LeBron James: The Case for the Best Ever

Okay, I know.  It’s not even been all that long since I wrote that debates about the best ever were pointless.  Eight months in fact – MJ vs LJ.  The concept of “best” is highly subjective.  Historians work in objectivity – or at least attempted objectivity.  It is very hard to make a compelling argument for something being the “best ever” of a thing that has existed for longer than a lifetime.  Too much has occurred and too many things have, at times, been the “best at the time” to really make this a valuable discussion.

The thing is, over the past few nights, two very significant events have taken place.  The first, on Friday 27th December, in Sacramento, was when LeBron passed both Gary Payton and Larry Bird on the NBA’s all-time leading scorer’s list.  He’s now the NBA’s 29th highest scorer.

The second, on Monday 30th December, was the occasion of LeBron James’s 29th birthday.  Entering his 30th year, LeBron has scored more points in the NBA than Michael Jordan did.  In fact, he’s scored more points than ANYBODY else in the history of the NBA had by their 29th birthday.

Damn Yankee fans

LeBron now sits on 21,819 points.  He’s a little under 400 points from Clyde Drexler on the list.  True, he’s still 10,000 points behind Kobe, who is perhaps the best career comparison for LeBron given the pair both entered the NBA directly from high school, but he is also nearly 2,000 points ahead of Kobe-at-age-29.

Thirty-eight-thousand-three-hundred-and-eight-seven is the all-time NBA record, held by Lewis Alcindor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (that’s the same person, just in case you aren’t up on your NBA).  LeBron is well on his way to topping that, assuming he proves to be as durable, or at least relatively so, into his mid-30s.

By the age of 29, Abdul-Jabbar had 16,486 points. Karl Malone had 14,770.  Both played into their forties (only just).

LeBron has 5,491 assists in his career, good enough for 43rd on the all-time list – he’s fourth among active players.  Michael Jordan, who sits 38th on the list, has only 142 more assists in his career than LeBron has by age 29.

Let’s just do a quick LeBron-Kobe-Michael comparison at the age of 29, courtesy of USA Today:


Screen Shot 2013-12-30 at 5.25.17 PM


So Kobe had more titles…but he also had Shaq.  Good as Wade and Bosh are, they’re not turn-of-the-century Shaq.  Nobody in the current NBA is.  Indeed, having played with Shaq was one of the major criticisms that Kobe has faced throughout his career when it comes to his hypothetical legacy.  I imagine that his enormous cap-killing contract might also feature heavily.

The only part of the statistical comparison that LeBron falls down on is the average, and even then it’s only to Jordan and only in points (4.8 fewer), steals (1 fewer) and blocks (0.3 fewer).

Let’s also factor in a few arguments that are worth considering.

1 – the “nice guy” argument.  Are you seriously going to give me this argument in this discussion?  Because Kobe and Michael are such nice guys?

I will counter you with what I call the Langrell Theory.  According to the great philosopher of Irish hoops, C. David Langrell, the way a basketball player plays the game accurately reflects his or her personality.  Examples: Carmelo demands the ball, then shoots.  He’s selfish (although I did meet him at the All-Star Game and I have to say I was surprised how nice a dude he was). Kobe demands the ball and shoots.  He’s selfish.  He chews out his team-mates all the time for not getting him the ball.  LeBron James almost always makes the right play – shoot, drive, pass or cut.  He yells at his team-mates for making the wrong play, not when they don’t pass him the ball.  You’re thinking “oh, but he misses this shot and that shot”.  Doesn’t matter.  Look at the play again and tell me if it was the right play to attempt.  I bet that 95% of the time it was.  He’s a good guy.  He might be a bit full of himself, but then again most of us are.  I’ve seen your facebook page, you definitely are.  Hell, I’m sitting here telling you to think what I think because I’m right (okay, I’ll frame it as my arguments in favour of something, but that’s essentially the same thing).


LeBron’s charity bike ride

The Langrell Theory proves that LeBron is a good guy.  It proves that Steve Nash is a good guy.  It also proves that other players that you are thinking of are not.

If that doesn’t convince you, look at Kobe Bryant’s new contract and try to tell me that it doesn’t cripple the Lakers for its duration.  Then look at the amount of money the Miami Heat pay LeBron James who, let’s not forget, is the best player in the league.  Tell me he’s selfish.  You can’t justify that argument.  Hell, look at “the Decision”, perhaps LeBron’s least fine moment.  It made $3m for charity.  Anyone else doing that, for charity?  Nope, didn’t think so.

2 – the clutch argument.  Firstly, by “clutch” you could be referring to any number of possible performance related statistics.  Let’s say you mean taking a shot towards the end of an important game – the last 24 seconds of a playoff game.  Okay, then LeBron is statistically the most “clutch” player in the NBA since his debut.  In the final 24 seconds of NBA playoff games, LeBron is 7-of-16 which is 43.8% and better THAN ANYONE ELSE who have had 10 attempts or more.  The league average is 28.3%.  So he’s almost twice as clutch as the rest of the NBA.  Since 2003-2004 Kobe is 5/17, Durant is 5/12 and Dirk is 5/12.  Last season, with the game on the line (regular season), LeBron was 7/17 with the game on the line.  Paul Pierce was 3/16, Durant 6/14, Kobe 3/12, Paul George 1/11, Carmelo 1/9.

All time, this blog from the excellent Henry Abbott at Truehoop, unsurprisingly the most clutch player ever is Tayshaun Prince.  Okay, Tayshaun has only ever attempted five “clutch” shots, but made three of them.  Ray Allen and, yep, Michael Jordan are at 50% (6/12 and 9/18 respectively – although these stats don’t factor in Allen’s historically clutch shot in the most recent NBA finals).


Layup = clutch

The thing is that the taking of a single shot is a very narrow definition to use.  I’ve already argued that LeBron makes good decisions, so if he ends up being doubled and a team-mate is open for a “clutch” shot, then he’s going to pass.  To shoot despite excellent defensive pressure would be dumb.  So let’s expand the definition to include whole games.  LeBron stacks up pretty well here as well.  LeBron is one of two players to register 30/10/10 and three blocks in a playoff game EVER.  The other is Ralph Sampson.  He has nine playoff triple-doubles – Magic has 30 (!), Jason “worst coach in NBA history” Kidd has 11, Rajon Rondo and Larry Bird both have 10.

The lovely Dan Gilbert (did he ever compensate Cleveland fans for coming up short on his guarantee that Cleveland would win an NBA title before LeBron, by the way?) accused LeBron of quitting on Cleveland during their second round defeat to the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Playoffs:

He quit…not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6.  Watch the tape.  The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar.

Well, firstly LeBron was the regular season MVP that year.  Secondly, his points totals were (by game) 35, 24, 38, 22, 15 and 27.

In Game 2, which he quit in, he led the team in rebounds and points and steals.  Game 4, which he also quit in, saw him grab nine boards and dish out 8 assists.  In Game 6, which he also quit in, he had a triple double of 19 boards and 10 assists, was 9/12 at the line and 2/4 from three.  If that’s quitting, then perhaps quitting is something we should all aspire to.  He also played seven minutes a game more than any of his team-mates.  So Dan Gilbert is a bitter, sad man.  And LeBron actually played pretty well.  At a crucial point in the season.

He’s clutch.

3 – he doesn’t win.  He has four MVPs and two titles.  Next.  What?  You think that it’s somehow a given that a good player can win a title?  Let me refer you to Karl Malone and Charles Barkley.  It’s not easy to win a title, it doesn’t matter how good you are.


Four time MVP

4 – he didn’t win in Cleveland.  Dumb argument.  Next.  Okay, so some justification for this.  Since when is this an appropriate criteria for judging the all-time greatness of a player?  Players leave teams.  You think that because he conspired with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to join forces that this is a bad thing?  To have the ambition to win?  To take less money than you are worth in the name of winning?  Put the goal-posts down, your argument is weak.

Players with five titles or more fall into a few categories.  Let’s just acknowledge :

Guys who played in Boston between 1957 and 1969: Bill Russell (11), Sam Jones (10), John Havlicek (8), Tom Heinsohn (8), KC Jones (8), Tom “Satch” Sanders (8), Frank Ramsey (7), Bob Cousy (6), James Loscutoff (6), Don Nelson (5), Larry Siegfried (5).

Guys who played in Minneapolis in the 1940s and 1950s: George Mikan (5), Slater Martin (5), Jim Pollard (5)

Now that’s done, let’s look at more modern guys.  Kareem has six, but moved to LA where he won 5 as part of the Magic-led Lakers (Magic and Michael Cooper were both there for all five).  The three-peat-ing Chicago Bulls only had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on all six of its championship sides, but three also featured two-time champion Dennis Rodman.  Kobe and Derek Fisher both have five.  Finally there is Robert Horry who won two in LA, two in Houston and one in San Antonio.

The question here is: how many of these guys only ever played for one team?  I’m not going to bother looking up every single name, but Michael Jordan also played for Washington.  He didn’t win in Washington.  Kobe was technically drafted by Charlotte, but I’ll give you him.  Magic only ever played for the Lakers, so he and Kobe (and, if you discount his one year in Italy, Michael Cooper) are the only modern “winners” to only play for one NBA side.  So you are limiting your discussion to one of these three guys if this is your criteria.

Let’s not forget that Michael Jordan played alongside one of the greatest ever in Scottie Pippen.  He had incredible role players like Steve Kerr, Bill Paxson, Dennis Rodman, hell even Luc Longley and Bill Wennington could do a job.

Let’s not forget that the Boston Celtics should have won more titles in the late 1980s and 1990s.  They saw both Len Bias and Reggie Lewis die tragically in 1986 (before he played a single game) and 1993 (of cardiac arrest) respectively.  Have a look at this:


Think Reggie Lewis might have been able to slow Michael down some?  Care to name any possible stars that have not had the opportunity to challenge LeBron at his peak?  Any of the calibre of Len Bias or Reggie Lewis who, incidentally, would have been on the same team.

The point I am trying to make here is that LeBron is playing in the NBA which is at perhaps an all-time high in terms of standard.  He faces elite competition every single night – not just in terms of opposing teams “giving him their best shot” but in terms of the guys who defend him.  The type of guys who defend and have defended LeBron are guys like Paul George (strong candidate for the third best player in the league, if only he had a better beard), Tony Allen, Kobe, Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest, Raja Bell: guys who are known for being stoppers – let’s not forget that Kobe was a great defender in his day.  Of course so is LeBron – he’s an ever present in the NBA All-Defensive Team since 2008.

Despite being the focus of opposition defensive assignments, LeBron still manages to rank among the top scorers in the league ever single season.  And he does this without appearing to be a ball hog, not something you can say of Kobe and Carmelo.  This is just as true in Miami, where he is now basically the guy given Dwyane Wade’s highly problematic knees.

But, you’re right, he didn’t win in Cleveland.  Just like every single player who has ever played any sport in Cleveland.  (Note: not strictly true, the Browns won the NFL in 1950, 1954, 1955 and 1964, the Indians won the World Series in 1920 and 1948)

5 – the “he didn’t go to college” argument.  This one is an odd argument because it sort of supports both sides.  LeBron has more points at 29 than Michael Jordan did because Michael Jordan went to college.  LeBron’s highest level of coaching prior to matching up with the very best players on the planet was his high school coach.  Jordan played for Dean Smith.  He was an eighteen year old boy.  Yet that eighteen year old boy, playing against a Sacramento Kings team that went to the Conference finals in 2002 and lost in the Conference semi-finals in both of the following years, ended his first ever NBA game with 25 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals.


Young LeBron

There’s no denying that LeBron has more NBA games than Michael Jordan at the age of 29.  MJ also had injury problems in his early seasons.  But, it must be remembered that MJ was also a man when he entered the NBA.  LeBron was basically a boy.  A freak, a phenomenon, a one-off, but a boy.

A boy who averaged nearly 21 points per game in 79 NBA games, which he started all 79 of, 5.5 rebounds per game, 5.9 assists per game, 1.6 steals per game, 41% from the field.  What were you doing when you were 18 and 19?  It wasn’t that.


All Buckeyes wish this had happened

To conclude, I appreciate that to start off an article by saying that the argument is pointless before giving you over 2,000 words of the same argument is odd.  I’m not trying to say that you all suddenly need to rush to Camp LeBron.  But what I am saying is that you should not be so quick to dismiss LeBron’s credentials, even aged 29 and half way through his 11th NBA season, as the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball.  Watch him and enjoy what you are seeing.  We genuinely might never see this again.

Happy New Year to all TCC readers.


Twitter: @sandersandrew


Andrew was something of a latecomer to the game of basketball, having given up rugby after leaving high school. Joining Edinburgh’s fabled Pentland Tigers, he quickly moved on to the East Lothian Peregrines in the Scottish national league before moving to Belfast where he played with Queens and then with Belfast Star. After a year in the superleague, he moved back to Scotland and played with the Scottish Rocks in the BBL. He “retired” (the McDermott rule for using the word “retire” instead of “stopped playing” does require you to have been paid to play, so technically he retired) and moved to Seattle where he began life as an academic, which currently sees him working at University College Dublin. He is a legitimate non-frontrunning Miami Heat fan, having taken up following the team in 2001.

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