SINGAPORE — How will history remember LeBron James? Up until now, he did not provide fans with a feat or record convincing enough for them put forth a case for him to be labelled as “the greatest basketballer of all time”.
The most NBA titles? Unfortunately, Bill Russell’s 11 championships with the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s are unlikely to ever be surpassed.
The most points scored? Well, if James stays healthy and hungry for three more seasons, he could very well surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s monumental 38,867 career points. He’s at 34,421 – good luck.
Winning every NBA Finals he contested in? Can’t claim that either – James’ four titles from 10 Finals trips is way off Michael Jordan’s perfect six out of six.
So these feats seem out of reach for this generation’s best basketballer. And even if James could somehow surpass Abdul-Jabbar or Russell, it would still feel weird to call him the greatest straight away when those records were so synonymous with the two legends before him.
But now, after his latest NBA title win with the Los Angeles Lakers – a 4-2 Finals series victory over Miami Heat on Monday – James has finally achieved a feat which can be seen as fit for him to be rightfully in the conversation of the greatest basketballers.
While he is not the first player to have won NBA titles with three different teams – John Salley and Robert Horry came before him – James is the first to lead three teams to the promised land.
Degree of difficulty is off the charts for LeBron
Salley and Horry were ultra-reliable role players, ably complementing top players on their championship teams with efficient shot-making, smart defence and veteran locker-room presence.
James, on the other hand, has always been the top dog in his team ever since he entered the NBA as an 18-year-old rookie in 2003. He has had to hit the big shots, make the right passes and rally his teammates in every team he went to: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and now the Lakers.
For those with untrained eyes, they may believe that those responsibilities come naturally to top players. Those who have followed the NBA long enough would know that it is never easy to lead a team, let alone with cut-throat rivals in the other 29 teams and plenty of egos within the team.
James would have had to understand the tactical systems of every coach he has played for. He would then need to grasp how to maximise his formidable skills under those systems.
And then, he would have to ensure his teammates be able to perform at their highest levels together with him. He would also make sure that no one poisons the team chemistry with whiny and childish behaviour.
Easier said than done, but he has been able to lift his teams to reach 10 NBA Finals in his 17-year career. The level of difficulty in achieving this is truly off the charts.
Each title has different meanings
At each of James’ three different teams, his title wins meant different things. When he won his first two titles with the Heat in 2012 and 2013, he was at his peak as an athlete and as a scorer. The title wins validated him as a successful superstar who can dominate games like most of those on the pantheon of great NBA players.
His 2016 title win was a sentimental favourite, given that he returned to his hometown of Cleveland, and delivered the city’s first-ever NBA title with the Cavaliers. That he did it against a Golden State Warriors team which won a record 73 regular-season games, and from a 1-3 series deficit in the Finals, made it probably the most satisfying triumph of his career.
This latest one with the Lakers, however, is James’ comeback and riposte to critics who say he is past his peak.
Reviving the storied Los Angeles franchise had seemed a bridge too far, especially after his injury-plagued 2018/19 season. But he took the critics’ jibes as an affront, and played with a quiet fury as if on a mission to prove everyone wrong this season.
In being able to harness his considerable skills, knowledge and leadership at every different stop in his career, James has shown that he is the ultimate team player – one who elevates his team over all others, without fail.
GOAT argument: James must be included
But the infuriating argument remains: Is James the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)?
The best answer I can give is: he can absolutely be your GOAT.
And that’s the beauty of NBA basketball – different generations of fans can enjoy different greats at their peaks, and be enthralled by what they personify.
If you were a fan in the 1960s, you would idolise Russell for doing everything necessary to win. He could score, but more crucially, he could rebound, block, assist and steal – whatever it took to win 11 titles for the Celtics. And in an era still rife with open racial discrimination, Russell’s quiet dignity was key for NBA’s growth into social consciousness.
Fans in the 1970s would be enamoured by Abdul-Jabbar’s unstoppable sky-hook, a shot of balletic grace that no one could block or deflect. That the giant centre dominated in a messy decade in which players were mired serious problems like drug addiction was vital to NBA’s subsequent boom.
That came in the 1980s, and the iconic rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird – both worthy of being called the GOAT for their selfless brilliance – shot the league into worldwide popularity.
That popularity reached its zenith in the 1990s with Jordan, undoubtedly the greatest scorer of all time. His iron will and insatiable demand for excellence drove him to glorious heights; his teammates can either meet his expectations or be left behind.
And now, after the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Stephen Curry made their cases for being the GOAT, this generation of NBA fans will have James – a physical force capable of spectacular dunks, a clutch scorer from anywhere on the court, and quite possibly the best teammate the league has ever witnessed.
So yes, James should be mentioned whenever the GOAT debate is being brought up. And if you decide that he is your greatest, there are many valid reasons to argue for him – not least his latest triumph.
And don’t forget: he’s not done yet.
The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 18 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.
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