There’s no more debate about who is the best player in the NBA. LeBron James’s performance ended the discussion. But here’s one that’s still worth having: Where does James rank among the game’s all-time greats?
He’s already near the top of an exclusive list that gets shorter every year. In winning his fourth MVP trophy Sunday, the Miami Heat superstar joined Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the only players in NBA history with at least four MVP awards. Talk about great company.
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.
“He really knows how to play,” Baylor said in a phone conversation Monday. “He sets an example for his teammates. He plays the game hard, and he’s really, really smart. When his team needs points, he’ll score. What he’s even better at, what he does most of the time, is he looks to make plays for the other guys. He’s always looking to get his teammates involved.
“And that’s what a lot of people don’t understand. It’s not just [physical ability]. A lot of guys have that. But they don’t know what’s going on [on the court] or what to do. LeBron really understands the game. And you put that together with his size, his speed, his agility, his incredible athleticism, and the way he handles the ball . . . then you see it. You see why he is where he is now.”
After pausing to consider his comments, Baylor wanted to make something clear: James would be great in any era.
“The league is different from back when I played,” he continued. “There were rules that made it easier for the defense then.
“Guys could put their hands on you and move you around. Some of the rules now are helpful to offensive guys. But LeBron could definitely play then. Oh, yeah. The guy has so much ability.”
James falls short in one area: championships. Russell won 11. Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar each finished with six rings. Johnson and Bryant have five apiece. Last season, James won his first.
The knock against James was that he couldn’t win when it counted most. Until James left Cleveland, though, he never had good enough teammates. Russell’s great Celtics teams included many other Hall of Famers. After winning a title with Oscar Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar won five more with Magic.
Jordan had Scottie Pippen. Bryant was a second banana, albeit a great one, to Shaquille O’Neal while winning three consecutive titles. He won two more with Pau Gasol. During James’s seven seasons in Cleveland, who was the second-best player on the Cavaliers’ roster? Antawn Jamison?
James may never catch Bryant in the title chase, let alone Jordan. And that would be okay. When you’re one of the best ever, you don’t have to worry about the other guys.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.