Lebron James is currently competing in his ninth Finals in 15 NBA career seasons. Statistically, that means he has been competing at the highest level of basketball 60% of his career. Most impressively, 93% of that time he was an All-Star (14/15), and 27% he was the league’s best and Most Valuable Player (4/15). Despite the herculean accolades the King has collected, he has been a champion for only 20% (3/15), with a Finals success rate of 38% (3/8). Leave it to statistics to find a weakness to LeBron’s ironclad legacy.
A familiar narrative appears thus: LeBron James, for a guy who wins a lot, seems to disappoint often when it matters. In terms of Finals success rates, LeBron is somewhere between Tiago Splitter (.500) and teammate Tristan Thompson (.333). Some say that this statistic represents glorified nitpicking—surely, eight Finals appearances count for something? It should. But so should John Havlicek’s perfect 1.000 batting average (8/8), Bill Russell’s 12 Finals appearances, Sam Jones’ 11, Kobe Bryant’s 72% win rate in seven appearances, and Michael Jordan’s 100% in all six.
LeBron’s lackluster hit rate has fueled ravenous haters ready to crucify the NBA’s self-proclaimed monarch, refusing to include him in their personal Mt. Rushmores, and disregarding James as the heir apparent to Jordan’s greatest-of-all-time throne. This, despite showing off his most impressive season while surrounded by the most unimpressive cast.
Numbers aren’t everything, and in James’ case, particularly so. NBA superstars have come and gone, and he is poised to be the NBA’s poster child for two full decades. His contrasting penchant for consistency and reinvention has proven to be effective as the game ebbs and flows. His game endures, despite the losses and bad career decisions. LeBron may be imperfect, but he is perhaps the NBA’s most impressive imperfection.
The superstar eye test
With Stephen Curry's emergence, it was as if NBA fans found something new and alien. From the ashes of Monta Ellis, a lanky 6’3” kid with unlimited range and quick handles set the world aflame by casually making 30 footers and contested jumpers. Soon, this became the new norm. Damian Lillard happened, and perhaps, Trae Young may happen. Jump-shooters became the hottest commodity in the league, while pull-ups and step-backs—thanks to James Harden—were no longer taboo. What were once bad shots are now efficient ones—an unholy lovechild of Moneyball, Moreyball, and the Hot Hand Theory. Curry came in as new blood and brought the future of the NBA with him.
In contrast, when LeBron entered the league, at first glance he brought nothing new to the table. He did virtually everything, but none of them novel. We’ve seen them all before, at least parts of it. We knew LeBron could shoot, but not as well as Kobe. We knew he could pass, just not as good as Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. We knew he could dunk, but he ain’t beating Vince Carter in a contest (God, it would’ve been great if he tried though). We knew he was a physical specimen, but so was Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. Big point guard? Magic Johnson. In the eyes of hardcore Allen Iverson, Jordan, and Kobe fans, LeBron was a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. For the commoner’s eye test, he was nothing new. But for basketball pundits, he was everything.
Turns out, not a lot of players have actually been great at everything, and not a lot of players have done it as long and as consistently as LeBron has.
Only 10 players in NBA history have gone reasonably close to averaging a triple-double in an entire season (though a couple actually have). Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson during the ’60s, Larry Bird, Magic, and Fat Lever in the ’80s, Jordan and Kidd in the ’90s, and most recently Russell Westbrook, Harden, and James in the new millennium. Ben Simmons was the latest addition to this field—considered as Lebron 2.0 with a pending jumper.
But none of those players averaged Top 20 in career scoring, assists, minutes, and 3-pointers made while hovering close to 28 ppg, except LeBron. He’s currently operating past his career averages as a Top 3 MVP pick in his 15th season—by this time, Wilt, Jordan, and Big O had already retired. LeBron started his career in the era of centers, who are now extinct and replaced with the pace-and-space army. Still, he’s as relevant as ever. Lebron is basketball’s most complete prototype so far, and he’s far from obsolete.
Semantically, it can be said that while Lebron wasn’t the best at everything, he was also technically the best at everything taken together.
The Jordan argument
The most recent spate of complaints emerged from the increasing momentum of LeBron’s campaign against Michael Jordan in the race for GOAT—a mostly shallow and deadlocked discussion touching on stats, win rates, legacies, stylistics, and abstract mystique.
Jordan has more rings (6 vs 3), but LeBron has more Finals appearances (9 vs 6). Both have roughly competed for 15 seasons, but LeBron shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Jordan had incredible career scoring highs, but LeBron has shot at higher percentages from the field and three while being a consistent triple-double threat every night.
One key component that will always remain subjective would be Jordan’s legendary killer mentality. Kobe had this as well. According to scoring fans, LeBron often shies away from big shots, passes more than he should, and relies on other stars to clinch their key wins.
It took a while for fans to warm up to LeBron’s signature basketball: a more meticulous, mental, and exploitative take that represents the biggest difference between Jordan and the King.
Supporters argue that LeBron is too smart to go haywire on his opponents. The combination of his 6’8”, 250-pound frame, unlimited mobility, and confident ball handling allows angles and opportunities not always available to smaller point guards. James uses this advantage in one-on-one matchups, and almost always picks the highest chance to score, even if it doesn’t involve him scoring. LeBron would exploit mismatches rather than charge forward blindly and would operate tirelessly off screens—often with a third eye locked-in on a baseline cutter or cross-court shooter.
Jordan was the opposite. He believed that he was the highest chance to score, and that defined his style of play. John Starks wrote in a Players’ Tribune article on his Top 5 most challenging defensive assignments: “Michael was the easiest to guard on.” This was because Jordan knew he was going to score on you, and he would jump over and blow past you if needed. He was the prime example of an alpha scorer who had no apparent weakness, other than an elite long-range shot. Players like Reggie Miller would cover their deficiencies by moving around screens and zipping off-ball (Curry?). Mitch Ritchmond and Steve Smith would use their size to dominate smaller guards, like Kevin Durant and Simmons. Jordan seemingly did not believe much in mismatches, because deep down he knew that he was the ultimate mismatch and that he had the advantage every time.
But Jordan didn’t live in the time of KD, a seven-foot shooting guard, or the four-pointer that is Steph. He isn’t around combo guards who have Tony Parker’s floater, towering centers shooting threes nonchalantly, and 6’8” floor generals. Today’s players are, if not more physically dominant, much versatile than their predecessors. One wonders if Jordan could still consistently shoot fadeaways if Kawhi Leonard, Durant, and Giannis Antetokounpo would hound him all game.
"These were the alpha dog days, and with it came arrogant, irrational confident shooters and scorers. LeBron grew up watching these people play, and spent his entire lifetime figuring out how to be better than them"
Advanced statistics weren’t as prevalent during the ’90s. We will have no straightforward evidence regarding Jordan’s contested shot percentages over LeBron’s. But because the latter is, as mentioned earlier, a perfect carbon copy of everything that preceded him, it’s unreasonable to expect him to attack the rim every time he could. He was too smart and talented to do it.
The argument for Lebron’s passiveness becomes all the more confounding when considering his historic 2018 postseason, where he unwillingly took Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and JR Smith on his shoulders and churned out seven 40-point games in the playoffs while averaging 34 ppg on .540 shooting as the only credible threat for the Cavs. For the first time in his career, LeBron is consistently playing like Kobe and Jordan, and fans should feel lucky to see it, for it likely won’t last long.
The claim is understandable but unreasonable. The most educated and experienced fans lived through the bloodbath era of the ’80s and ’90s, a time when players exchanged elbows and fists freely and would rather leave the court than extend a congratulatory shake at the end of a hard-fought game. These were the alpha dog days, and with it came arrogant, irrational confident shooters and scorers. LeBron grew up watching these people play, and spent his entire lifetime figuring out how to be better than them.
Perhaps the most damning argument against LeBron was his untimely sortie from the Cavs and commitment to the Heatles. To a lot of spectators, LeBron went ring-chasing at the age of 26. The motivations for such preemptive move, besides wanting to win and play with friends, remain suspect. Perhaps he was pressured to elevate his legacy quicker than most.
After all, LeBron was the first and best example of the new post-modern NBA superhero. LeBron perfected what Kobe had cultivated: the complete embrace of personal branding, monikers, corporate endorsements, social media presence, emojis, and the incredible world for passive-aggressiveness. Lebron was a blatant product of the NBA, honed to perfection with skill and engineered to awareness with media from the moment he entered the league.
Perhaps he thought it was a good idea to capture the spectacle of changing teams because he knew people wanted to watch it. They had the means to do it and showed the willingness to do so. Had Lebron announced on live TV that he was staying, TNT and ESPN might have used that as the jumping point for further free agency announcements. The tone and timing of “The Decision,” and its handling remain universally frowned upon by most who lived through that period, but it really wasn’t media buffoonery that people actually hated.
People hated that because he joined his super friends to win a championship. People hated him because he shunned his hometown for the big city, like dumping your country girlfriend for an Instagram model. He got his first ring by joining two of the most talented players of his generation and exploited the competition. He joined a champion and took notes on how to do it on his own.
This is why people are now turning on KD, and to a lesser effect, Curry. Durant was once the media’s millennial darling: a soft-spoken, backpack-toting freak of nature with a smooth jumper. Until he, too, decided to ring-chase with the league’s winningest team in history. Competitive people hate seeing competitive players “join forces.”
Thus, the residual thought from all the noise: maybe he should’ve waited. Stuck to his guns, honed his talents, for eventually, he will come to dominate the league in a way no one has ever seen.
In the summer of 2010, deep in thought, in individual awards, and stats never before seen for a player his age and size, perhaps LeBron thought that he couldn’t win alone in Ohio. He would never get the help he deserves to get over the hump and compete in the biggest stage. Perhaps LeBron didn’t believe in himself enough to overcome all the odds.
But that just happened, a few months ago. With a slipshod team, LeBron bullied his way into the NBA Finals with a concussed Kevin Love, a hyperconfident Clarkson, a shove-happy Smith, and an overpaid Tristan Thompson. LeBron, against all the odds, has once again reached the pinnacle of basketball.
Then again, Jordan would have never doubted himself.