GOAT Talk: The Unfathomable and Incomparable Reign of LeBron James
There is an old proverb that typifies the cyclical nature of NBA fandom, "familiarity breeds contempt," meaning that extensive knowledge or a close association with something/someone will inevitably lead to a loss of respect for them/it. It happens every year, your favorite team drafts a prospect, there is an initial honeymoon period where said player is evaluated based on their future value more so than their productivity. Years pass, and over time the narrative changes, expectations shift, and the tone morphs. The fanbase begins looking at the player through a different lens; deficits and shortcomings are magnified, and the enthusiasm surrounding the precocious talent dampens. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal all experienced the backlash at some point at the pinnacle of their careers.
Most recently, it seems as if something peculiar is happening in the case of LeBron James. The NBA's leading man for the better part of two decades continues to shine bright at the age of 36. Yet and still, the most decorated player of his generation continues to stave off fleeting criticism from former players, pundits, and media personalities intent on diminishing his legacy. Let's examine how Lebron James, through all the fuss, has managed to earn a seat at the table of the GOAT debate.
If someone asked me to describe LBJ in one word, it would be "anomaly." I don't mean that in a purely physical sense, though LBJ is a specimen. It's the understanding coupled with his physicality that's made him so effective. The transition into the NBA is challenging for all players; you're no longer playing against your contemporaries, Idols quickly become rivals, Now, take all of that framework and introduce an 18-year-old version of yourself into the equation; it seems daunting, doesn't it.
LBJ averaged 20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG during his first season, which is no small feat. Former prep to pros players such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Rashad Lewis, Monta Ellis, and JR Smith all took multiple seasons to cross the 20 PPG threshold. LBJ's detractors have also argued that LeBron James wouldn't have been as successful in the NBA of years past. Older fans have been propagating this idea that at 6'9", 260, LBJ wouldn't have been able to withstand the rigors of a more physical NBA. As if the increased spectrum for physicality wouldn't swing both ways. It's irresponsible and demonstrates how arrogant and self-serving many of these arguments can be.
LeBron also doesn't get enough credit for the quality of competition he has faced over the years on a positional and team level. LBJ had to rise above his contemporaries in Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. But he was also fortunate enough to compete against Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Kobe Bryant during their primes. Even as the league's elder statesman, he finds himself competing against the league's best in Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Some would have you believe that LBJ shies away from the moment, that his natural inclination to facilitate has some been detrimental to his success which couldn't be farther from the truth. How could someone who made eight consecutive Finals appearances teams, has the #1 usage rate in NBA playoff history (32.1%), never missed a playoff game, led his team to the most remarkable comeback in finals history, somehow have an aversion to competition?
Some fans believe that "The Decision" was one of the worst things to happen to basketball, that LBJ is the catalyst for the "superteam" era in the NBA. I'm not sure which statement is more fraudulent, the idea that LBJ was the architect behind the "superteam" boom or the assertion that "superteams" hadn't existed before LBJ. The Celtics put together their "Big 4" in the summer of 2007, Miami's "Big 3" didn't come together until 2010. This may be an oversimplification of a more complex discussion, but in reality, "Superteams" existed for much longer than people care to remember. Bill Russell's Boston teams had 4 HOF'ers and won 11 championships in 13 seasons. The Celtics and Lakers dominated the 80's, winning eight titles with the likes of HOFer's such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Robert Parish, James Worthy, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Michael Jordan undoubtedly led the Chicago Bulls, but fans often gloss over the contributions of Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, and Ron Harper, who have established commodities before joining the Bulls.
LeBron's impact on this generation of hoopers extends beyond the hardwood and into the boardroom. He's been the model of player empowerment, leveraging his otherworldly media profile to push, poke, and prod front offices into action. That is where Michael Jordan and LeBron are similar; they've weaponized their popularity to influence and manipulate decision-makers. That's where the similarities end between the two. On the floor, the pair share two entirely different approaches to the game, and that's ok.
It's time for pundits to quit looking at LBJ's willingness to differ as some sort of fatal flaw or character issue. Kobe relished and thrived under the Michael Jordan comparisons. LBJ carved out his own unique path of success. It has been without its hiccups, but we'd be remiss if we didn't acknowledge his greatness. "Comparison is the thief of joy" he may not be your GOAT, but LBJ has most certainly has earned a seat at the table.