yesterday’s NBA, you had to be able to do more than one thing. The fact that LeBron James is one of the few players today who has a multiple skill set makes him stand out a lot more than he would in previous eras.
Sixth, LeBron is a physical marvel that brilliantly uses his size to his advantage. As someone who was never the biggest person on the court at any time in their life, I admire this. In this way, the way that LeBron utilizes his sheer size and athleticism is reminiscent of Shaq, one of the league’s most dominant forces. Shaq was productive and his teams won big consistently. In his prime, any team that Shaquille O’Neal was on was an instant title contender and there were no real defensive answers for him. But like LeBron, Shaq wasn’t at the top of the pack compared to other big men in terms of actual basketball skills. He didn’t have the footwork of an Hakeem, Arvydas Sabonis or Kevin McHale. He wasn’t the defender that Mutumbo was. He couldn’t shoot the way Ewing or Mourning could. He was mainly just really big and strong, aiming to dunk the ball –and you- through the hoop every time he touched the rock. There is nothing wrong with that. I honestly wish more of today’s soft-ass big men would play that way. But his productivity and championship success notwithstanding, most people who watched Shaq play wouldn’t put him above Jabbar, Olajuwon, Chamberlain or Russell in the all time pantheon. Yet I feel that LeBron’s awesome athleticism causes us at times to gloss over his skill set compared to other all-time greats. And frankly, there have been many who have been more athletically freakish than LeBron. To be sure, to see a man of LeBron’s size be so agile is a sight to behold. But it’s also not new. I, for one, was much more amazed to see someone with the body type and height of Charles Barkley grab a rebound, dribble the length of the court (even going behind the back a couple of times) and dunk on some 7 foot nigga than I have been with anything that LeBron’s done on the court. And he has never made me drop my jaw in awe the way Vince Carter, Sean Kemp or even a pre-ACL tear Derrick Rose did. LeBron’s a big dude in an era where big dudes play small. He should be given credit for finally realizing he’s bigger than everybody after being scared to death to go into the post for the first seven-eight years of his career. But he isn’t reinventing the wheel either.
Which bring me to my 7th point. LeBron is an excellent defender. But what other basketball skill is he truly exceptional at? He’s not the shooter that Steph Curry or Ray Allen is. He isn’t a rebounding savant like Dennis Rodman. He’s not a relentless, ruthless scorer in the mold of Jordan, Kobe, Melo or Bernard King. He’s not the facilitator that Magic or Jason Kidd was. He isn’t as clutch as Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kobe or Reggie Miller. This isn’t any dis, it’s the truth.
One reason we don’t hear more about the likes of Bernard King and Chuck Barkley in discussions of the GOAT is that they left the game ring-less. My sense is that as great as LeBron is; had he not fully broken through and got his first title in 2012, no one would be nominating him for these lofty heights historically. But let’s not forget that LeBron felt that the only way he could get this ring was by following up behind his big brother, Dwayne Wade. To be sure, by the time he exited South Beach, LeBron had emerged as the superior player. But the moment that chinks appeared in the Miami armor he swiftly moved on to a path of least resistance in Cleveland where he could stack the deck in his favor once again with as much A-level talent as possible. LeBron is a brilliant businessman to leverage his power in a manner that is virtually unheard of for athletes. As a black man who is often troubled by the plantation-nature of pro and college sports I applaud this power grab. But from a basketball perspective, it strikes me that LeBron seems most eager to compete when everything is stacked in his favor. And that’s cool. But it’s not the path that other all-time-greats have taken. Sometimes to their detriment. I think Barkley is a superior overall basketball player to LeBron James but no one will take me seriously because he didn’t team up with Pat Ewing and Gary Payton to try and chase a ring. Shame on him. Shame on us if we forget that what made Jordan so great was not his ultimate successes, but the way in which he overcame his early failures. It is important that the comical and charismatic commercials don’t make us forget the way LeBron overcame his early failures: he cut and ran.
Because of superior skill sets, being forced to play against stiffer competition and having to face more adversity to become transcendent it is with great confidence that I personally rank several players I’ve seen with my own two eyes -Kobe, Magic, Bird, Olajuwon- above LeBron. And I think a strong case can be made for those I haven’t seen like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Comparing LeBron to Jordan is comical at best and downright insulting at worst. He’s not as good as Jordan was in his junior year at Carolina. Maybe one day he’ll be as good as the Jordan that played with the Wizards. .
There have been over 3100 people that have played in the NBA. Whether you rank LeBron higher on your water-cooler list; or you keep him at around 10-and-rising like I have him pegged in mine, that’s not a bad place to be.
But I understand why people are so quick to anoint LeBron in the same insufferable way that they’ve done Andrew Luck and Mike Trout in other sports. Most of us can’t be great ourselves so it’s exciting to feel like you’re a part of greatness by, um, witnessing it.
I totally get that.
I saw probably 98-99 percent of every game Michael Jordan ever played. I’ve had a charmed life but having an up-close seat for all that is truly one of the best parts of it. It was an honor to see his career develop as it did. I sincerely feel like I’m a better person from having been a part of that. Others want that feeling too and I dig that.
But it can’t be forced. It has to happen organically. We all thought Jordan would be big time but no one believed he was going to turn into what he did. The fact that he so exceeded everyone’s expectations; when they already were pretty high, is one of the things that made watching Mike’s career so fascinating.
That’s very different from LeBron. Since he was 16-years-old the media has been telling us that LeBron was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Dude has been hyped into our living rooms virtually all his life. To his great credit he has lived up to quite a bit of it in a way that I personally was very skeptical of originally.
In the years since, the media hype has only grown. A lot has been invested in creating the media celebrity of LeBron James by companies such as Nike, Galaxy, Kia, ESPN and the NBA itself. Long ago, the corporate Geppettos wrote a check that, try as he may, LeBron James just does not possess the skill set, nor the gumption, to cash. One thing we can be absolutely certain of is that the captains of industry will continue to sell us this fantasy. Don’t you be a fool and buy in.
Peace and God bless,