The enigmatic LeBron James doesn’t compare to past NBA greats

David Friedman Columnist

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    LeBron James is an indisputably great player. He has been a legitimate contender for the MVP award in virtually every season of his career. James received the honour four times before his 30th birthday and a good case can be made that he should win the 2015 MVP.

    Yet, despite James’ greatness, despite his immense individual accomplishments and despite his two championship rings, there is something missing that is not missing from the sport’s other great multiple-time MVPs/multiple-time champions like Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

    Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Jordan and Bryant did not always win (though Russell came close, with 11 championships in 13 seasons) but they were rarely, if ever, the reason that their teams lost.

    James at his best may be as good as anyone who has ever played but there have been some baffling occasions when, at the biggest moments, James was not at his best.

    How could the game’s best and most talented player just disappear in Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semi-finals versus Boston?

    James’ Cleveland Cavaliers had posted the best record in the league and enjoyed home court advantage but in that pivotal contest James came up empty with 15 points on 3-14 field goal shooting. That is the kind of game in which Jordan or Bryant would have scored 40 or 50 points or Johnson would have produced a line like 22 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.

    In 2011, James took his talents to Miami and during the NBA Finals he was not only outplayed by Dirk Nowitzki but for long, critical stretches of the series he was outplayed by Jason Terry.

    James is often classified as a pass first player even though he has the third highest scoring average (27.4 ppg) in regular season history and the fifth highest scoring average (28.0 ppg) in playoff history. James is a dominant scorer who also happens to be a gifted passer; he and his teams have enjoyed their greatest playoff success when James has accepted the responsibility of being a big-time scorer.

    In 2012 and 2013, James lived up to expectations by playing at an extremely high level while leading the Miami Heat to back-to-back titles.

    Miami’s run ended as Kawhi Leonard, previously considered a good but not great player, outplayed James and won the 2014 Finals MVP as Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs dethroned the Heat.

    James could have stayed in Miami and tried to lead the Heat to a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance – a feat that has not been accomplished since Russell’s Boston Celtics advanced to 10 straight finals (1957-66) – but instead he returned home to Cleveland and the comforts of a younger, presumably more talented supporting cast.

    When James’ Cavaliers started slowly, James proclaimed that he was in “chill mode” and it seemed reasonable to wonder if physical ailments and/or mental fatigue had taken the edge off of James’ game.

    Once the calendar turned from 2014 to 2015, James flipped from “chill mode” to, as NBA Radio commentator Tom Byrne called it, “kill mode” and again became a dominant player as the Cavaliers posted the best record in the league (26-6) since January 15.

    Jordan did not have a “chill mode.” He insisted that he gave his all in every game because at each arena there might be someone who is seeing him for the first and possibly only time. Jordan wanted each such person to know just how great he is.

    Jordan played in all 82 games in nine of his 15 seasons. He missed 64 games because of a broken foot in his second season (1985-86) and he only played in 17 games in 1994-95 when he returned to the NBA after his minor league baseball sojourn.

    Jordan only played fewer than 80 games in two other seasons. In his final season, he played all 82 games, dragging a gimpy leg up and down the court at 39 years of age.

    LeBron James has already accomplished a lot and if he stays healthy he probably has another half dozen excellent seasons left in his career – but he just seems somehow to lack that ‘it’ factor that oozes out of Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Jordan and Bryant.

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.

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