The group of players who have won four MVP awards in five seasons is even smaller: James and Russell. You know you’re rolling right when you’re on a list that includes only you and the greatest winner in basketball history.
At 28, James also is the youngest player to have four MVP awards. He’s so far ahead of his peers, he no longer has any. Actually, things have been this way for a while.
For years, basketball fans argued about who has been better in this era: James or Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. While the debate raged on sports-talk radio, many NBA general managers, privately at least, were united behind James. Way back in 2006, when James was 22, two NBA executives told me that if a team could get any player, James would be the choice of most.
Bryant is a fierce competitor and a future Hall of Famer. No general manager would risk angering Bryant, with the Lakers on his team’s schedule each season, by providing an on-the-record comparison of James and Bryant. Fact is, though, NBA decision-makers say James is in a different league. They’re correct.
“I would have him [James] right behind Jordan and Chamberlain,” a smart Western Conference general manager told me Monday. “If you had a time machine, and were starting a franchise right now, I would challenge anyone to find someone they would take over those three.”
It would be fun to try. Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird — there have been other transcendent figures in hoops history. Never, however, has a player at 6 feet 8 and more than 250 pounds played as effectively — and gracefully — as James. For me, Jordan remains the greatest. But James has closed the gap.
James handles the ball like a point guard. He rebounds as well as the best wing forwards. His jump shot is solid and his post-up is much improved. James also is second to none on defense, although you couldn’t tell from voting for the top defensive award.
The NBA selected Memphis center Marc Gasol as its defensive player of the year, in large part, for anchoring a defense that allowed a league-low 88.7 points per game. Gasol is a good big man, and the Grizzlies play sound defense. But the voters erred. No one draws tougher assignments than James, who finished second in the voting. He takes on the strongest forwards and quickest guards.
The Heat’s swarming defense fueled its 27-game winning streak, which was the second-longest in NBA history. A team’s best player sets the tone on defense. James’s teammates know he won’t back down — so neither do they. James has grown into a true leader, which even impresses the best of the best.