A couple of days before the 2015 NBA Finals began with an overtime classic that tilted a fascinating six-game Warriors-Cavaliers series in favor of Golden State, I wrote that I’d seen enough, as political analyst Dave Wasserman tweets so many times as election results are being calculated.
My call: LeBron James had surpassed Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time.
Hard to believe now, but that was eight years ago.
LeBron essentially has had another Hall of Fame career just in the seasons since.
Consider all James has accomplished while Jordan could do no more than point to the television ratings of “The Last Dance”:
Since 2015, LeBron has scored 13,739 regular-season points, or more than Hall of Famers Dave Cowens, Rudy Tomjanovich and Paul Westphal did in their careers; passed for 4,119 assists, or more than Hall of Fame guards JoJo White, Earl Monroe and Pete Maravich in their careers, and James grabbed 4,165 rebounds, or more than Hall of Famers Ralph Sampson and Chris Mullin in their careers.
James’ teams in Cleveland and Los Angeles have appeared in another 100 playoff games, or more than the career totals for Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes, Dave DeBusschere and Bob McAdoo. They have reached another four NBA Finals series and won two championships, which is more than Hall of Famers Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley and Dave Bing achieved.
In 2015, the case for LeBron as history’s greatest player primarily involved his overwhelming impact on winning:
* He had become the first NBA player outside the Celtics dynasty to reach five consecutive Finals. He then went on to extend that streak to eight in a row, which is tied for fourth all-time with Frank Ramsey and behind Tom Heinsohn and Sam Jones (9) and the great Bill Russell (10). He reached the Finals in more than half of his completed 19 seasons in the league.
* In James’ last season with the Cavaliers before departing to Miami as a free agent in 2010, the team won 61 regular-season games. The second-leading scorer on that team was Mo Williams, followed by J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao. Seriously. After James left for Miami, a similar bunch of Cavs won 19 games. That’s a 69 percent decline in success rate.
During the four seasons James spent with the Heat, the Cavs averaged a .288 winning percentage. Upon his return, they immediately posted a 53-29 record, a .646 percentage. In 2018-19, after James departed for Los Angeles, the Cavs plunged to 19-63.
It was similar in Miami, where the Heat were 47-35 the season before he arrived, 37-45 the season after he left but achieved a .717 winning percentage and four Finals appearances in between. He was not the only great player added in either case, but the declines following his departure offered plenty of evidence he was the difference in both.
Compare that to what happened in Chicago when Jordan left to play baseball after the 1992-93 season, following a run of three consecutive NBA championships. The Bulls declined from 57 regular-season victories – all the way to 55.
* James made big winners out of some dubious rosters. In 2007, James led the Cavs to the first of his Finals appearances. The second-leading scorer on that Cavs team was Larry Hughes, who was out of the league four years later. He didn’t even score 15 points per game that year.
In January 2015, the Cavaliers executed a trade that secured two players, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, from a New York Knicks team that had begun the season with a 5-30 record. After arriving in Cleveland, they were rotation players on a team that, including playoffs, went 49-18. The difference, obviously: They got to be LeBron’s teammates.
The third-leading scorer on the Lakers’ 2020 NBA Championship team was Kyle Kuzma, who averaged 12.8 points per game. In the playoffs, it was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who averaged 10.7.
There’s no one out there doing so much with so comparatively little.
In 2023, the case for James as history’s greatest player now can be based on the astonishing breadth of his accomplishment. After 19 seasons, he owns the NBA career records for points scored, All-NBA selections and All-Star selections (tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). He stands No. 4 in assists, No. 9 in steals, No. 10 in defensive rebounds, No. 9 in 3-pointers, No. 4 in triple-doubles and No. 4 in free throws.
He is first in playoff games, playoff victories, playoff points and playoff steals. In the advanced-stat department, he is the NBA’s career leader in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and No. 2 in win shares.
|Points||32,292 (5th)||38,652 (1st)|
|PPG||30.1 (1st)||27.2 (6th)|
|Assists||5,633 (53rd)||10,420 (4th)|
At the same age, 38, when James just finished a regular season in which he averaged 28.9 points, 6.8 assists and 8.3 rebounds in 55 games, Jordan averaged 22.9/5.2/5.7 in 60 games for a 37-win Wizards team and Abdul-Jabbar produced 23.4/1.6/6.1 in 79 games for the Western Conference finalist Lakers.
Perhaps because Jordan was not a part of my childhood or developing years, but rather a contemporary, I don’t feel the compulsion to diminish or understate what James is accomplishing most every night with the Lakers.
We all see the passes he is making, the shots he rejects, the big baskets, but some continue to insist it’s not that extraordinary, it’s not as special as what Jordan achieved. There were things, indeed, that Jordan could do that James cannot. Jordan could jump higher, fly longer, and thus more regularly steal the breath of his many ardent fans.
There clearly are things, though, that James do that Jordan could not – and did not.
How many times did Jordan help make a double-figure scorer out of a second-year undrafted free agent shooting guard? Austin Reaves is doing wonderful things for the Lakers in this season, in these playoffs. Let’s not pretend it would be happening if the guy wearing No. 6 weren’t wearing the same uniform.
Eight years ago, I’d seen enough to be convinced the player I’d first seen in July 2001 at Sonny Vaccaro’s ABCD Camp – and was inspired to write that he was “Magic Johnson’s head on Michael Jordan’s body” – had become the greatest player in the game’s history.
He’s done so much more in those subsequent seasons, I don’t see how it’s even debatable.