LeBron’s Place In NBA History

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers
Photo: Bill Baptist/Getty Images
As basketball fans, we had to assume this day would come.  Lebron James, as much as I loathe him and his cockiness, “The Decision”, taking the easy way out and joining with Wade and Bosh, destroying the city of Cleveland (and subsequently returning like George Costanza and pretending he never left), the way he handles himself, and the way the refs baby him, had an impressive and epic NBA Finals.  Now that Lebron has leapfrogged greats without rings such as Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, etc. definitively where does that place him historically?

In my opinion, here are the top five NBA players ever in order:

  1. Michael Jordan – All you young people out there who think Lebron is the greatest, watch this: Michael Jordan Highlights…for more on this read my Lebron vs MJ 1-on-1 from a year ago.  If you ever watched Jordan in his prime, you know who the greatest is. Undisputed in my opinion.
  2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – A forgotten legend and one of the most dominant players ever. He had the unstoppable sky hook and played for 19 seasons.  How is he routinely passed up for Russell, Magic, and others? It’s unreal.  Also, the all-time leader in points.
  3. Magic Johnson – the greatest and most unique point guard of all-time.  I’m not even sure I can completely appreciate his career.  He was just phenomenal.  Just watch this clip from the 1980 Finals where Magic started at center for the injured Kareem and dropped 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists. I mean, WOW.
  4. Bill Russell – 11 championships…most dominant player of his era.  Completely OWNED Wilt even though he was only like 6’8 or 6’9. But again…he was a 6’8/6’9 center! That tells you a lot about the NBA at the time. It may not be fair, but I feel like Jordan, Kareem, and Magic’s dominance in the modern era is more impressive.
  5. Tim Duncan – Yeah, that’s right.  I put Tim freakin’ Duncan at number 5 ALL-TIME.   His resume: 5 time NBA champion, 3 time Finals MVP, 13 time All-Star, 9 times All-NBA First team, and is the greatest power forward ever.  He absolutely dominated his position and had a legit rival – Kevin Garnett – and was better.  The most underappreciated superstar of all-time in my opinion.  Because he’s so humble, not flashy, and flew under the radar, people forget how great he is/was.

That’s some pretty tall company.  What about 6 through 10?  It’s even more tricky:

  1. Wilt Chamberlain – I’m not entirely certain on this.  You say, “How can Wilt not be in the top 6?!”  He has 2 NBA titles, wasn’t the best player in his era…it’s hard to give it to him.  How does Wilt not win 10 NBA titles against those midgets?  The answer is #4 above: Bill Russell.  If he had focused more on winning and less on stats, he’d be higher up.  I’m not entirely for certain that he’s better than….
  2. Larry Bird – Quite possibly the most clutch player ever.  Aside from MJ, did you ever feel more secure with a game on the line than with Larry Bird?  Me either. Still not sure if Lebron or Bird is the greatest small forward ever, but I’m leaning towards Lebron more than ever.
  3. Julius Erving – One of the most prolific players in the NBA ever.  I think he often gets left out of the greatest players discussion because a good chunk of his career was in the ABA, which was viewed by many as an inferior league to the NBA, but the ABA had legends such as Artis Gilmore, David Thompson, Moses Malone, Billy Cunningham, “The Ice Man” George Gervin, Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, Mel Daniels, Rick Barry, Dan Issel, George McGinnis, and Maurice Lucas. The ABA wasn’t some bum league.  There were legitimate players there. But the ABA wasn’t as visible as the NBA and as such, not a lot of footage exists from Dr. J’s ABA days and makes his legend fade somewhat. Dr. J won an NBA title, 2 ABA championships, glorified the dunk and the dunk contest, and is still an ambassador to the game.  Plus, he’s an 11 time NBA All-Star, 5 time ABA All-Star (16 total) and 5 time All-NBA First team and 4 time All-ABA First team (9 times total).  A great career and again, he was the single biggest star in the NBA in the 70s…even more popular than Kareem.   If you’ve never watched any Dr. J highlights, check these out.
  4. Shaquille O’Neal – The more I examine Shaq’s run from 1999-2002 the more impressed I get.  If you watched from the time MJ left the NBA in 1998 until about 2005, there was NO ONE more dominating than Shaq.  He was unstoppable…and it drove me nuts at the time.  Just look at the best average game scores since 1985 in an NBA Finals series. Just unbelievable.
  5. Lebron James – Finally, he’s in the top 10 (for now) but only because his body of work isn’t complete.

So, where does that put him historically? What’s his ceiling?  He’s already surpassed the next 5: Kobe Bryant (for more on why, read here) Scottie Pippen (6 NBA titles, should’ve been 1994 MVP, one of the greatest two-way players ever) or Hakeem Olajuwon (one of the top 5 centers ever, 2 NBA titles, dominated in Jordan’s absence in 1994 and 1995).  Let’s not forget, I didn’t even mention Oscar Robertson (averaged a triple double in a SEASON) or Jerry West (the logo of the NBA), Moses Malone (highly underrated), John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, and even Kevin Garnett, who was Lebron before Lebron was Lebron.  Lebron has surpassed all of these guys and yet people still question his legacy.

(Note: People forget how AWESOME KG was.  When he was in his prime, he would routinely average 23-24 points, 15 rebounds, and like 5 assists and could defend every position well.  People claim Lebron can, but in my opinion, his defense is overrated.  He plays great off-ball defense, but on-ball, he is not as solid as Jordan, Pippen, or Garnett.  Plus, if Lebron could defend every position, why have I never seen him defend Dwight?  In fact, I think KG and Lebron’s careers are more similar than Lebron and any other NBA player.  Both are just freakish athletes, both couldn’t take a small market team to a title, both joined up willingly with other superstars for that ring, both made NBA players cry – KG by yelling at Glen Davis, Lebron by failing and bringing Bosh to tears.  Very similar.)

Let me just say this:  I think with his two championships, Lebron edged his way into the top 10 of all-time.  If Lebron’s body holds up, if Lebron somehow gets a few more rings (which is a toss up at this point because of age and roster structure with Cleveland), and/or his stats hold up, Lebron will almost certainly be in the top 5.  Shaq, Dr. J, even Wilt and Kobe are all in play.  Duncan as well. In fact, he could land in the top 3 once it’s all said and done.

In my opinion, Lebron will NEVER be the greatest ever.  I wrote about that at length here. When you watched Michael Jordan, there was an ease to the way he played – like it was just natural that he was so dominant.  I don’t get that from Lebron.  He’s dominant sometimes, but then sometimes he just looks bored.  Jordan never looked bored.  He always asserted his dominance (that infamous competitive streak).  Lebron doesn’t have that.  Is Lebron great?  Yes.  Did this NBA Finals enhance his legacy?  No question.  But let’s let him just be a King for a year or for his generation and not of all-time.

That crown still belongs to Michael Jordan.

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