LeBron Wins Title with Third Team

Give him his damn respect.

LeBron James won his fourth NBA title and his fourth NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy last night, to go along with four regular-season Most Valuable Player awards. He still feels disrespected.

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps:

LeBron James has made it clear that his goal is to surpass Michael Jordan as the greatest player in basketball history.

Sunday night, James took a step closer to doing so.

James was named the 2020 NBA Finals MVP for leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their first championship in a decade and winning the fourth title of his career with a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 6. James, who previously won Finals MVP in 2012 and ’13 with the Heat and in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, is the first player in NBA history to win the award with three different franchises.

Winning his fourth Finals MVP moves him out of a tie with Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal and into second all time — trailing only Jordan, who won the award six times.

James capped his 17th season in the league with a virtuoso run through the postseason, shooting well over 50% from the field while also running the Lakers’ offense virtually every possession he was on the court. He also displayed a commitment on the other end of the court, playing a key role in a suffocating defensive unit. Most importantly, James outdueled Jimmy Butler in what was an all-time classic matchup throughout the Finals, including the Lakers’ star going off for 40 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists in Game 5, and 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 6.

“This was very challenging, and very difficult,” James said afterward. “It played with your mind, and it played with your body. You’re away from some of the things you’re so accustomed to [that] make you the professional you are.

“This is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I have.”

[…]

“I think, personally, thinking I have something to prove fuels me,” James said. “And it fueled me over this last year and a half since my injury.

“It fueled me because no matter what I’ve done in my career up until this point, there’s still rumblings of doubt, or comparing me to the history of the game, and, ‘Has he done this? Has he done that?’

“So, having that in my head, having that in my mind, saying to myself, ‘Why not still have something to prove?’ I think it fuels me.”

[…]

James’ fourth championship gives him more rings than any other active player, and it moves him to within one title of a group of 13 players who have won five, including Johnson, Duncan and the late Kobe Bryant. With Davis all but certain to remain in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future, the 35-year-old James should have an opportunity to add more. For now, though, he and the Lakers will be quite content to celebrate this one.

If he wins two more titles, and especially if he remains the dominant player on his team while doing so, it’s hard to argue that he won’t have surpassed Jordan as the greatest player in the game’s history. He has already taken his teams—including some not-very-good ones—to an astounding ten NBA finals appearances.

As with the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Laver debate in tennis, it’s rather pointless. Parsing out which of the all-time players is the best tends to highlight the flaws of superstars rather than exalting their accomplishments. Basketball is even harder than tennis, though, is that it’s a team sport that depends very much on one’s supporting cast and how much the game has changed over time.*

Still, The Athletic’s John Hollinger argues, LeBron might already be the GOAT.

While Jordan and James are pretty clearly the two best players of their respective generations, where do they rank in the overall historical hierarchy?

I think we can start by carving out an ironclad case for them to be the two best players from the post-merger era. Using statistical methods such as my own Player Efficiency Rating (PER) or the more directly winning-correlated Box Plus-Minus (BPM), no other players have the career peaks that Jordan and James had. (While we have a few other advanced stats we can use for more recent years, historical comparisons pre-2000 are impossible.)

The post-merger era is a useful data point because it also marks when we have legitimately useful statistical data – the league began tracking individual turnovers in 1977-78.

Since that time, Jordan and James are in a league of their own. They rank first and second respectively in career Player Efficiency Rating and career BPM, and while a few current players theoretically are nipping at their heels at the moment – most notably James’s phenomenal teammate Davis – none of these players have played a minute in his 30s (when the numbers will presumably decline and lower the career average).

[…]

By these metrics, the average season of Jordan’s and James’s prime years was better than any individual season by Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. In terms of great individual seasons, only a few other players ever scaled the heights that Jordan and James hit routinely, and even they could only stay in those clouds for a year or two before sinking earthward.

Between the in-season production, the longevity, and the rings and NBA Finals appearances, I don’t think any serious analyst could put another player from the post-merger era ahead of LeBron and Jordan. 

Hollinger has a long and convincing discourse examining the two obvious candidates who played entirely or partly before the 1977 NBA-ABA merger, Bill Russell and Kareem Abjul-Jabbar, and why Jordan and James are even better.

The really amazing thing about both careers is that they’ve been even better in the playoffs. Not just as good - better. Most players in most seasons are worse in the postseason than the regular season, and it’s not a big secret why: Without any Wizards or Knicks to kick around, the level of competition is significantly more difficult. The deeper a team advances, the harder it gets. Just ask the Heat.

As a result, if you just scan a list of the top statistical regular seasons, it might take you a while to figure out how far ahead of everyone else James and Jordan have been. Comparing postseason stats makes it forehead-slap obvious.

[…]

Make a list of the top postseasons and it quickly becomes apparent that James and Jordan occupy a completely different stratosphere than any other player of the past 50 years.

By BPM, James has eight of the top 20 postseasons, Jordan has seven, and the entire rest of humanity has five. The top 11 postseasons all belong to Jordan and James.

By PER, it’s almost as stark. Jordan and James have the top five seasons and 13 of the top 20. Eight of those seasons belong to James. It’s slightly more generous to the “everybody else who played in the last 50 years” category because four Shaquille O’Neal seasons crash the party.

What distinguishes James from Jordan is how long he has dominated.

What’s so amazing about that 2019-20 listing from James is how much older he is than everyone else on the list. Jordan had his last season of this caliber at age 34, and it’s 19th on the list. All the others were well within the prime of their careers. But here’s LeBron, with his age-32, -33 and -35 seasons making the list.

Even in 2019-20, James is the last name on the list … having a postseason equaled by only five other players in post-merger history (by BPM, per the chart above) … but one that he himself has eclipsed seven other times.

Look at the two names on that chart again. Jordan and James are the top 10 entries and 15 of the top 22. When it comes to playoff dominance, they’re truly in a league of their own.

This was all written last week, before James’ dominant performance last night. Still, Hollinger is inclined to give the nod to Jordan for now—precisely because the game is so different now.

Jordan played in an era where it was much harder for a perimeter player to dominate and most of the top players were centers. James’s era, by contrast, is one where perimeter players are ascendant.

In the current era, nobody has matched James’s numbers, but players like Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, James Harden and Kevin Durant haven’t been too far away.

Meanwhile, Jordan was the best perimeter player of the ’90s. And the second-best was … John Stockton? Clyde Drexler? Grant Hill for that one year? Especially after Magic Johnson retired in 1991, nobody came anywhere close.

Instead, Jordan’s era was one where Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and a young Shaquille O’Neal were the dominant forces. Malone and Barkley were the players who beat him out for MVP awards, while Olajuwon pushed Jordan down to third in 1993 and Robinson finished second, third and third at various points. No sane person considered another perimeter player ahead of Jordan on their MVP ballot from 1991 to 1998.

In the two years Jordan (mostly) sat out, 193 of the 202 first-place MVP votes went to the bigs I listed above. Just nine went to perimeter players of any stripe. The six bigs I named above were the top six players in the 1995 MVP vote; only then did other perimeter players become a topic.

Meanwhile, the gap between Jordan and every other perimeter player in basketball was simply massive. I’m not going to slow your roll with a giant chart here, but the top 60 seasons in BPM from 1988-89 to 1997-98 include 37 by power forwards and centers. Eight of the others are by Jordan. Just 15 are from other perimeter players.

In other words, Jordan was so good that he was the best player even though the league at that time was set up for bigs to be the best players. He was so good that he overcame the gravitational forces yanking on every other perimeter player.

By contrast, in the peak 10 seasons of the LeBron Era – from 2008-19 to 2017-18 – every one of the top 19 seasons is by a perimeter player. (In addition to James’s five entries, we have Curry, Durant, Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Dwyane Wade campaigns.). Only six of the top 60 seasons were by a big … 90% of them came from perimeter players.

Once one accounts for the wind at James’s back and the headwind Jordan played against, it’s pretty easy to say Jordan’s relative value to his peers during his peak seasons was still greater than that of James. My three-decade-old eye test isn’t deceiving me.

But, of course, James is not done.

What’s making this debate more interesting, however, is that James is still racking up accomplishments. Statistically, James has already rivaled Jordan’s peak seasons – something no other player in history can say. Now he’s on a trajectory to potentially punctuate that with a massive advantage in longevity.

He’s not there yet, in this columnist’s estimation, but he’s not far away either. James has turned the previous non-debate about the greatest player ever into a legitimate conversation. With a win on Friday, and one or two rings on top of it, he has a chance to surpass even Jordan.

Adding complexity to the debate is that, in Jordan’s era, superstars tended to stay with one team throughout their prime. While some of the greats, notably Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, forced trades to other teams, there was markedly less fluidity than in today’s game, where many superstars are essentially free agents every single year.

Now, that cuts both ways. While Jordan’s supporting cast changed over the years but he had Scotty Pippen is his sidekick for all six of his titles. But his opponents couldn’t put together a superteam to beat him, either.

LeBron ushered in a new concept of play by taking his talents to South Beach, joining forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, to build a true superteam forged by the players.** He both benefitted from that in winning all four of his titles but lost three Finals against the Golden State Warriors’ version in a span of four years.

I still tend to side with Jordan in this debate and, like Hollinger, that’s partly driven by having been mesmerized by Jordan in his prime. I’ve simply had less time to devote to watching sports during the LeBron era. But he’s arguably been dominant for a far longer stretch than Jordan.


*Yes, tennis has changed substantially even in the time I’ve paid attention to it, in terms especially of equipment but also training regimens, personal assistants, and the like. Still, everyone at any given time is playing the same game so it’s easier to count Slam wins as relatively equal.

**The Celtics had put together a short-lived one by trading for an aging Kevin Durant and Ray Allen to join forces with Paul Pierce in 2008 but that was team-driven.

FILED UNDER: Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I saw Jordan play, in person.
    And I was in awe.
    Still…LBJ is a god. Full stop.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Ultimately, they’re very different players. King James isn’t as magical to the eye as His Airness was. He’s much more of a distributor, which actually makes his stats look less impressive. But ten Finals appearances and still dominating the game on the verge of 35 is just awe-inspiring.

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  3. Slugger says:

    In Heaven we’ll get to see the 1963 Celtics play the Showtime Lakers. Babe Ruth will play outfield with Joe DiMaggio. I will be able to see the puck in hockey. Then we’ll be able to decide the LBJ vs Michael question. Lebron is the best at this time, no question.
    BTW, the zero Covid cases in the NBA bubble are impressive. David Silver should be the chair of the White House Covid Panel.

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  4. Teve says:

    LeBron is a better shooter than Jordan, but they play the game very differently. Jordan played in the era before they realized that if you can hit 40% of your three-pointers, then it’s inefficient to take midrange jumpers. Phil Jackson had to lean on Jordan to make him pass the ball, while trusting his teammates comes naturally to LeBron, which works well because LeBron’s a stupendous passer.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Slugger: David Silver should be the chair of the White House Covid Panel.

    And trump would fire him after 2 hours.

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  6. Mister Bluster says:

    @Slugger:..In Heaven

    …there will be no Designated Hitter in Major League Baseball and the pitcher will have to throw four balls for an intentional walk. (don’t even mention starting a player at 2nd base in the 10th inning, I want to remain calm…)
    …there will be no Overtime in the NFL. Tie games at the end of regulation will remain a tie.
    …the NBA will award 4 points for baskets made from behind the half-court line.
    …the clock in soccer will count down, not up.
    …see the puck. This was heaven!
    Apparently you missed the Rapture…

    ETA…In heaven the EDIT function at OTB will work every time…

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  7. EddieInCA says:

    A few LeBron thoughts from a member of Team Mamba:

    Titles on three different teams. Never done before.
    Has played the equivalent an additional 3 entire NBA seasons in the playoffs (260). Never done before.
    Started his own charter academy in Akron.
    Very active on Police misconduct, social justice, and racial equality.

    Might play in the NBA long enough to play with his son, Bronny, who is a sick talent already at 16. He’s already 6-6, 200 pounds and is the 24th ranked player in the class of 2023.

    Has never been arrested, or even have a whiff of scandal.

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  8. @EddieInCA:

    That last bit ranks high among his accomplishments. Most mega-stars are driven at least half nuts by all the crap that comes along with it. As far as anybody can tell LBJ hardly breaks a sweat dealing with that.

    Bill Russell to Michael Jordan (at the HOF)
    “Greatest Of All Time? I don’t know about that. Who does? But I will say this: I can’t imagine anyone playing any better. I can’t imagine that.”

    Ten gets you twenty he says the same thing to LBJ, and sees no contradiction in saying it.

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  9. EddieInCA says:

    Greatest player in my opinion is Wilt. 2nd is Kareem. MJ is 5th after Magic at 3 and LeBron at 4.

    My criteria is based on how they’ve changed the game. Wilt changed the game. Kareem changed the game. Magic changed the game. LeBron changed the game. MJ changed the marketing of the game.

    MJ never won a title without Scottie Pippen or Phil Jackson. LeBron has won it on three teams with three different coaches and different sidekicks and role players.

    LeBron has embraced social justice and racial equality. MJ, when asked why he didn’t criticize racist GOP policies, responded with “Republicans buy sneakers, too”.

    To me there is no comparison.

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  10. The Q says:

    Only difference? MJ’s mad, over the top competitiveness in EVERYTHING he did. That’s really the only edge either of them has over the other ceteris parabus

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  11. Northerner says:

    Hollinger has a long and convincing discourse examining the two obvious candidates who played entirely or partly before the 1977 NBA-ABA merger, Bill Russell and Kareem Abjul-Jabbar, and why Jordan and James are even better.

    I’d argue the most obvious pre-merger candidate was Wilt Chamberlain. The biggest mark against him is lack of championships, but as you point out, its a team game, and he didn’t have the teams.

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  12. al Ameda says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Greatest player in my opinion is Wilt. 2nd is Kareem. MJ is 5th after Magic at 3 and LeBron at 4.

    I love the NBA. It’s tough to cross eras and compare the greats. I can’t much argue with your 5, they are all time great players.

    Personally, I loved Bill Russell, He was a great athlete and he played with a competitive ferocity that I didn’t see until MJ. and then Kobe. All Bill ever did was win. Russell won 2 championships in college and 11 in the NBA. He was so smart, he ran the team defense and facilitated the fast break offiense. He made everyone better.

    Was Bill as dominant as Wilt? No. But Wilt changed the game, he was a dominant player, a world class athlete too. Toward the end of his career we saw just how great Wilt was when he was paired with Jerry West. Even the very best can’t do it alone. MJ wasn’t winning titles until Scottie and some of the other wingmen got there.

    Here is my top 10, regardless of position and ranking:
    Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kobe, Lebron, MJ, and perhaps Shaq? I actually think Kareem is kind of underrated in discussions of the best of the best.

    If I had to add 5 more maybe:
    Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving and Elgin Baylor

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  13. EddieInCA says:

    @al Ameda:

    Can’t disagree with anything tiu wrote. To me what is fun about the discussion is the is no correct answer. Your list is just as solid as mine. It’s all personal.

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  14. James Joyner says:

    @Northerner: While people often point to Shaq, I’d argue Wilt was the most dominant player in his and any other era. But I’m not sure that he’s the greatest center even of his own era.

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  15. dazedandconfused says:

    @James Joyner:
    FWIW Bill Russell thought Wilt the best of his era, no question. In his book ‘Second Wind’ Bill discussed the embarrassment he felt with all the controversy about who was better, himself or Wilt. It’s been a long time since I read that book, but essentially Bill wrote Wilt was the one guy who kicked his ass nearly every time they matched up…yet the press would argue Bill was better. He was grateful Wilt (his friend) knew it was all BS too.

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  16. Jon says:

    @EddieInCA:

    To me what is fun about the discussion is the is no correct answer.

    While true in general, the correct answer is Oscar Robertson was better than Magic 😉

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  17. James Joyner says:

    @dazedandconfused: That’s pretty strong testimony. I think Wilt was clearly a more dominant force as a player than Russell or anyone else in the game. But Russell has to get bonus points for leadership in guiding his Celtics to so many championships.

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  18. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @EddieInCA: How MJ even got into the conversation is a function of his prime and ESPN’s growth.

    If you put the 50 greatest in a gym and run a combine and skill drills–there is no way Wilt Chamberlain isn’t your No. 1 pick. A 7’2 275 high-jumper who ran a sub 11.0 100m–who also BTW lead the league in assists. There simply isn’t another combination of physical athleticism and skills. Its not even close. He played 30 years to early to get his due.

    Wilt is my no 1–followed by MJ, Lebron, Kareem, and Magic. This is based on their attributes as players. I love LBJ and complete players in general (I think T-Mac was better than Kobe for about 3 seasons) but MJ is slightly more efficient. The guy could get free for a high percentage midrange shot inside of a phone booth. Lebron needs more dribbles and frankly bulls his way to the basket more. Ive always said that Lebron is simply Magic on Steroids.

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  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @James Joyner:

    Bill knew, and from very early on, that winning involves much much more than putting the ball in the basket and grabbing rebounds. IMO Bill’s thinking processes resemble those of “Five Rings” Miyamoto Musashi.

    In a nutshell “I knew what he was going to do before he did.” is no brag, just fact.

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