By Jason Keidel
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If we may make the small assumption that the Miami Heat will bag their third consecutive title next month, it will infuse a few watts to the charged debate about LeBron James’s place in NBA history.
Specifically, if he will soon stand next to Michael Jordan, if, as his moniker states, LeBron is indeed “King James,” or if he’s still a prince to MJ’s assumed monarchy over hardwood history.
In a strictly statistical sense, LeBron just nudged by MJ in the mutated triple-double department, by recording at least 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in a playoff game for the 74th time. And LeBron has undoubtedly reached the iconic strata where only postseason deeds are dissected.
As we know, Jordan did his three-peat at around the same age as LeBron is today. Then His Airness was grounded while pounding ground balls for the Birmingham Barons, a hybrid hiatus that was more about his myriad, conflicting compulsions around his father’s death than a real sense that he was Bo Jackson.
Then Jordan returned to his natural place and ancestral perch as the lord of the rings, winning three more, and etching his place as the basketball player nonpareil.
Assuming LeBron has no such desire to dip into peripheral sports, he seems to have a chance to chase Jordan’s six NBA titles, which is the only real metric by which we judge athletes nowadays, particularly in basketball, where one player has an inordinate impact on a team’s playoff wares.
As LeBron ascends the ladder of history, he’s breathing the thin air of immortality. Everthing he does now is a matter of legacy. With all due respect to Kevin Durant, whose MVP speech was among the most sincere, tear-soaked moments of Americana we’ll ever see, he won the award because people were sick of giving it to LeBron. Much the way Charles Barkley won it before losing to Jordan in the NBA Finals, so it will be with Durant, should he labor past the Spurs and find himself staring down LeBron next week.
LeBron is in the rare, regal place we see in sports once a generation — in his physical and metaphysical prime, in acute command of his body and mind, his hardwood IQ finally caught up to his structural heft, with a top-tier president (Pat Riley) procuring the perfect sidekicks who buy entirely into the sport’s selfless symbiosis.
Despite the me-first, groin-grabbing histrionics that mesmerize the masses and fuel the ESPN highlight reel on eternal loop, basketball is the same game Mr. Naismith narrated 100 years ago.
Beyond his obvious muscular splendor, what separates LeBron from pretenders like Carmelo Anthony is the reality that he indeed makes everyone around him better. Ray Allen runs to Miami to play with LeBron James. J.R. Smith sprints to Manhattan to play with Carmelo.
And LeBron has that innate sense of his place among the immortals. It was not accidental that he glared down Jordan during that dunk against Charlotte. That was a statement stare.
And for all of Jordan’s genius, he needed Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and Phil Jackson to reach the NBA Finals. Granted, the NBA was more top-heavy back then, with the Celtics and Pistons as perennial, Hall-of-Fame-laden lineups in the way.
But LeBron James took the tortured Cavaliers to the championship round. They were a 20-win team before LeBron arrived, and reverted to 20 wins after James jumped ship. James is the only player most of us can ponder who can literally drag a forlorn franchise, void of any tangible talent, entirely on his own to the Finals.
Care to recall the roster? LeBron was flanked by a litany of luminaries like..Shannon Brown, Daniel Gibson, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Ira Newble, Eric Snow, David Wesley, Damon Jones, Dwayne Jones, Scot Pollard, Donyell Marshall, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Sasha Pavlovic, and Anderson Varejao. Can you name another player who did more with less? Even in an emaciated Eastern Conference, LeBron made magic with a D-League lineup.
This doesn’t make James the next Jordan. But assuming the Heat win five more playoff games, it will officially be time to at least entertain the thought. The 20-year-old marvels at the rigors of a three-peat, yet they don’t realize Jordan did it twice — sandwiched around a two-year flirtation with fastballs.
Right now, Lebron has inserted himself into the all-time starting five. Some have him as small forward, others power forward.
My Mount Rushmore (plus one) is Magic, MJ, LeBron, Bird, and Wilt. No, I don’t just want a white boy playing on the parquet. A team needs a 3-point assassin to cover all scoring contours. If you prefer to replace Bird with Tim Duncan and Wilt with Russell, that’s quite logical.
But LeBron James isn’t playing for fourth or fifth on some abstract pyramid. He’s balling for the belt. In boxing, we call it pound-for-pound. In baseball we can’t compare proverbial apples and oranges, pitchers and catchers and outfielders. In football you can’t compare those who have the ball and those who attack the ball.
In basketball we call it GOAT. Greatest of All Time. And LeBron James, for all his scripted post-game platitudes and galling “Take My Talents” lap dances with Jim Gray, is muscling his way into the debate. A title or two more and King James is inching closer to the crown.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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