Of all of the hot takes that swirl around the sports world the one that I am most exhausted by is the question of LeBron James legacy. It seems like lazy sports writers started to tie every game James has played since his rookie year into a legacy themed column, and in the past handful of seasons it’s become impossible to escape the conversation. There are leeches out there like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith that have made careers out of bad mouthing players like James.
Now for a hot take of my own. Winning titles in the NBA is hard – like, impossibly hard. To win a championship you have to stay healthy enough during the regular season to get to the playoffs, then beat a number of the best teams in the league four out of seven times to advance to the Finals. During playoff series there are going to be games that you are going to win or lose because you were lucky enough to get a couple of loose balls that could have went to either team, or get a few calls that could have gone either way. Oh yeah, and there are going to be years when you have to beat a historically great team to win the title, see: this year.
LeBron James already has two championships under his belt. He has also done the seemingly impossible in making it to six straight Finals on two different teams. His career numbers are staggering. Over 13 season’s James has averaged 27 points, seven rebounds seven assists, two steals and a blocked shot. He’s been to the playoffs 11 of the 13 seasons in the league and his averages are even better than his regular season splits. He is currently second in career PER (27.65), trailing Michael Jordan by less than a point. He is fourth all time in points scored in the playoffs, third in assists, and – probably the most impressive all these playoff stats – tenth in rebounds. By almost any measure James is the best all around basketball player to ever play the game.
And yet… In this world of top ten listicles and all takes having to be served on a griddle in order to keep the masses interested, all people can talk about is how the King stacks up against the All- Time Greats. Most of the time these people refuse to take a look at the stats I just ran off. Which by the way took all of five minutes to find. Instead people like to spew hyperbolic statements about players like Michael Jordan and Bill Russell and how many rings they have, as if simply winning titles is the end-all, be-all of greatness.
Whenever a player in the post-Jordan era has a great career everyone’s first reaction is to measure it against Michael Jordan. I’m not here to argue whether or not Jordan was the best basketball player to grace this Earth, he certainly was the best player of his era, but basketball as a sport was just starting to fumble it’s way out of the stone age when His Airness was beating opponents over the head on a nightly basis. The measure of what made for a great basketball player in Jordan’s hey-day is exactly what the teams have tried to weed out of their systems in the last decade, and to compare any good basketball player in this day-and-age to Jordan seems insane. Nobody is looking for a player who dribbles the ball for ten seconds in the high post, looking to get off a turn-a-round, fadeaway from midrange.
LeBron James has the been the prototype player for a game that is in the midst of an evolutionary transformation. Here is a guy that has the build of Karl Malone and the vision of Magic Johnson. At his peak James could score 30 straight points in a playoff game, or average a triple double over the course of a series. The King was guarding every position on the court before Draymond Green was even in high school. Although he never developed a devastating three point shot, his understanding of player positioning and opposing defenses has allowed him to be the centerpiece of a team that is lethal from range.
All of this to say that LeBron James could have played in any era of the NBA and been the best all around player. His size and athleticism are unmatched in the history of the game, and he has set the standard for what it means to be a great two way star. It’s easy to look at what the Warriors are doing and come to the conclusion that the most valuable asset a basketball player can possess is a dead-eye three point shot, and to some extent that is true, but as we see with what Green means to this Warriors team, a player who can rebound, play multiple positions on both ends and be a great passer is priceless. Green makes the Warriors impossible to guard because he plays like LeBron James.
The Warriors are probably going to win these Finals. They are the next step in where basketball is heading. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, they are five years ahead of their competition. Still, there will be lazy pundits out there that use this loss to bash LeBron James for not having some kind of mystical ability to make his team play better against perhaps the greatest team in NBA history. He will be blamed for not finding a way to make Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving better defenders, or being able to somehow make Matthew Dellavedova a good basketball player, or even find a way to make Richard Jefferson ten years younger.
I’m not here to show pity to LeBron James. He has made hundreds of millions of dollars in NBA and sponsorship deals. He’s had more control over the destiny of his career than any player in the history of the game. With all of this comes crushing expectations and unfortunate honor of having to answer questions about your own legacy every time you lose a playoff series. James is one of the best basketball players to ever walk this Earth. Watching him play is evidence enough of this greatness. So go ahead and watch him play tonight, because, win or lose, his brilliance on the court is undeniable, and so much more entertaining than tired discussions about legacy.