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Saturday, January 05, 2019

Is James Harden the Best Offensive Player of All-Time?

Houston Rockets General Manager claims that James Harden may be "the best offensive player of all-time." Morey emphasizes that his assertion is not "GM speak or coach speak" but based on a "whole bunch of ways to measure it," though Morey did not specify which metrics he is using.

Although Harden is in the midst of a gaudy scoring streak at the moment, the idea that he is the best offensive player of all-time is, frankly, offensive in its blatant disregard for the accomplishments of many players who are demonstrably greater than Harden. Rather than just dismissing Morey's assertion out of hand, it is instructive to use this as a teachable moment to educate Morey--and any other interested parties--about basketball history and basketball greatness.

How should one try to objectively measure or determine who is the best offensive player of all-time? Five criteria are most relevant:

1) Dominance
2) Versatility as a scorer/passer
3) Longevity/consistency
4) Efficiency
5) Skill set (maximum amount of strengths/minimal amount of weaknesses)

Dominance refers both to the ability to physically dominate opponents (by speed, size and/or quickness) and the ability to set records that other players are not able to match. Wilt Chamberlain is the most physically dominant player in pro basketball history. He combined the speed/agility of a track and field athlete (which he was prior to joining the NBA) plus tremendous size and strength. No one--not even the great Bill Russell--could guard Chamberlain one on one.

Wilt Chamberlain dominates the record book like no athlete in any major sport, as noted by Fran Blinebury in a 2011 article (though Blinebury neglected to mention that Elgin Baylor averaged 38.3 ppg in 48 games in 1961-62):
• Consider that after Wilt's 50.4 mark for the 1961-62 season, the second-highest scoring averaged in NBA history by a player not named Chamberlain was Michael Jordan's 37.1 in 1986-87. That makes Wilt's number 36 percent higher than Jordan.

• The highest batting average for a season in Major League Baseball over the past 70 years was George Brett's .390 in 1980. To exceed Brett by 36 percent, a batter would have to hit .530.

• The all-time single season rushing record in the NFL is 2,105 yards by Eric Dickerson in 1984. To exceed Dickerson by 36 percent a runner would have to gain 2,863 yards.

• The NHL single-season record for goals is 92 by Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82. To exceed Gretzky by Chamberlain's pace, a skater would have to pump in 125 goals.

The truth is, in American sports, only Babe Ruth transcended and transformed his sport like Chamberlain.
There are many remarkable and famous Chamberlain statistics. Here is one that may not be as well known as the 100 point game or the 50.4 ppg season scoring average but provides another example of his dominance: in the 1967-68 season, Chamberlain averaged 24.3 ppg, 23.8 rpg and 8.6 apg, ranking third, first and first respectively in those categories, the closest that anyone has come to leading the league in the three major statistical categories during the same season. Chamberlain remains the only player who has ever led the league in scoring (seven times, second most all-time), rebounding (a record 11 times) and assists (once).

James Harden is a 6-5 shooting guard who possesses good strength for his size/position but he is not even close to the same category as Chamberlain in terms of physical dominance. Harden's footprint in the pages of the basketball record book does not match the footprints of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, let alone that of Chamberlain.

Therefore, Harden is not the best offensive player of all-time based on dominance. There are many other players more physically dominant than Harden and/or more dominant in the record book, but to refute Morey's thesis it is only necessary to prove that there is one and Chamberlain more that fits the bill.

Harden has an ongoing streak of nine straight games during which he has scored at least 35 points and passed for at least five assists, breaking a record set by Oscar Robertson (who had two such streaks of seven games each). Is Harden really as versatile of a scorer/passer as Oscar Robertson?

Robertson averaged an aggregate triple double during the first five seasons of his NBA career (30.3 ppg, 10.6 apg, 10.4 rpg) and he became the first player to average a triple double for an entire season (1961-62: 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg). Robertson led the league in assists (which was then determined by total assists, not average) four times during those five seasons and during each season he finished no lower than third in total points and no lower than fifth in scoring average. The only player who has come close to matching Robertson's extended triple double virtuosity is Russell Westbrook, the first player to average a triple double in two seasons (2016-17, 2017-18). Westbrook is averaging a triple double nearly halfway through the 2018-19 season, meaning that he if he keeps up that pace for another two and a half seasons he could match Robertson's feat of averaging an aggregate triple double for a five year span.

Harden has averaged over 9 apg once, when he led the league in assists with 11.2 apg in 2016-17. He has averaged over 30 ppg once (30.4 ppg in 2017-18) and he averaged 8.8 apg that season, well below Robertson's standard of 30-plus ppg combined with 10-plus apg. Harden is averaging 33.6 ppg and 8.6 ppg through 33 games this season. The only players other than Robertson to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 apg during the same season are Nate Archibald (1972-73) and Russell Westbrook (2016-17). Robertson did it a record five times, as indicated above.

Another measure of scoring/passing versatility is The "25-5-5" Club , which includes players who averaged at least 25 ppg, at least 5 rpg and at least 5 apg during the same season. LeBron James holds the record with 14 such seasons, breaking the mark of nine set by Oscar Robertson. Next on the list are Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (seven each). Harden has four such seasons, which is not close to the top of the list.

It also must be mentioned that scorekeeping standards for assists have loosened over the years, making it easier for modern players to accumulate assists than it was for players in earlier eras; the rule book definition remains the same--an assist is only supposed to be awarded for a pass that leads directly to a score--but in practice if a player, particularly one who has a reputation as a playmaker, makes a pass to a player who eventually scores then the passer will receive an assist even if the recipient of the pass went through the entire Kevin McHale repertoire of moves before shooting. 

It further must be mentioned that Chamberlain, Robertson, Archibald and Jordan dealt with handchecking defenders and a level of physicality that disappeared from the sport quite some time ago. There is no telling what kind of numbers those players would put up under today's rules/playing style, nor is there any way to be sure how much the physicality would limit Harden and some of today's other high scoring players.

All of that being said, even with the liberalized application of the assist rule and the freedom of movement that is fueling a league-wide offensive explosion, Harden has not matched the scoring/passing versatility displayed by Robertson--or, for that matter, his contemporaries James and Westbrook.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar must be mentioned first as the standard bearer for scoring longevity. In 1984, he broke Chamberlain's career scoring mark of 31,419 points, and more than 30 years later no one has come close to reaching Abdul-Jabbar's final total of 38,387 points. Chamberlain also set a career record by averaging 30.1 ppg but for a three year period in the 1970s Abdul-Jabbar broke that mark, peaking with a career average of 31.4 ppg in 1972-73. After Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring average fell below 30 ppg, Chamberlain regained the record and held it until Michael Jordan surpassed him in the 1988-89 season. Jordan's career scoring averaged peaked at 32.8 ppg in 1990 but by the time he retired for the third and final time he was just barely ahead of Chamberlain (30.12 ppg compared to 30.07 ppg).

Abdul-Jabbar played for 20 seasons and he averaged at least 20 ppg in each of his first 17 seasons. He shot .559 from the field during his career, in no small part because he developed the single greatest weapon in the history of the sport, the skyhook: no one could block it, few could meaningfully contest it and his opponents just hoped that he missed (which did not happen very often). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was consistent and deadly. He could shoot it with either hand from anywhere on the court within 15 feet or so of the basket. Although Abdul-Jabbar may not be primarily thought of as a playmaker, he was a first rate passer who averaged at least 4 apg from the center position in nine seasons.

Harden is currently in his 10th season. He has averaged at least 20 ppg in six full seasons and is on pace to do so this season as well. Harden's career scoring average is 23.5 ppg, so it is unlikely that he will become the all-time leader in total points or scoring average. His career field goal percentage is .443, much lower than Abdul-Jabbar's. It has recently become popular to say that Harden's stepback shot is unstoppable but if that were true then his field goal percentage would reflect that (unless one argues that Harden's shot selection is suboptimal in that he does not utilize his "unstoppable" shot as often as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used the skyhook). The reality is that Harden is a high variance player; he might shoot 6-9 from three point range one game and then 1-9 from three point range the next game. Analytically speaking, that looks good on paper (21 points on 18 shots) but 6-9 three point shooting does not guarantee a win while 1-9 three point shooting results in so many empty possessions that it significantly increases the chances of losing. It is no coincidence that teams anchored by Abdul-Jabbar in the post won six championships and made 10 Finals appearances, while Harden's lone Finals appearance came as the third wheel on a team led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Maybe Harden will average well over 30 ppg for the next decade and erase Abdul-Jabbar's records but at this point it is premature to rank Harden as the best offensive player of all-time based on longevity/consistency.

"Stat gurus" will tell you that Harden is efficient and some "stat gurus" will argue that Harden is the most efficient scorer ever because his repertoire consists almost exclusively of three pointers, free throws and layups, the three kinds of shots that "stat gurus" love the most. The numbers look good on paper or on a spreadsheet but the problem, as mentioned above, is that Harden's style is high variance. When it works, it looks great, but when it does not work it is extremely inefficient (and not very fun to watch, unless you are the opposing team). Exhibit A of that is game seven of the 2018 Western Conference Finals when Harden shot 12-29 from the field (including 2-13 from three point range) as his Rockets missed a record 27 straight three pointers and blew a 54-43 halftime lead versus the Golden State Warriors. Analytically, Harden did everything right, scoring 32 points on 29 field goal attempts while shooting almost exclusively from his preferred, "efficient" spots but the reality is that this is not winning basketball and it is not more efficient than feeding Abdul-Jabbar in the post (or running an offense through Jordan or Bryant in the midpost area).

As long as Harden plays the "efficient" way that he does now, he will set some regular season records but his teams will always fall short in the playoffs.

Regarding having a complete offensive skill set, Michael Jordan is probably at the top of the list. He had no skill set weaknesses as an offensive player: he could post up, he could finish with either hand, he could shoot from midrange, he could draw fouls, he shot a very good free throw percentage, he could create his own shot and he could create open shots for his teammates. One could quibble that Jordan was not a great three point shooter--but he was good enough, and he was so great at everything else that "good enough" was more than sufficient. Jordan's skill set was so complete that he led the league in scoring during 10 of his 11 full seasons as a Chicago Bull, a unmatched combination of consistency with statistical dominance.

It could plausibly be argued that Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook combined with his other post moves, his better than average short to midrange jumper, his adequate free throw shooting and his excellent passing made him the most offensively skilled player. Would you rather have Jordan's more versatile skill set or Abdul-Jabbar's somewhat more limited but perhaps more dominant skill set? That is an intriguing and not easy to answer question.

Kobe Bryant was the closest player to Michael Jordan in terms of skill set completeness. Bryant did not match Jordan in terms of field goal percentage but Bryant shot a comparable three point percentage on a much higher volume of three point attempts so Bryant's spreadsheet efficiency is closer to Jordan's than a comparison of their respective field goal percentages would suggest. Bryant had scoring binges the likes of which had not been seen since Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor and he did so repeatedly and for extended periods of time

For many years, LeBron James was a top scorer despite having several skill set weaknesses (free throw shooting, three point shooting, midrange shooting, post up game). James has minimized or eliminated most of his skill set weaknesses (his free throw shooting is still inconsistent at times), though in crucial moments he sometimes seems to "forget" that no one can stop him when he attacks the paint aggressively. James' skill set is not as complete as Jordan's or Bryant's but when James has the right mindset his almost complete skill set combined with his physical advantages make him an unstoppable scorer. No, he is not a "pass first" player but he is a great scorer who is also a great passer. If James stays healthy, he could be the first player to mount a realistic challenge to Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record. James is already the career playoff scoring leader by a country mile with 6911 points, breaking Michael Jordan's record (5987). Abdul-Jabbar (5762) ranks third now, but he was the career leader for many years after breaking Jerry West's mark (West ranks ninth in pro basketball playoff scoring with 4457 points).

Harden's skill set, in contrast to the players mentioned above, is limited. He is an excellent free throw shooter and a solid three point shooter; Harden is depicted as a great or unstoppable three point shooter but his career percentage of .366 barely cracks the top 200 all-time; players with similar career three point shooting percentages include Jud Buechler and Patrick Patterson. Elite three point shooters (top 40 all-time) shoot .400 or better. Harden has a strong, compact body that enables him to finish effectively at the hoop. With his size, he should be a good post up player but he and the Rockets consider post ups to not be efficient so Harden rarely posts up. Harden does not have or utilize much of a midrange game.

The elephant in the room regarding Harden's skill set is that he is officiated differently than any other player: he is allowed to travel, he is permitted to push off on his drives and he is bailed out with foul calls on jump shots when he initiates contact with defensive players by making movements that are not part of a natural shooting motion. I always thought that Reggie Miller should have gotten a technical foul every time he kicked his leg out to the side while shooting a jump shot and I feel the same way about Harden's various contortions. If an offensive player deviates from a normal shooting motion and the defensive player maintains verticality without swiping down then the defensive player should not be hit with a foul; there should be no call, or the offensive player should be called for a foul.

When considering 1) Dominance, 2) Versatility as a scorer/passer, 3) Longevity/consistency, 4) Efficiency and 5) Skill set (maximum amount of strengths/minimal amount of weaknesses), it is apparent that Harden is not even close to being the best offensive player of all-time. Players who are superior to Harden include but are not limited to Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

When considering the high variance nature of Harden's game and the liberties that he is granted by officials, Harden's style of play may be the most "offensive" ever, but that is not quite what Morey meant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:35 PM


Tuesday, January 01, 2019

LeBron James Proclaims Himself "The Greatest Player of All-Time"

LeBron James often describes himself as a student of the game. He recently added another self-description: "The greatest player of all-time."

During episode seven of the ESPN produced and distributed series "More Than an Athlete," James declared, "I was super, super ecstatic to win one for Cleveland because of the 52-year drought...The first wave of emotion was when everyone saw me crying, like, that was all for 52 years of everything in sports that's gone on in Cleveland. And then after I stopped, I was like--that one right there made you the greatest player of all time. Everybody was just talking--how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. And for us to come back, you know, the way we came back in that fashion, I was like, 'You did, you did something special.'"

It is important to note that many sports media outlets--with ESPN probably at the top of this list--are so commercially embedded with and connected to James that it is difficult for their coverage of James to be objective. Who is going to bite the hand that provides millions of dollars? Don't hold your breath waiting for ESPN to provide objective, balanced coverage of whether or not James is the greatest player of all-time.

There is little doubt that James should be on the short list of candidates, but picking one player as the very best is not simple or obvious. LeBron James has been in my pro basketball Pantheon for a decade. As with each member of the Pantheon, one could at least make a case that he is the greatest player of all-time, but with James--and a few other Pantheon members--one could make a stronger case that other Pantheon members are more deserving of that title.

I have generally avoided ranking my Pantheon players but since James has stated definitively that he believes he is the greatest and since there is compelling evidence that he is not the greatest, let's compare James to just a few members of the Pantheon. It is not necessary to go through the entire list to demonstrate that, wherever James ranks, he is not the best choice for the number one spot. I have explored some of this territory throughout James' career as he came up short--at least relative to the other Pantheon members--in various ways but it is worth putting all of the information and evidence together in one place. This will not be a short article but hopefully this will put to rest the notion of ranking James ahead of every player in pro basketball history, or at least it will put that notion to rest for those who are willing and able to look at this issue with an educated eye and an objective mind.

While James has had an extraordinary career, his resume also contains some flaws that are not present on the resumes of other Pantheon members.


James has often struggled to be an effective leader and to bring the correct mindset when facing the most pressure and/or the highest level of competition.

James failed multiple times as a leader for Team USA, as noted by Adrian Wojnarowski prior to the 2008 Olympics: 
Before Kidd and Kobe Bryant joined the national team this summer, James had been a part of American Olympic and World Championships failures in 2004 and 2006, respectively. He did little to endear himself to coaches, teammates and staff within USA Basketball. Truth be told, he was a major diva. Several sources say that USA coach Mike Krzyzewski initially had deep reservations about keeping James, but quickly discovered the NBA would never allow James to be anything but front and center in Beijing.
Think about that for a moment. Not only did James--the most physically gifted basketball player on the planet even at that early stage of his career--fail to lead Team USA to victory in those competitions, but his attitude was so bad that the coaching staff considered leaving the most talented player off of the team. It is hard to imagine that discussion being had about any other Pantheon member at any stage of his career.

Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd were Team USA's undisputed leaders in 2008, though to James' credit he played and conducted himself much better than he had during his previous tours of duty on the national team. James ultimately played a key role for two Olympic gold-medal winning squads (2008 and 2012).

James' skill set weaknesses (minimal post up game, unreliable jump shot) rendered him completely ineffective in the 2007 NBA Finals, during which he shot just .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) while committing 23 turnovers in four games (5.8 tpg, nearly twice as many as any other player in the series). He quit against Boston in the 2010 NBA playoffs. He was outplayed by several players in the 2011 NBA Finals; as a 26 year old at or near his absolute physical peak, James was the third leading scorer on his team during the series and the fifth leading scorer overall.

Even in the NBA Finals during which James posted individual numbers that look impressive, his impact is not what it should be and one cannot escape the impression that James is more focused on hiding behind his numbers to avoid blame for defeat as opposed to actually doing what needs to be done to maximize his team's winning chances. For instance, here is my take on James' performance in game three of the 2017 NBA Finals:
Is it James' fault that the Warriors are poised to sweep his Cavaliers? No, but if James had the mentality to reach the gear that Russell, Jordan, Bryant and other Pantheon members often reached in the Finals then this series would, at the very least, be more competitive than it has been.

The bottom line is that James is not playing badly but he is providing a lot of footage that can be shown to put a stop to the foolish comparisons to Jordan; let's just put a moratorium on such talk and see if James can actually get within striking distance of O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant.

Game three was a winnable game in a must win situation and O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant did not let many of those slip away during the primes of their respective careers. Golden State hit Cleveland with a barrage of 39 points (including a Finals record nine three pointers) in the first quarter but the Warriors only led 67-61 at halftime. The Cavaliers attacked the paint in the first half and James led the way with 27 points. The argument that the Cavaliers are a flawed team because they need James to score a lot of points flies in the face of basketball history. Were the Bulls flawed because Jordan scored over 40 ppg versus the Suns in the 1993 Finals? That Bulls team had one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All-Time (Scottie Pippen), an All-Star caliber power forward (Horace Grant) and several outstanding role players but Jordan still scored at a record-setting clip; that is the responsibility of a Pantheon-level player in such situations. Let's not compare James to Russell Westbrook, either; in the 2017 playoffs, Westbrook's second best teammate was Andre Roberson, who spent significant portions of the series running around playing tag because he did not want to be fouled since he cannot make a free throw. In marked contrast, in game three James had another superstar on his own team matching him point for point: Kyrie Irving finished with 38 points on 16-29 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the third quarter as James cooled off.

If you are comparing James to Jordan then you are arguing that Jordan would have found a way to lose a Finals game in which his sidekick dropped nearly 40 points and in which his team had a two possession lead with barely two minutes to go. Sorry, I am not buying that for one second.

It may be true that James was too tired to drop another 20 or 25 points in the second half but, again, that means he is not quite at the level of Jordan or Bryant, guys who logged heavy minutes while playing hard at both ends of the court. James coasted through the regular season and had more than a week off before the Finals. Playing 46 minutes in a Finals game used to be a badge of honor, not an excuse for failure.

James' inability to seal the deal in this series is markedly contrasted by Durant consistently rising to the occasion at both ends of the court. He is taking his one on one matchup with James very seriously, much the way that Jordan and Bryant tried to destroy whoever they were matched up with individually. Durant's ability to come through in clutch moments has been questioned and it is undeniable that he came up short last year for the Oklahoma City Thunder when they blew a 3-1 lead versus the Warriors. This time around, Durant has been magnificent. One championship and one Finals MVP would not move him past James on the all-time list--but James being bested so decisively by a contemporary is a negative mark on his resume that is missing from Jordan's resume.
Many media members have made a career out of bashing James' supporting casts but the bottom line is that James' 3-6 career NBA Finals record has a lot to do with the personal shortcomings listed above. Had other Pantheon members been placed in similar circumstances to James, they would likely have generated better outcomes--and they certainly would have demonstrated better leadership and greater mental toughness. James has also had an almost unparalleled opportunity to choose his coaches and his teammates, so even if one accepts the premise that James' supporting casts have been inadequate at times then one must also acknowledge that James handpicked most of those supporting casts.

LeBron James versus Kobe Bryant

Perhaps the first Pantheon player who James should be compared with is Kobe Bryant, the only perimeter player from that list whose career overlapped with James' career.

Here is my summary of that comparison:
James surpassed Bryant as a regular season performer some time around 2009, as James hit his physical prime while Bryant entered a stage in his career during which managing his body so that he peaked during the playoffs was the primary concern. Bryant remained the more technically sound player--James has still not surpassed prime Bryant in that regard--and Bryant remained the better, more consistent playoff performer but the younger, bigger, stronger James was better equipped to weather the 82 game regular season grind. However, despite the physical advantages James enjoys over Bryant, peak James never quite reached the same level as peak Bryant. Slightly past his peak Bryant won back to back titles alongside Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and a bunch of role players, while peak James went 2-2 in the NBA Finals while playing alongside future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals overall, while James' Finals record currently is 3-6. No, that is not the only metric that matters and yes, one could write a book dissecting all of the contextual factors that affected both players' Finals resumes--but the bottom line is that prime Bryant had no skill set weaknesses, he lifted bad teams to the playoffs, when he had the weapons he almost always brought home the title and he did not make excuses or pout or quit.

Put even more simply, Bryant played 20 seasons for one franchise and during that entire time his main focus was winning championships. That does not mean he did not make mistakes or did not have other interests--he is now an Oscar-winning filmmaker--but Bryant's life centered around winning titles. James has always been chasing the next contract, the next team, the next side interest; he has put up great individual numbers and he has won championships but no one can honestly say that he devoted his life to winning championships the way that Bryant did.
Bryant entered the NBA straight out of high school, just like James, but--unlike James--Bryant worked quickly and diligently to eliminate any skill set weaknesses. Early in his career, Bryant was not a great post defender and he was not a consistent three point shooter but Bryant developed into an elite all-around defender and a solid three point shooter who had to be guarded behind the arc. On the other hand, it took years for James to attack his skill set weaknesses (including his big game mentality, his post up game, his midrange game, his three point shooting, his free throw shooting and his defense). While James eventually turned many of those weaknesses into strengths, or at least competencies, he still struggles at times in some of those areas: would you bet your life on James making two clutch free throws? Even more telling, would you bet your life that James will play hard in a playoff game against elite competition? James has had some great games in those circumstances but he has also often on many occasions been strangely passive; the passivity decreased in the second half of his career but that weakness has never completely disappeared.

Bryant won two scoring titles (2006, 2007), ranked in the top three in scoring eight times and has the 12th highest career regular season scoring average (25.0 ppg) in ABA/NBA history. Bryant led the playoffs in scoring three times (2003, 2007, 2008) and he has the 11th highest career playoff scoring aveaage (25.6 ppg). He is tied for first all-time with 15 All-NBA selections and is tied for second all-time with 11 All-NBA First Team selections. Bryant made the All-Defensive Team 12 times (tied for second all-time), including nine First Team selections (tied for first all-time with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett).

James won one scoring titles (2008), ranked in the top three in scoring 10 times and has the fifth highest career regular season scoring average (27.2 ppg) in ABA/NBA history. James led the playoffs in scoring three times (2009, 2012, 2018) and he has the fifth highest career playoff scoring average (28.9 ppg). James has made the All-NBA Team 14 times, including a record 12 All-NBA First Team selections. James made the All-Defensive Team six times, including five First Team selections. James has not made the All-Defensive Team since 2014 and his last First Team selection was 2013; it is no secret that James has been "resting" or pacing himself during the regular season for quite some time.

James is often called a "pass first" player and his assist numbers exceed Bryant's (7.2 apg to 4.7 apg) but that narrative and those numbers are deceptive. "Pass first" players do not lead the league in scoring or accumulate more than 30,000 career regular season points. No, James is a great scorer who also has great passing skills. The problem is that James often passes or defers in situations when a great player has an obligation to score (or to create an open shot for a teammate, as opposed to passing the ball just to get rid of it). James has always played in offensive systems that permitted him to dominate the ball and decide who would shoot the ball, while Bryant spent most of his career playing in the Triangle Offense that emphasizes ball movement; no one player is going to consistently accumulate gaudy assist totals in the Triangle but the significant point about Bryant is that he was the primary playmaker as well as the primary (or, when paired with Shaquille O'Neal, sometimes the secondary) scorer on five championship teams. James has averaged more points and assists than Bryant but Bryant was a more versatile scorer who could post up and score from midrange in addition to attacking the hoop. James has added the post up and midrange threats to his repertoire during the second half of his career, but he often drifts away from those weapons against high level opponents. I would trust Bryant in a big game to not quit and to figure out what needs to be done much more than I would trust James; in a big game against an elite opponent, James may give you 35-10-10 or he may give you 17-6-6 and he may not necessarily give you what his team needs most against that opponent but Bryant is going to figure out what his team needs and will his team to victory, even if his individual numbers may not match James' individual numbers.

It is not an accident or coincidence that Bryant won more titles than James (5-3), posted a better record in the NBA Finals (5-2 versus 3-6) and did better head to head in the playoffs versus teams led by Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett (7-3 for Bryant compared to 3-5 for James). Bryant was a better two-way player and a better leader than James. That may not match the narrative that media members have been trumpeting for over a decade but it is the truth. James is capable of being more physically dominant than Bryant but that is his only advantage over Bryant, and James often failed to exercise that advantage.

One could write a book about the various contextual factors involved in these comparisons (which stage of his career was each player at during various head to head matchups, how strong were the respective supporting casts, etc.) but unless one believes that Bryant or James enjoyed inherent contextual advantages that persisted for years we are talking about comparing a 20 year completed career to an ongoing 16 year career; that represents a large sample size of data for both players.

Peak James never surpassed peak Bryant and that alone is sufficient to demonstrate that James is not the greatest player of all-time but if you find that argument unpersuasive or insufficient then let's compare James to one of the few players who was greater than even Bryant: Michael Jordan.

LeBron James versus Michael Jordan

After game four of the 2018 NBA Finals, Charles Barkley vowed to punch in the face anyone who compared James to Jordan and I agreed with Barkley's take, if not his proposed action:
While I do not advocate resolving the debate through violence, I agree with Barkley's point. If we are going to make intergenerational comparisons (which are difficult to make for the reasons that I listed above) then we have to go beyond statistics (which do not always translate between eras and which were amassed under different rules against different competition) and consider intangible but relevant factors such as mindset and leadership; James may be at or near the top of the Pantheon in terms of athletic ability but he does not crack the top 10 in mindset or leadership.

Forget the numbers for a moment and leave aside whatever you may think about Golden State's roster compared to Cleveland's roster. Consider the "little" storyline that James dropped in the media's lap after game four: James admitted to injuring his right hand by punching a whiteboard due to an emotional outburst after losing game one of the series in overtime.

Frank Isola put it best during his Monday show on SiriusXM NBA Radio: "LeBron is getting the pass of the century" for a self-inflicted injury incurred at the most important time of the season. Isola noted that James' action immediately demoted J.R. Smith's game one flub from the dumbest mistake of the series to the second dumbest and Isola said that what James did was both dumb and selfish. Isola made an apt analogy to Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera, saying that if Rivera had punched something with his pitching hand and hindered his ability to pitch in the World Series then he would have justifiably been roasted by the media. Of course, the media treated James with kid gloves after James showed up after game four with some kind of brace or soft cast on his previously unbandaged right hand (was James expecting Mark Schwartz to take a shot at his hand while he walked up to the podium?).

Isola also stated that James' hand injury does not explain or justify the way that James lay down in the second half of game four. Finally, Isola noted James' word choices: "Pretty much played with a broken hand." Did James actually break his hand or not? That is a simple question to ask and to answer but not one media member stepped up to ask the question, which is particularly sad considering that a previous post-game press conference in the series featured SiriusXM NBA Radio's Justin Termine--a self-styled historian of the game--wasting time asking Draymond Green about his wardrobe. The next day, Isola justifiably roasted his colleague Termine for asking such an inane question at a press conference when other media members are working on deadline to put out their game stories. Termine, who spends most of his show screaming at co-host Eddie Johnson (who is a knowledgeable and insightful commentator), seems to operate under the delusion that he was hired for his basketball knowledge as opposed to his ability to banter and be an on-air agitator. The NBA would benefit greatly if its broadcast partners hired more people like Isola--and fewer people like Termine--to provide commentary and to ask questions at post-game press conferences

James' injury and the ensuing coverup also raises the not so minor issue of the NBA's "integrity tax" regarding gambling. The NBA is poised to profit from sports gambling becoming legalized on a national basis, yet the best player in the game just got away with not reporting a supposedly serious injury for the last three games of the Finals. Do you think that James having an injured hand might have affected the betting line for those games? Between the rampant tanking and the league's apparently non-existent (or unenforced) injury reporting protocols, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver may soon be presiding over a league that resembles professional wrestling more than a legitimately competitive sport. You may recall some media members lauding Silver as a kinder, gentler leader--in contrast to their opinion of his predecessor, David Stern--but Stern's stronger leadership style helped him navigate the league through troubled waters on many occasions.

The bottom line in terms of the greatest player of all-time conversation is that James has not only failed too often on the sport's biggest stage but he has quit too often and made too many excuses to ever pass Bryant, let alone Jordan. Even if James wins three more titles (which is doubtful) to tie Jordan and move one ahead of Bryant, what are we to make of the several series during which James has played below his considerable abilities--if not outright quit--and then made weak excuses?
Maybe James thought that his press conference antics would elicit sympathy but what those antics did is provide further evidence of how James falls short in comparison to the very best of the best.

Bryant has made some interesting comments in the past week or so about comparing James to himself and to other great players (as quoted in a recent article by Howard Beck): "Phil used to say this thing to me a lot, when I was doing a lot on the court. He'd say, 'You have to do less.' And I'd say, 'Well, my teammates got to step up more.' Phil would say, 'Well, it's your responsibility to thrust the game upon them.'"

Bryant added these pertinent thoughts and observations:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
There is a lot of wisdom contained in those remarks but three points stand out: (1) This is not about "narrative" but about results. James is too often concerned more about controlling the "narrative" than he is about doing whatever it takes to win; (2) great players historically have been judged largely based on championships won, because every player has possible excuses/contextual factors to mention but the best of the best figure out how to get the job done; (3) leadership is not just about throwing the ball to players (particularly in situations when the great player should be assuming the obligation to score) but about empowering those players to improve on a daily basis.

The media narrative states that James is a great teammate and leader. The reality is that his tenure ended badly the first time in Cleveland (and may end badly this time as well) and his tenure in Miami ended with the great Pat Riley referring to "smiling faces with hidden agendas." 

At some point, a resume contains too many black marks to go to the top of the list, no many how many positives are on the resume as well. I have often said that James confounds me more than any other Pantheon level player and that remains true. I am disappointed that he not only injured himself during the 2018 Finals but that he waited until he got swept to reveal the injury, an announcement that not only comes across as a weak excuse but also takes attention away from what the Warriors accomplished. For me, the enduring image of this series will be the several sequences in game three during which the Warriors set fake screens and James switched off of Durant unnecessarily as opposed to accepting the challenge of guarding the eventual Finals MVP down the stretch.

James is now 1-2 versus Tim Duncan in the NBA Finals, 0-1 versus Dirk Nowitzki, 1-2 versus Kevin Durant and 1-3 versus Stephen Curry. I will not put things as bluntly as Barkley did but he is right that there needs to be a moratorium on the Jordan-James comparisons. Sparky Anderson once said that he would not embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench; that line of thinking applies here.
Michael Jordan set a standard for individual and team excellence that James has not matched on either level. Jordan won a record 10 scoring titles, breaking Wilt Chamberlain's mark of seven. Jordan won the scoring title in every full regular season that he played except for his rookie season (when he ranked third behind Bernard King and Larry Bird) and his two comeback seasons with the Washington Wizards when he was pushing 40 and had not played for three years. Jordan also led the league in playoff scoring a record 10 times, accounting for all but three of his postseason campaigns; George Gervin ranks second on the career list with six postseason scoring titles (five in the NBA, one in the ABA). Jordan never averaged less than 29.3 ppg in the playoffs. Jordan is the career leader in both regular season ppg (30.1) and playoff ppg (33.5), while ranking second in Finals ppg (33.6, trailing only Rick Barry's 36.3).

Jordan was perhaps the greatest scorer of all-time--Jordan versus Chamberlain's dominance and Abdul-Jabbar's longevity is a conversation for another day--but he also had no skill set weaknesses at either end of the court.

Jordan is the first player to win the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season (1988), a feat that has only been duplicated by Hakeem Olajuwon (David Robinson and Kevin Garnett are the only other players who won both awards but they each did so in different seasons). Jordan made the All-NBA Team 11 times during 13 full seasons, only missing the cut during his two comeback seasons with the Washington Wizards. He earned 10 First Team selections, making the Second Team during his rookie year behind in their prime Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Jordan made the All-Defensive First Team in nine of his 13 full seasons.

Jordan's teams reached the NBA Finals six times, he won six titles and he earned six Finals MVPs. There are no playoff performances in Jordan's career that need to be explained a la James in 2007 or 2010 or 2011.

You do not have to look at a single number to rank Jordan ahead of James. Just put it like this: Jordan had no skill set weaknesses and he had a championship mentality that is light years ahead of James'. It is difficult to picture James winning a playoff series against Jordan without having a vastly superior supporting cast.

LeBron James versus Pantheon Small Forwards

It seems to be taken for granted in these discussions that James is the greatest small forward of all-time. My Pantheon includes three small forwards who preceded James: Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving and Larry Bird.

Baylor played in a vastly different era from James' era, he was not always the best player on his team (he shared top billing with Jerry West and, later, with Wilt Chamberlain) and he never won a title. Baylor is without question a Pantheon player but comparing him with James is difficult and not as meaningful as comparing James to Bird and Erving, who each won multiple titles while playing more recently than Baylor.

I have written at length about why Julius Erving Belongs in the Greatest Player of All-Time Conversation. Here is a summary:
All-around force of nature who carried a limited 1976 Nets team to the ABA's last championship by posting perhaps the most remarkable stat line ever in a playoff series, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) while shooting .590 from the field as the Nets beat the Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the Finals. Erving is one of only four players in pro basketball history to win three straight regular season MVPs (Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird). Critics say that Erving won those MVPs because the ABA was weaker than the NBA but most of the three-peat MVP winners accomplished this feat early in their careers and that factor is the relevant one, because if you just eliminate the first five years from any pro basketball player's career you will greatly impact his resume, as I noted in ABA Numbers Should Also Count:

No player's resume would emerge unscathed from such drastic revisions. Take away Michael Jordan's first five years and you erase one MVP, his two highest scoring seasons, his only Defensive Player of the Year award, two scoring titles, one steals title and his playoff single game scoring record of 63 points. Larry Bird would lose two of his three championships, one MVP, one NBA Finals MVP and his best single season totals in rebounds and steals. Magic Johnson would forfeit two of his five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, two steals titles, one assists title and his single season bests in rebounding and steals.

In 1981, Erving became the first non-center to win the NBA regular season MVP since Robertson (1964). Erving led the 76ers to the best overall regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83, guiding the team to four NBA Finals and one title. Moses Malone was the best player on that 1983 championship team, but during that season Erving made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting at 33 years old so he was hardly just along for the ride.

Erving retired as the regular season career steals leader (2272, currently seventh on the all-time list) and the third leading regular season career scorer (30,026 points, currently sixth on the all-time list). Erving was the first non-center to break the 30,000 point barrier and he scored at least 1000 points in each of his 16 seasons. Erving never played on a team with a losing record or a team that failed to make the playoffs; he was the first athlete in the history of North American major professional team sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) to achieve those distinctions in a career lasting at least 16 seasons (Karl Malone and John Stockton both later made the playoffs in each season of their 19 year careers, while Scottie Pippen made the playoffs in the first 16 seasons of his career before missing the playoffs in his 17th and final season).

Erving is one of the most dominant and consistent Finals performers in pro basketball history. He scored at least 20 points in 10 of his 11 ABA Finals games, including his last seven. He scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 NBA Finals games, the second longest NBA Finals 20 point scoring streak at that time in league history behind Jerry West's 25 game streak. Erving now ranks fourth on that list behind Michael Jordan, Jerry West and Shaquille O'Neal but if those seven ABA games are included then Erving's 26 game streak trails only Jordan's 35 game streak. Erving scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 NBA Finals games.
James has been fortunate to play in an era and for teams that maximized his opportunity to post gaudy individual numbers. However, when Erving had similar opportunities his numbers were equal to or superior to James' numbers--and what matters most in a team sport is team success: Erving's teams made it to the "Final Four" in 10 of his 16 professional seasons, with Erving winning three titles. If you are younger than 40 you may think that there is no comparison between James and Erving but that is not correct.

Regarding Bird, the racial component of the conversation is always lurking, because black players are often stereotyped as "athletic" while white players are often stereotyped as "cerebral." Bird is generally portrayed as an unathletic player but that raises the question of what it means to be "athletic," a term that seemingly is only used to refer to jumping or sprinting ability. I would argue that at one time Steve Nash may have been the best athlete in the NBA, but because he was a 6-3 white guy with little vertical jumping ability or sprinting skills most people did not think of him that way. Similarly, Bird had quick hands, great balance, outstanding shooting skills and great vision. Are those not athletic abilities? Bird never seemed to be at much of a disadvantage against players who could run faster or jump higher; it is naive to think that he was an inferior athlete but correct to say that he had other athletic abilities that he used to overcome the few athletic abilities that he did not have. I would also argue that Bird, particularly in his younger years, was a better leaper than you might think. He was not a flashy dunker but he blocked 755 shots during his 897 regular season games and in 1984-85 he had 98 blocked shots, which was more than several starting centers had that year. Noted leaper Dominique Wilkins, who was an inch shorter than Bird, blocked 642 shots during his 1074 regular season games.

So, the notion that James would just physically overwhelm Bird can be put to rest. Bird was just as tall, if not slightly taller, and he proved that he could battle with athletes who were stronger, faster and jumped higher.

Statistically, Bird is the player who is most similar to James, a big-time scorer who also put up large rebounding and assist numbers. Bird averaged 24.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 6.3 apg during his regular season career, numbers that are very similar to James' career averages of 27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 7.2 apg. Bird was clearly the superior rebounder; James' single season high average is 8.6 rpg, while Bird never averaged less than 9 rpg in a full season (he averaged 8.5 rpg during his second to last season, when injuries limited him to 60 games, and then he averaged 9.6 rpg during 45 games in his final season).

James' biggest advantage over Bird is that James is a better one on one defender who can guard multiple positions. Bird played passing lanes craftily and he was a great defensive rebounder but other than that his teams hid him on defense. He was almost always assigned to the opposing team's weakest frontcourt scoring threat, so Bird did "guard" multiple positions but this was from a standpoint of protecting him, not from a standpoint of having him lock down a threat.

Other than one on one defense, though, it is difficult to see where James would enjoy a skill set advantage over Bird. Bird was a vastly superior shooter, he was at least equal to James as a passer and, as noted above, Bird was a superior rebounder.

If the comparison comes down to mindset, Bird wins hands down. Bird had a competitive mindset second to none; I would rank Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan as superior players to Bird but the three of them were equal in terms of mindset. James' resume has a lot of question marks and demerits in terms of championship mindset.

James has been much more durable than Bird, so one could argue that it would be better to have 16 years (and counting) of James instead of a little over a decade of Bird but if we are talking about peak value then it is far from obvious that James is better than Bird, who won three straight regular season MVPs (a feat matched only by Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, plus Julius Erving in the ABA) and three NBA championships in five NBA Finals appearances.

LeBron James versus Dominant Big Men

During most of pro basketball history, championships have been won by teams featuring a dominant big man. Since the NBA's founding in 1947, 35 titles have been won by teams featuring seven big men who each captured multiple championships: George Mikan (five championships), Bill Russell (11 championships), Wilt Chamberlain (two championships), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six championships), Hakeem Olajuwon (two championships), Shaquille O'Neal (four championships), Tim Duncan (five championships). Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird provided a glimpse of the modern era by showing that perimeter-oriented players could win MVPs and titles, though each of them played alongside a Hall of Fame center during their NBA championship years (Erving won two titles in the ABA without the benefit of teaming up with a Hall of Fame center). Jordan is the first perimeter player who was the dominant figure on a dynastic champion (Johnson shared top billing with Abdul-Jabbar for most of the Showtime Lakers' run).

Bryant played most of his career during an era featuring two dominant big men, O'Neal and Duncan. James entered the NBA when O'Neal was at the end of his prime and the game was shifting toward a more perimeter focused style due to rules changes, the rise of "analytics" and changes in coaching philosophies. 

It is worth noting that in a perimeter-oriented era James--a perimeter-oriented player--has not matched the championship totals posted by Bryant, Jordan or Johnson. James has also not fared well in head to head battles against the most dominant big men of his era, namely Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard. James went 1-2 versus Duncan and 0-1 versus Howard. If James could not find championship success against those guys in this era, it is difficult to picture him stacking up championships in a more physical, big-man focused era when he would have had to battle Top 50 centers such as Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Robert Parish.

For that matter, it is far from obvious that James is a greater player than Abdul-Jabbar, who inexplicably is rarely mentioned in the greatest player of all-time conversations. Abdul-Jabbar won a record six regular season MVPs while capturing six titles and setting the all-time regular season scoring mark (38,387 points). His skyhook is the single most unguardable weapon in the history of the support, he was a dominant rebounder for over a decade, he blocked shots and he was a first rate passer. Erving played 16 seasons and he has called Abdul-Jabber the best player he ever faced.

Abdul-Jabbar and James played different positions in different eras, so direct comparisons are difficult but I have trouble picturing a James-led team beating an Abdul-Jabbar-led team in a playoff series. If James settled for jumpers rather than attacking the hoop versus Duncan and Howard then what would he have done against Abdul-Jabbar? Anyone who thinks Abdul-Jabbar could not play in today's game is misinformed. Abdul-Jabbar was more than mobile enough to play defense in today's game and if you want to know what guarding him with a 6-7 or 6-8 center would look like then track down footage from the 1971 Finals, when Hall of Famer Wes Unseld looked like an elementary school kid trying to guard his big brother. I like my chances in any era under any set of rules with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shooting skyhooks over Draymond Green while Stephen Curry deals with the flypaper defense of Michael Cooper.

It would be a mistake to not say something about Bill Russell, who won 11 titles during his 13 year NBA career. Young fans may assume that James would just overpower Russell--but keep in mind that the 6-9, 225 pound Russell spent most of his career battling against Wilt Chamberlain, who was bigger and stronger than James. Russell and Chamberlain were both track and field athletes; Russell was almost certainly faster than James and could jump at least as high, while Chamberlain could jump higher than James and may have been just as fast. Russell may have had the best basketball IQ of any player ever, so he was not going to be outsmarted or intimidated by James. No, I don't think that a one on one matchup between James and Russell would be much fun for James, and if James thought that it was a challenge to face Boston's Big Three of Garnett/Pierce/Allen (all of whom were past their primes) then James would not have enjoyed playing against Russell and his group of Hall of Famers during their primes.


LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time. None of the above is meant to denigrate or "hate" James. James' career has been puzzling at times--more puzzling than that of any other Pantheon player--but he has the championships, the MVPs and the individual numbers to stack up against just about anybody.

All of that being said, James did not surpass Bryant, which is the most meaningful comparison because their careers overlapped for many seasons. Even if you think that James surpassed Bryant, James did not come close to matching Jordan's complete skill set, will to win or number of championships won. For that matter, Pantheon small forwards Julius Erving and Larry Bird have comparable accomplishments to James. James did not fare well against the dominant big men of his era and it is difficult to picture him doing well against the dominant big men from prior eras.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:37 PM