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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.

Leadership/Mentality

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.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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

25 comments

25 Comments:

At Tuesday, January 01, 2019 2:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree with most of this (although there are individual points here or there where I might quibble). On my personal rankings, I have James in the third "tier" of all-time great players, which I define as "The best non-GOAT contenders, A+ on both sides of the ball for several seasons. Single-handedly guarantees consistent contention."

There are four players in Tier 1 of my rankings and three players in tier 2, so James would at best be in contention as the 8th greatest player of all time. However, I do not generally rank within my tiers, and James shares tier 3 with Shaq, Moses, Pettit, Kobe, and West. I think that within that tier you can make a credible case for any one of those guys over any other-- you've made Kobe's case above-- and wouldn't really meaningfully complain about any ranking within it as guys can slide up or down depending on what's being weighted heaviest; i.e., Shaq probably has the best peak of that group, while Kobe and James win on longevity.

James' case over Kobe specifically would need to very heavily weight the '16 title against the 73-win Warriors while giving less weight to Kobe's first three titles (since he was not the team's best player at the time), but the case does exist. I personally would probably take Kobe if you asked me today, but James still has time to add to his resume.

I do have Bird a tier below James, although I would take Bird's peak over James', so that placement owes primarily to the longevity factor you referred to and a lower defensive ceiling; Bird was a good defender but James when fully engaged can be a DPOY-level game-wrecker. If Bird had been healthier for longer I'd take him over James even with James' higher defensive ceiling.

I also put a decent amount of weight--some would argue too much--into contextual factors like quality of support, playoff performance against positional rivals, and quality of competition. The latter two points, between James and Bird, are probably arguable and would require a wider-ranger analysis than I feel like doing, I do think it's clear than on average Bird had more help than James did-- this is not to say that James had no help but Bird spent almost his entire career with at least two other Top 50 level players and at least one All-NBA or All-Star level beyond them. This allowed him to, as you noted, hide on defense and focus on rebounding/passing lanes, as he benefitted from the presence of two All-Defensive level front court mates (who could also score 20 a game if needed). As such, his three titles do not impress me quite as much as James' three titles-- and specifically not as much as the one James got against the Warriors.

I think Bird's mentality was clearly better than James', and I prefer his offensive skillset.

I don't see any reasonable argument for taking James over Erving. Perhaps if he adds another title or two in his twilight years he'll have something in his corner but to this point they have the same number of titles but Erving has the more impressive mentality, skillset, and supporting context.

Of your Pantheon specifically, I have James behind Russell/Wilt/Kareem/Erving/Jordan/Duncan, roughly even with West/Shaq/Kobe, and slightly ahead of Baylor/Oscar/Bird/Magic.

 
At Tuesday, January 01, 2019 6:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article as always David! I find his statement funny because the media have always marked Durant as insecure and sensitive whereas James is always this great perfect role model, which he has been for majority of his career but this statement feels like he is either insecure or arrogant.

I also find it amusing that he talked like he did this all by himself. People might have forgotten but through Games 1 to 4 of the 2016 finals he was nothing more than average. And people also seem to forget that Green was suspended in Game 5 and Warriors also lost their rim protector Bogut in Game 5. Furthermore, Irving scored 41 points in Game 5 and hit the biggest shot of the finals in the closing minute of Game 7. Whenever there was a chance for the Cavs to make a comeback or capitalise on the game, Irving was the one who stepped up and picked up the slack for him. But the media will never give credit to Irving, Love, Wade and Bosh when they win. All the credit will go to James and all the blame will go to his teammates when they lose. This is probably one of the biggest reasons other all stars doesn't want to play with him.

Take away all the stats and accomplishments, GOATs never make any excuses for their shortcomings. The fact that he said he pretty much played with a broken hand right after Game 4 last year was a way to mask over his subpar play. I also remember in the 2015 finals where he said he's confident because he's the best player in the world, but he never backed that up.

This guy is no doubt in the top 10 greatest ever, but he is not even top 5 in my opinion. Only the media and his fans will put him top 3 and/or the GOAT.

 
At Wednesday, January 02, 2019 1:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

There is definitely room to move certain players up or down depending on how much emphasis is placed on particular factors. I don't like ranking players within my Pantheon, but the hype about (and by) James is just becoming too much. I have felt the same way about various players over the years: there is so much recency bias that whoever is playing the best now or recently gets dubbed the greatest of all-time, and anything that happened just a short while ago is forgotten or diminished.

I never thought that Bird was the greatest player of all-time but he was a popular choice circa 1986.

Jordan is clearly on the short list but there is this reflexive tendency to act as if no other players can even be compared to him. Granted, there are very few players who can be compared to him but he is not miles ahead of those few players.

I have not heard anyone tout Wade as the greatest player of all-time (thankfully) but I about fell out of my chair a while back when Jeff Van Gundy put him ahead of Jerry West among all-time shooting guards. I have concluded, upon further review (of Van Gundy, not Wade), that Van Gundy generally does a good job of ranking/evaluating players he has coached against or seen but his historical knowledge has some gaps. I suspect if he had seen West play or had researched him more thoroughly then he would not have put Wade ahead of West. After all, West is only better than Wade at shooting, passing, rebounding and defending. I suppose Wade has the edge as a dunker, though I have seen still photos of West dunking two-handed in games and I suspect that West could have done some spectacular dunks if he had been so inclined.

 
At Wednesday, January 02, 2019 1:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Thank you.

James has a "Chosen One" tattoo on his back, so he has had a high opinion of his potential and/or talent for a long time.

He is a great player but some of his comments and actions are perplexing. I think that he is both arrogant and insecure and I think that his psychological makeup has a lot to do with some of the strange performances that he has authored in crucial moments. Sometimes he exhibits supreme confidence and he dominates but other times he seems very unsure of himself and reluctant to dominate. Russell, Jordan and Bryant (to name just three Pantheon players) never seemed burdened by much insecurity and if they experienced it they buried it so deeply that no one could detect it.

 
At Wednesday, January 02, 2019 3:22:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think the only real justification for taking Wade over West at shooting guard is either:

1) Believing that there is a big enough athletic difference between eras that pre-1980 (or whatever) players are effectively obsolete.

2) If you consider--as Basketball Reference does-- Jerry West to primarily be a point guard.

I doubt Van Gundy was coming from either camp. I find him extremely entertaining and he was a good coach but I have heard him describe Harden (who isn't even close to being as good as Wade, IMO) as being better than Jerry West as well, so either he just has an axe to grind with Jerry West specifically (similar to the way his broadcast partner Mark Jackson is always looking for little potshots to take at the Warriors team he used to coach) or he has limited recall and/or understanding of players before a certain era.

 
At Wednesday, January 02, 2019 3:30:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

For the record, I have West as either the greater point guard ever or competing with Kobe to be the greatest shooting guard ever. I have Wade as probably the third (if we count West as a 1) or fourth (if he's a 2) greatest two guard of all time, or at least competing with Clyde Drexler for that spot.

At the risk of digressing, Harden is not in my Top 10 2 guards and he may not even be in my Top 20, although it can be difficult to compare him directly with different types of two guards. He is obviously a better scorer than, say, Joe Dumars but I know you can win a title with Joe Dumars as your second best guy and I am not sure the same can be said of Harden. A team with Harden as their best player would almost certainly have a better regular season record than a team with Dumars as their best--the Dumars team might not even make the playoffs, pending level of competition and who else is on it--and yet if I were constructing a team with an eye towards winning a championship I think I'd rather have Dumars than Harden, pretty much regardless of the rest of the roster. Perhaps that is confirmation bias-- I've seen Joe Dumars win two titles and I've seen James Harden repeatedly wet himself in the playoffs-- or perhaps there is more to basketball than gaudy regular season statistics and Joe's more complete, if less explosive, skillset is more valuable in pursuit of a title.

 
At Wednesday, January 02, 2019 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Edit: I have West and Kobe competing to be the *second* greatest shooting guard ever. Obviously Michael is the best, regardless of my typos.

 
At Wednesday, January 02, 2019 12:42:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...

I don't know of any other prominent athlete (past or present) in all of the major league sports who incessantly toots his own horn like LeBron does, while being coddled non-stop by his media sycophants. The hype, i.e. propaganda, does not match the reality.

His direct counterpart in four of his last five Finals defeats have won the series MVP over him. He has been outperformed in crucial stretches by role players / older stars (Tim, Dirk). He got swept / trounced by record margins in multiple Finals losses. He lost to Duncan's Spurs, Howard's Magic, and Garnett's Celtics, teams and big men that Kobe (just exiting his athletic prime and starting to get nicked with various injuries) solved and carried his Lakers through in the playoffs.

Ever since his rookie debut, the "King James world premiere" (bleh) game versus the Kings (lol), the hype has been tedious and disgusting, to say the least.

 
At Thursday, January 03, 2019 2:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

I agree that the real debate comes down to who's the best player of his generation, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant, with apologies to Tim Duncan. Arguably, James is more of a ballhog than Bryant. He has never moved very well off the ball, whereas Bryant moved very well off the ball, partly due to the triangle offense. I think that Kyrie Irving left the Cavs largely because of James's ball-control-freak ways. James seems to style himself a "point-forward", but if he had the discipline to limit himself to the traditional small-forward role epitomized by Julius Erving and Larry Bird, he might have better allowed his teammates to flourish in their roles. To grow into their roles. To wit, I think that the Cavs would likely have won multiple championships if James had actually allowed Kyrie to run the point and learn the most difficult position in basketball, and thus allowed for more ball movement. As I watched the Cavs against the Warriors these past few Finals, I saw a team beaten soundly more because of its vastly inferior ball movement rather than supposed inferior talent. The Warriors and the Spurs have been beautiful to watch because their players, even their best players, play within their roles and move off the ball.

It might seem a bit paradoxical, but I think that Bryant, not to mention Jordan, were both better players than James largely because they played within their positions and thus allowed for better teams. By playing within the traditional shooting-guard role, Bryant and Jordan "made their teammates better." That's what the phrase really means. And what's a shooting guard's role, if not to SHOOT. Bryant and Jordan were unselfish in that although they could have controlled every aspect of every game, they were better basketball players than Lebron because they were purer shooting guards. They understood the difference between being in command of the game on the one hand, and being a control-freak micromanaging the ball on the other hand. If James were a purer small forward in the mold of Erving or Bird, e.g. if he had a post game to match his awesome physicality, he could have been a dynamic duo with Kyrie to possibly match the Johnson/Kareem, Jordan/Pippen, and Shaq/Kobe duos. Arguably his biggest underachievement, aside from his 3-6 record in the Finals, is his sub-10 rebound per game career average (thanks for pointing this out). With James's physicality, you're right that it's a disgrace that he never averaged more than 10 rebounds per game. It speaks to how fundamentally unsound he was and is. Yet Bryant and Jordan were two of the most fundamentally sound players the game has ever seen. Bryant and Jordan UNSELFISHLY limited their games to the pure shooting guard role for the good of their teams, even though they could probably have averaged triple-doubles if they'd wanted to. James, on the other hand, has SELFISHLY been the ballhogging "point forward," and so Kyrie got away. I think that James would have more than Jordan's six championships if he had been purer small forward with a 25-10 (points/rebounds) mindset and looked to Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon as role models in the post.

One more thing: sometimes Bryant is criticized for having modeled his game on Jordan's. Like, if only I were good enough to (successfully!) model my chess game, such as it is, on Bobby Fischer's! Or if only I could emulate peak Muhammad Ali as a boxer! Alas, James would have a more plausible claim to GOAT status had he emulated Erving and Bird as well as Bryant emulated Jordan.

 
At Thursday, January 03, 2019 8:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You made several excellent points:

1) LeBron James is more of a "ballhog" than Kobe Bryant ever was and James' ballhogging tendencies have potentially cost him titles, as well as making other great players reluctant to play with him.

2) As Bryant noted, based on the advice that MJ gave him, a great player has to elevate his teammates and expect/demand that they do more. You have to work with what you have and not make any excuses, particularly if your team has enough talent to make it to the Finals. That is why it is significant that MJ and Kobe have much better Finals won/loss records than LeBron does.

3) The criticism of Bryant for modeling his game after MJ would be comical if it weren't so tragic and misguided. Why not emulate the best? As you said, James would have been wise to emulate the great small forwards who came before him as opposed to insisting on micromanaging every possession.

 
At Thursday, January 03, 2019 8:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although LeBron's "GOAT" comment was ill-advised, that is irrelevant to its merits.

On the merits, you haven't addressed the strongest point in the LBJ vs. MJ argument -- which, if it tilts in LBJ's favor, would profoundly alter all the other payer comparisons.

LBJ's strongest point is the vast impact in W/L that his joining/departing a team has had, over the course of his career: https://sports.yahoo.com/nba-2018-19-lebron-james-120000356.html. His departure turns Finals teams into lottery teams -- and his joining turns marginal teams into contenders.

By contrast, during MJ's baseball sojourn, the Bulls were contenders who nearly made the NBA Finals. It did not seem that his joining/departing had nearly as big an impact. The stats were discussed in a piece arguing that Larry Bird may have been better than MJ. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90JhCfhk4q8

The biggest criticism of these stats may be that (esp. when compared with LBJ) MJ seemed to have more impact during the playoffs -- particularly, the biggest games (conf.finals & Finals).

All of the above supports the theory of MJ as an elite scoring SPECIALIST, one of the most VERSATILE scorers who ever player. Paired up with other & LARGER defensive specialists -- Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman, along with Scottie Pippen -- MJ was able to focus on scoring, while playing elite defense FOR HIS POSITION (SG). Yet his perimeter position is not among the most important defensively.

In the biggest games, with the tightest defense, LBJ's biggest weaknesses (inconsistency in outside shooting & FT shooting) are sometimes exposed -- as per some of his breakdowns. But when his outside shot (and midrange shot) are falling, combined with his defense & other skills, he is a remarkable player -- who seems more versatile & complete than MJ. Defense must be considered, as the greatest play of LBJ's career was his game-altering block vs. Iguodala in G7 of the '16 Finals.

In short, perhaps MJ might be likened to Mariano Rivera -- the best closer, which is a role
with a more specialized skill set, as compared with LBJ's Babe Ruth-like versatility. (This is just a simple analogy, not meant to dig deep into the baseball side.)

LBJ's mental issues can't entirely be ignored, but they may be more a symptom (of his inconsistent perimeter shooting) than a root cause. When his outside shot isn't falling, he isn't the same player, and his mental issues appear. But that doesn't diminish his impact on joining/departing a team.

On a broader level, a lot of these "GOAT" debates are problematic, because they have no context. If you're drafting a team only among your "Pantheon" players, then I might start by drafting MJ, because he'd likely be surrounded by all-time greats (including larger great rebounders and defenders), thereby allowing him to focus on being an elite scoring specialist and a great defender at a perimeter position (less important defensively than interior positions); in this specialized role, he'd turn a very good team into a great (all-time level) team. For that matter, if you're drafting among "Pantheon" players, you might also consider others, like Magic, whose passing ability allows him to maximize the skills of big-time-scorer teammates and elevate their games. But if you're drafting an NBA expansion team in a given year, or doing a "fantasy" style draft among the entire NBA (with the same # of "fantasy" teams as NBA teams), then LBJ seems more likely to get a bunch of average players into the playoffs (and maybe the Finals); so LBJ might be the best choice. Also, depending on the rules and other players, Kareem might deserve consideration (e.g., an era with less skilled perimeter players, where palming the ball is more strictly enforced and hand-checking is permitted). There is no one answer, but LBJ belongs in the conversation of greatest players of all time, depending on the context.

-- Mr. J

 
At Friday, January 04, 2019 12:12:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Mr.. J-

You made some good points, and clanged off something I've often considered: LBJ is certainly a contender for greatest regular season player ever. I feel about that much the way I do about Karl Malone's "greatest power forward ever case": his regular season impact is undeniable, but so what? Everyone in the Pantheon can drag a half-decent team to the playoffs most years, but it's what happens once there that matters, and Lebron probably has more no-shows or bad games/series than any other Pantheon level guy*.

*Exceptions may be made for Kareem and Magic, who could generally afford an off-night here or there as they had each other.

Put another way, you could argue guys like Lebron and Malone do more to raise a team's floor than its ceiling, while somebody like Jordan or Magic is more of a ceiling raiser.

I am not trying to go all "Rings, Ernie" about it; there are plenty of reasons a player may lose in the playoffs that aren't his fault (take a look at, say, Hakeem Olajuwon's supporting cast from about '87-'92, for instance). But in Lebron's case specifically we've seen him crumble individually more than once.

As this blog's resident "DEFENSE MATTERS!" guy, I think you may be overrating Lebron's defense. You're right that that was an incredible block and he can certainly guard more positions than MJ (which has a ton of value), but he's never been quite as good on the ball or in help as Jordan was, and certainly his effort on that end is not as consistent. Moreover, the big distinction between interior and perimeter defensive value (which you alluded to and are right to delineate between) is the ability to protect the rim; that block aside, Lebron is not a great playoff rim protector; partly this is because he prefers to guard perimeter players, and partly because he's never focused on becoming a rim protector, so the blocks he does get are more products of opportunity and athleticism than skill or system.

To wit, his best ever playoff BPG: 1.8. That's not bad by any means, but it'd be in a four way tie for the sixth best playoff BPG of Doc's career. It'd be the best of Bird's career, but then Bird was more like Lebron; he didn't really try to defend the rim except when convenient, and their career numbers as playoff shotblockers are almost identical (1 per game for Lebron, 0.9 for Bird), despite Birds career average being dragged down by his last few injury-plagued seasons (this will likely eventually happen to Lebron as well). Doc is more the model you're looking for in terms of a forward who makes a greater-than-a-guard impact on defense; his career *average* in the playoffs is 1.7 (which would be good for second-best in Lebron's career) and that's without the stats for his first two (and most athletically astonishing) seasons. In '81, Doc blocked 2.6 shots per game across 16 games. That's above Kareem's Playoff BPG average, for context (though we're likewise missing his first few seasons.) Doc was effectively an upper-tier center-level shotblocker when he wanted to be, which is more what you're talking about, I think, when you mention that interior D matters more than perimeter.

But the comparison here was Jordan, so... MJ averaged 0.1 fewer blocks per playoff game than Lebron. Both guys were/are incredible athletes who'd block a shot when they saw the chance, but neither really functions as a rim protector in the way where they transcend normative perimeter defensive value.

 
At Friday, January 04, 2019 1:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

How many championships did the Chicago Bulls win before Michael Jordan arrived?

How many championships have the Chicago Bulls won since Jerry Krause ran Jordan and company out of town in 1998?

I will respectfully disagree with the notion that Jordan's arrival/departure is less impactful than James' arrival/departure.

But what about the other players who arrived/departed with Jordan? Oh, OK, let's supply context--to LeBron James' career, which you failed to do.

Cleveland blatantly tanked both times that James left. The Heat did not tank but were racked by injuries, including a life-threatening condition that forced Chris Bosh to retire. The Heat went 54-28 in James' final season and they were 48-34 two seasons later. Based on the reasoning you applied to Jordan's 1993 retirement, James' departure had little impact on the Heat.

Jordan won 10 regular season scoring titles in his first 11 full seasons, so I will also respectfully disagree with the notion that he was merely a "closer." Jordan started, did middle relief and then closed.

None of this is meant to denigrate James. As I have said many times, a case for greatest player of all-time can be made for any Pantheon member. However, it is evident that a stronger case can be made for some players than for others and it is also evident that James never surpassed his contemporary Bryant, which eliminates James from vying for the top spot. Bryant never surpassed Jordan, and James likewise did not surpass Jordan.

James is a great player. He just is not the greatest player of all-time.

 
At Friday, January 04, 2019 11:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, Nick,
As "Mr. J" from the prior comment, thanks for both of your responses. I don't dispute the points that both of you make. I would make an additional point: just from watching, it seems that LBJ's peak value -- when his outside shot is falling and he's mentally engaged (esp. defense & rebounding) -- is much higher than his non-peak value. The LBJ who led Cleveland from down 3-1 in '16 Finals and starred in G6 in ECF in '12 seems like a different player from the confused/ineffective LBJ from the '11 Finals (vs. Dallas). In elimination games, his rebounding (along with other stats) has been exceptional. https://www.sports-reference.com/blog/2017/06/lebron-james-when-facing-elimination/ .... This is another problem with ranking players' careers: a player is not a monolithic entity that always has constant value. In LBJ's case, the peak/non-peak disparity seems unusually high.

-- Mr. J

 
At Friday, January 04, 2019 1:34:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Mr. J-

I would agree that James' peak value is probably as high as anyone's, or at least close; the knock on him is that his consistency is much lower. Jordan/Doc/etc. do not have an equivalent flameout to the 2011 Finals, or breaking their hand punching a wall after Game 1*, or the relative disappearing act James will sometimes pull when he feels outmatched (Boston 2010 being a prime example).

*Kareem used to do dumb stuff like that, but he at least kept it to the regular season.

For me personally, peak value is only part of the pie; if it were the be all, end all, then somebody like Bill Walton would be a Top 10 guy.

 
At Friday, January 04, 2019 1:56:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

Imho killer instinct, this insatiable drive to win is what makes a difference between great players and the greatest ones. Just because those players strive to maximize their talents and eliminate weaknesses. Sure there are phenomenal players just like Lebron and Wilt... but ultimately despite their talent and outright domination - especially during regular seasons - they lack this ingredient, or just don't have enough of it to always matter when winning is at stake. Sometimes it fires up for them, but it's rare. And imho they just need something to trigger it.

Sure Lebron was leading 2016 comeback, but it was Kyrie who energized the team, and became sort of catalyzer. The greastest players are catalyzers too, which is why for me the likes of Wilt, Lebron or Shaq will always be just this tiny bit lower in such a talk.

 
At Saturday, January 05, 2019 3:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mr. J:

I agree that peak value is important and I agree that a player’s career should not be viewed as “monolithic.”

Would you prefer to have a player who on some days is the greatest but who on other days—often when it matters most, at the highest levels of competition—quits, or would you prefer to have a player whose great effort consistently matches his great talent?

James is great, but he is not the greatest.

 
At Saturday, January 05, 2019 3:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The examples you cited are why James is the most baffling great player who I have ever watched or researched.

 
At Saturday, January 05, 2019 3:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

James lacks the killer instinct quality that is not tangible yet can be observed. His effort is not consistently like that of Jordan or Bryant.

 
At Saturday, January 05, 2019 8:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

It was said that the only person who could keep Michael Jordan to under 20 points per game was Dean Smith. Jordan had the benefit of two hall-of-fame level mentors: Smith and Phil Jackson. He won a national championship under Smith's tutelage, and six NBA rings under Jackson's. Kobe, too, had the benefit of Jackson's mentorship, not to mention the discipline of Tex Winter's triangle offense.

The only great mentor James has had at the professional level (Division I basketball at the highest level is basically professional level, if not semi-pro) is Pat Riley so far as I can tell, but Riley was not his coach. Smith and Jackson commanded respect from their charges. But James has never had a coach to command his respect partly because he's never had a hall-of-fame level coach.

Perhaps the reason why Bryant, Shaq and Tim Duncan, to name players Lebron actually played with and against, were better players than Lebron (I rank Lebron fourth among all players who started their NBA careers since 1992) was the fact that they each had a hall-of-fame level coach to truly educate them in the fundamentals of championship-level basketball. The Big Fundamental wouldn't have been The Big Fundamental without Pop's basketball genius showing him the way. Bryant, Shaq and Duncan (one, two, and three according to my ranking) would have been hall-of-famers without their great coaches. But they wouldn't have been the best three players of the last 25 years or so if they hadn't had the best teachers available in the NBA as well.

I think Lebron under a coach of Jackson's or Pop's calibre would have won at least six championships by now. At least. Hell, Lebron might have won ten championships if he'd had a personal tutor to engineer him like Dirk Nowitzsky's mentor engineered him.

Lebron the basketball player reminds me of that really smart dude with a lot of brain power who's not quite as smart as he thinks he is, that dude who strings big words together in the way of the autodidact who hasn't had to meet the discipline of cohering his thoughts into five-paragraph essays to meet college deadlines. I think that Lebron, in a sense, exemplifies the limits of what the autodidact, no matter how gifted and talented, can accomplish. Jackson and Pop are the reason why Bryant and Duncan had higher basketball IQ's than Lebron. Because Lebron never played in a system as sophisticated as Jackson's or Pop's systems, he doesn't quite know enough about basketball to know what he doesn't know.

Luke Walton sure as hell ain't gonna teach Lebron anything that he doesn't think that he already knows.

Great as Michael Jackson is, there is no Off The Wall and Thriller as well as Bad without Quincy Jones. Michael Jackson would have been a pop star, he already was by the time he met Q, but without Q's production values he wouldn't have been the world-beating rival to the Beatles. Bryant, Shaq, and Duncan maybe win one or two, perhaps three, championships each on their own, kind of like Lebron. But there's no way that they win 14 championship rings between them without the two best coaches of the last 30 years mentoring them along the way.

 
At Sunday, January 06, 2019 11:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,
You raised the topic of "[h]ow many championships" have been won by others who won with MJ; you asked "what about the other players who arrived/departed with Jordan?"

In response, I would note that a key player on Jordan's second run (titles 4-6) was Rodman, who had already won 2 titles with Detroit.

Also, as another Anonymous commentator pointed out, Phil Jackson was a key figure who coached MJ to all of his 6 titles -- and Phil won 5 titles after coaching MJ.

And, as a shooting specialist with the Spurs, Kerr won 2 additional titles, after his 3 with MJ.

Additionally, Horace Grant made the NBA Finals in 94'-95 with Orlando. And, with Portland, Pippen came very near making a Finals in which the Blazers likely would've been favored (in '00).

Kobe likewise had Phil Jackson, who had won 6 titles before coaching Kobe to all of his 5. No one else ever coached Kobe to any notable team achievements.

Soon after leaving Kobe, Shaq won another title as the 2nd best player on Miami, before age/conditioning got the better of him. As an important shooter/role player, Horry won a 4 titles elsewhere.

As for LBJ, he had Wade and Ray Allen, who each won a single title prior to playing with LBJ. Certainly, he never had any coach in the same stratosphere as Jackson.

As for Cleveland "tanking" after LBJ's departures, they got Kyrie for the 2011-12 season, but only won 21 games, followed by 24 (in '12-'13) and then 33 (in '13'-14), until LBJ arrived and got them 53 (in '14'-'15) while taking GSW to 6 games in the NBA Finals with Irving missing Games 2-6 with an injury. It seems that they were "tanking" until LBJ joined and immediately got them very close to an NBA title -- with a mid-season coaching change, far different than having Phil as coach.

These details should be considered.

Thanks,
Mr. J

 
At Sunday, January 06, 2019 1:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You make some interesting and valid points about the value of coaching/mentoring. I agree that coaching/mentoring are important and I disagree with the "stat gurus" who argue otherwise.

However, I would also say that an "autodidact" (as you called him) such as James should seek out the best coaching/mentoring even if it is not available to him from his own team. Magic Johnson sought advice and counsel from Julius Erving before making the decision to leave college early for the pros. Kobe Bryant's recent book "Mamba Mentality" is full of examples about how he sought out wisdom from coaches and players.

Also, even if you are correct that lack of the best coaching/mentoring explains some of James' flaws, that explanation does not therefore elevate him above the players who sought out and took advantage of such coaching/mentoring.

 
At Sunday, January 06, 2019 1:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mr. J:

In your initial comment, you suggested that the departure of James had more impact than the departure of Jordan. The questions that I asked in response to that were:

"How many championships did the Chicago Bulls win before Michael Jordan arrived?

How many championships have the Chicago Bulls won since Jerry Krause ran Jordan and company out of town in 1998?"

The correct answer to both questions is "zero."

Then I provided context for James' career that you failed to provide in your initial comment.

Your response is that the Cavs "got" Kyrie Irving and still did not win much. Of course, the Cavs "got" Irving by tanking, which is my point. Rookie Irving played just 51 games and he only played 59 games his second season. Obviously, after the Cavs got Irving and began to realize that LeBron might want to return they stopped tanking and started trying to win, hence their gradually increasing win totals. They bottomed out when they tanked--hence the dramatic decrease in wins the first season after James left--and then their win totals increased each year. It is not surprising or unusual that the addition of James AND Kevin Love (don't forget that part) resulted in 20 more wins. If anything, adding two All-Stars should have been worth more than 20 wins, particularly if one argues that James is the greatest player of all-time.

Nothing that you have posted proves your contention that James' addition/departure has a more significant impact than Jordan's arrival/departure.

 
At Monday, January 07, 2019 9:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

When I described James as an "autodidact" I meant to suggest a kind of arrogant know-it-all attitude. Isiah Thomas, commenting on Lebron's claim to be the GOAT, said that "humility" was a really important characteristic of true greatness. Isiah seemed to suggest that humility was missing from Lebron's profile. Your examples of Magic seeking counsel from Erving, and of Kobe doing the same, speak to their being humble enough to know that they didn't know it all. And N.B. I did rank Lebron #4 among players who started their careers in or after 1992, that Kobe, Shaq and Tim Duncan were all better players than Lebron in my estimation. Lebron and Wilt Chamberlain are probably the most talented players the NBA has ever seen, yet neither one make my top-ten all-time list. I think that their fatal flaw was and is a certain type of narcissism that has prevented them from truly understanding that basketball is five-on-five and not one-plus-four-against-five. The latter misunderstanding may get you MVP awards and statistical milestones, perhaps a championship or two, or three, but it's the former understanding that gets you handfuls of championships.

 
At Monday, January 07, 2019 11:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with you that LeBron James lacks humility and/or self-awareness (perhaps those two concepts are intertwined) and that this is one reason that--although he has accomplished a lot--he has not accomplished as much as he could have.

 

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