I do not care for LeBron James.
Check that: I despise LeBron James. I enjoy watching him fail. I enjoy watching the Miami Heat lose. I am a Dallas Mavericks fan, yet for me, the highlight of the 2011 NBA Finals was not that the Mavericks won, but that the Heat lost.
I am a hater. And for the longest time, I haven’t believed the hype. Not the hype that already surrounded LeBron has a high school phenom from Akron, Ohio. Not the hype that this time, the “next Jordan” is actually better than Jordan. Certainly not the hype that James believes in himself, as evidenced by the casual arrogance he exhibits over, and over, and over a-g-a-i-n.
That being said, I’m not blind (or dumb!). I recognize LeBron’s talent. I recognize that he is currently the best player in the NBA (though Kevin Durant is not that far behind). And I recognize that he has already carved out a place in NBA history for himself at the young age of 29. As such, who better to provide an objective analysis of LeBron James’ legacy than I? And given the fact that LeBron has opted out of his contract with Miami and will become a free agent as of July 1, what better time than now to take a look at where he stands as he enters the next stage of his career?
Is LeBron the greatest player in NBA history? Or even the greatest small forward ever?
In short: no.
Essentially, the first question is “Is LeBron better than Michael Jordan?” It is impossible to say “yes” to this on a very fundamental level. Even at 29, Jordan was a superior scorer, shooter, and defender, a comparable passer and rebounder, had won more championships, and was a larger global icon (yes, that does matter). Jordan accomplished all of the above in a tougher NBA era than the current one. And that’s without considering everything Jordan accomplished post-29 (hint: a few more championships, a few more MVP trophies). There is no conceivable way anyone can possibly argue that LeBron is better than Michael so far..
Nor is he even the greatest small forward of all time, as it has been recently suggested. Larry Bird still holds a slight edge over James. Statistically, they’re close (LeBron holds better scoring and passing number, Bird holds better shooting and rebounding numbers), they're in the same neighborhood defensively (shocking, but LeBron is, uh, not that great at defense) but Bird won more championships (3 to 2) and, in tandem with Magic Johnson, saved the league.
But to be fair to LeBron, he shouldn’t even be compared to either Jordan or Bird. Though he has the physical tools, LeBron is stylistically closer to Magic Johnson. Jordan and Bird were killers. Above all else, Magic was a distributor. And though LeBron is more likely to finish a fast break than to start one, he’s demonstrated time and again that it’s difficult for him to overcompensate for his teammates when simply playing within the flow of the game isn’t enough (see: the 2014 NBA Finals).
Not that he hasn’t done so in the past. Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals is the most famous example. Since then, he’s racked up a handful of dominant performances as a Cleveland Cavalier and a Miami Heat. But more often than not, LeBron will look like the player we saw in the 2014 Finals, content to have some nice numbers when his team needs so much more, either unwilling or just incapable of going into the rarefied air that other great scorers are able to go to when they need it.
It is in that way that he is most like Magic Johnson. As great as he was, the truest test of Magic’s legacy was after Kareem Abdul Jabbar retired in 1989. In Magic’s two post-Kareem seasons, the Lakers were still extremely successful, even making the 1991 NBA Finals. But Magic himself didn’t elevate his game beyond his normal production, averaging under 20 points (but with over 12 assists) per game in the ‘91 Finals as his Lakers fell to Jordan’s Bulls in the series.
Like Magic, LeBron does make his teammates better. But he also needs his teammates in a way someone like Bird (the greatest small forward ever) and Jordan (the greatest player ever) never did: if LeBron does his part, his teammates will take him home (see: Ray Allen, 2013 NBA Finals, Game 6); if their teammates did their part, Bird/Jordan would take them home.
So where does LeBron rank all-time so far?
The fact that we’re comparing him to Jordan, Bird, and Magic should already tell you that LeBron is up there in the all-time rankings (SPOILER ALERT: he’s on the cusp of the top 10).
Quickly, below are the players who all rank ahead of LeBron James, all due in large part to the fact that their careers are complete/near completion. These players are ahead of LeBron at this point in his career:
1. Michael Jordan
t-2. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird
4. Bill Russell
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
6. Hakeem Olajuwon
7. Wilt Chamberlain
8. Tim Duncan
9. Kobe Bryant
That leaves James haggling for tenth with fellow high-flying forward Julius Erving. Oddly enough, Erving’s career arc parallels LeBron’s in several ways, with Erving often in a positive light where LeBron ended up in a negative light (the prime example of which being their exits from their first teams. LeBron famously left Cleveland with a much-maligned Decision, making him a villain; Dr. J left the Nets because the team sold him to pay their bills, letting him off the hook.). Ultimately, I rank Dr. J ahead of LeBron just because Dr. J is a classy spokesman for the game while LeBron… well, isn’t. That leaves him at 11th, just ahead of Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, and others.
But what does this mean, exactly? That though he’s currently the best player in the NBA, LeBron is not even the greatest player in the league right now. Kobe and Duncan may be nearing the end of their great careers, but until they’re gone, it's their legacies that Lebron's should be measured against first, not legends that have already any retired. Furthermore, it means that LeBron has a long (looooooooong) way to go before any conversation about being the “greatest of all time”takes place. He has a lot more championships to win, statistics to accumulate, cultural influence to garner, and definitive moments to experience before even the thought of comparing him to anyone in the top five players ever, let alone Michael Jordan, should enter anyone’s mind.
Where will LeBron play next season? And the season after that? And after that?
At this point, LeBron’s legacy is completely dependent on where he decides to spend the next four-to-six years of his career. He chose to exercise the player option on his contract to become a free agent this summer, but that is hardly an indication that he’ll return to Miami or be in a new uniform this fall.
As a result, the uncertainty of LeBron’s future leaves several many questions. Will LeBron stay in Miami? Will the Big Three add Carmelo Anthony to become the Big Four? Or will LeBron go back to Cleveland, something he’s mentioned in the past? Or is there another team he might surprise everyone with and join instead?
Before the NBA Finals, I would have bet money that, win or lose, the Heat’s Big Three were going to restructure their contracts in order to add Carmelo Anthony to the mix. But after Miami’s complete and utter humiliation at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, Melo no longer seems interested in Miami, and the picture has become extremely muddled.
For LeBron, though, the picture is a bit clearer in how whatever decision he makes will affect his legacy. He has a handful of options to choose from:
Option 1: Re-sign with Miami. Pat Riley has already issued the challenge. If LeBron essentially spends the rest of his career in Miami, it will not only effectively erase the rest of the lingering fallout of “The Decision,” it will help him prove his overall greatness in the long term. With Dwyane Wade looking washed-up, Chris Bosh in banana mode, and the rest of the Heat squad that just played in four consecutive Finals on the way out, LeBron choosing to stay in Miami as they retool would repair his public image from someone who just wants to “team up” for an easier route to a championship to someone with a little bit of character when it comes to his career.
Option 2: Go back to Cleveland. This is a muddy one. On the one hand, going back to the city he scorned back in 2010 is a compelling story. On the other, he would be doing exactly what he did in 2010 all over again. The Cavaliers have a number of solid young players in place thanks to the lottery picks that have piled up in the post-LeBron seasons, not to mention the first overall pick in this year’s draft. LeBron would again be bailing on a tough situation to join an easier path to a championship, and one with enough youth that a run could last much longer than four years this time. Ultimately, it would only damage that aforementioned image further.
Option 3: Sign anywhere else. There are a few teams with the cap space to sign LeBron this summer (Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers, to name a few). Going to any of these teams would almost give LeBron a blank slate. None of them are ready-made champions, though all of them would be traditional contenders with James aboard. The uncertainty and implied challenge of joining one of these teams would allow the future to be completely unwritten for LeBron, essentially a reset button on the ill will accrued in Miami.
Option 4: Sign a one-year deal with Miami for the upcoming season and put “The Decision 2” off until 2015. Maybe LeBron wants to stay in Miami, but he doesn’t want to sign a long-term contract without knowing what the team will look like for the foreseeable future. By opting out of his contract, he’s already put pressure on Pat Riley to assemble a good team, not to mention forcing Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to consider taking much less money moving forward to keep the team together, not an unreasonable request considering how quickly the Big Three have become the Big One and His All-Star Band. By coming back for one more year, LeBron can still make a boatload of money while giving himself the flexibility to see what pieces come together in Miami without being locked in if those pieces aren’t so good.
Ultimately, I think LeBron chooses Option 4 this summer. He’s won in Miami. He likes the city. He was married there, his children are growing up there. It makes sense that he isn’t in a hurry to leave. Though the team is in limbo at the moment, I think he will give them a chance to reload the roster in a way that makes him confident in signing a long-term contract. Maybe that’s by signing a one-year contract, maybe that’s by signing a one-year contract with multiple player options for more years. It’s all about doing what what makes the most sense for him. And in the end, that’s what it’s always been about.