LeBron James is still the best basketball player on the planet, and that’s a statement I’ll stick to no matter what happens on Sunday night’s NBA Finals Game 7. LeBron James is also perhaps the most hated, vilified, and scrutinized player in the NBA today, although Draymond Green seems to be quickly climbing the ladder towards the “hated” title. But I digress.
After Game 1 of these NBA Finals, the game in which two-time reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Steph Curry shot 4-for-15 and scored just 11 points, I remember thinking to myself that if that same stat line had been put up by LeBron James, Twitter might have actually exploded that night. But for the most part, Curry, who I will openly admit (you almost have to) is one of the best shooters the game has ever seen, got a free pass. “Well, he just had an off night” seemed to be the general consensus of that evening and I wondered what the consensus would have been had it been LeBron. My guess is that the word “choke” and some expletives would have been thrown around, but maybe that’s just me.
Now, before you start accusing me of just being some guy from Cleveland sticking up for his guy or even a Cavaliers fan in general, allow me to set the record straight. I’m neither of those things. Truth be told, I’m a Lakers fan that lives in the heart of Chicago Bulls country. I grew up idolizing Magic Johnson and watching Michael Jordan destroy the hopes and dreams of future Hall of Fame players that just wanted one championship ring. And as a Lakers guy, that meant I was a Kobe Bryant guy, so I just wanted to clear that up before the negativity on this topic starts pouring in. And outside of rooting for Game 1 hero Shaun Livingston, whom I’ve known since he was seven years old, I really don’t have a dog in this fight for the 2016 NBA Championship.
Since I brought up Michael Jordan, let me hit on that for a moment. The comparisons between LeBron James and Michael Jordan just need to stop. It’s apples and oranges, folks. They’re not the same type of player and really never have been. Kobe was about as close to Michael as we’re ever going to see, but LeBron has always been more like Magic anyway. Yeah, Michael never lost in the NBA Finals. There’s nothing I can say on that, is there? Of course there isn’t. But that shouldn’t ever take away from the fact that for one, LeBron has actually won two championships, which is more than guys like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, and so many other great players that came before him. And secondly, LeBron James has been to the NBA Finals six straight times, something that hasn’t been done since the players of the Celtics’ dynasty in the ’60s pulled it off.
One of the knocks on LeBron James these days is how much he complains to officials, which he certainly does on occasion. If you do want to go ahead and make a Jordan comparison, outside of LeBron James’ jersey number, start with that. I know it’s a sin to ever say anything derogatory about Michael, but he did the exact same thing and he did it constantly. But as it is with most things, that number 23 gets a free pass from everyone. Stars want calls and stars expect calls. LeBron James is no different in that regard. And I really don’t see as much backlash when Steph Curry throws one of his hissy fits.
Perhaps you don’t like LeBron James because he’s too good — and he’s not on your team. When he came into the league in 2003, his athleticism was unparalleled, and you would think that after thirteen seasons it would have gone away by now, but he’s the same freak of nature that he was back then. Never before has the NBA seen a specimen like LeBron James. Somebody that big that’s that fast should probably be on an NFL field, and I’m betting LeBron could do that if he really felt like it. But with that athleticism comes an insane amount of talent. Is LeBron James the best shooter in basketball? Absolutely not. But is he still the best all-around player in the game? Absolutely. He has been for years and I honestly don’t see that changing anytime soon. Yes, there are guys out there who are insanely talented a do a few things well. Durant can score. Curry can shoot. Westbrook is becoming a great all-around player. But LeBron is still just better than everybody else. Is he going to win as many rings as Kobe or Magic or Michael? Maybe not. But that does not take away from what we’ve been privileged to watch for 13 years. Those guys also had some better supporting casts than some of the ones that LeBron has had during his career.
Now, this certainly isn’t a lobby from me to anoint LeBron James as the greatest player of all time because I certainly don’t think that. But he belongs in the conversation. Despite his win-loss record in the NBA Finals, he has to be in that discussion, much like Peyton Manning was when it comes to all-time quarterbacks, despite winning just the one Super Bowl until earlier this year. He’s just another one of those guys that you’ve probably hated on at some point. But if he were wearing your team’s jersey, you’d likely own two or three different versions of it. LeBron’s career numbers speak for themselves. 27.2 points per game. 7.2 rebounds per game. 6.9 assists per game. And he actually gets better in the playoffs with 28.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists. Think James wasn’t the leader in his two wins in the NBA Finals? In 2012, LeBron averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists when his Miami Heat beat Kevin Durant and the Thunder. The following year, when they beat future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and the Spurs, James averaged 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists. And the numbers in his losses in the NBA Finals are nearly as impressive.
But let’s not look at the past too much, although last year’s NBA Finals line of 35.8 points per game, 13.3 rebounds per game, and 8.8 assists per game in the Cavaliers’ loss to the Warriors was nothing short of spectacular. What we’re watching in this year’s Finals is truly something special. Through six games, he leads all players in points (181), rebounds (68), assists (51), blocks (13), and steals (16). He’s put up 41 points in each of the last two games and is showing that cutthroat attitude that Michael and Kobe were known for. Just the look he gave Steph Curry after that block in Game 6 showed that he’s out for blood and simply would not allow the Warriors to celebrate in his building again.
Many people will define LeBron James’ legacy on what he does on Sunday night. But his legacy is already intact. Even after 13 years in the league, he’s still just 31 years old and is playing the best basketball of his life. And that’s really saying something after everything we’ve already seen. Trust me, I could run number after number at you that puts him right up there with the likes of Oscar Robertson and many other legendary figures of the game, but chances are I probably still haven’t changed your mind about LeBron James, and if the Cavaliers lose Game 7, the hate will flow through social media channels like never before. The fact is that while it may bother me a little bit for some reason, it doesn’t seem to bother him at all.
Love me or Hate me but at the end of the day u will RESPECT me!!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 14, 2016
LeBron James certainly has my respect and even if he does choose to leave Cleveland after this season, I’ll continue to be in awe of him every time he steps foot on the basketball court. If he chooses to put on the purple and gold, I’d be ecstatic, and if LeBron James joined your team, I’m betting you would be as well. Too often we sit back and wait for a player’s career to end before we dole out that respect and admiration that we’ve likely deep down had all along. It’s just not cool to admit on Twitter though, is it? Well, I’m just throwing it out there that this is an instance where the hate needs to stop and we should just watch and be thankful that we get to live in the LeBron James era of basketball history. I’m one of those witnesses that Nike wanted, and if you want to go ahead and hate on me for that, go right ahead. I suppose that’s what the internet is for, right? Just ask LeBron James.
[Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images]