HoopsHype is starting a series where we examine various historically elite player’s cases to be considered the NBA’s GOAT.
First, we covered the legacy of one No. 23, the original, Michael Jordan. Today, we continue with another one… LeBron James.
Let’s jump right in.
LeBron James boasts the best all-around game ever…
No player in league history can match James’ blend of size, strength, quickness explosiveness, ball-handling, shooting, playmaking and defense (when motivated).
That full package has helped elevate the legendary small forward to one of the most ridiculous extended primes the NBA has ever seen, and it’s hard to foresee another play coming along in our lifetimes who boasts such an absurd blend of diverse skills.
His versatility as a player is also wild, as, throughout his career, he’s been able to legitimately play every single position, from being a small-ball center in extreme cases to running point full time now with the Los Angeles Lakers.
He’s the only player to rank Top 10 in two huge statistics…
Only one player in NBA history ranks Top 10 in both total points and total assists.
That player is LeBron James.
James currently ranks third in points scored in a career with 34,087 and eighth in assists with 9,298. What’s scary is that even at 35 years of age in Season-17, James is still producing at an elite level (he’s averaging 25.7 points and a league-leading 10.6 assists in 2019-20), so he has a good chance of finishing his career at or near the top of both of those rankings.
Furthermore, not only does he have a great shot at finishing first overall in points scored, he’s already No. 1 in playoff scoring by a mile, making him a mortal lock to be No. 1 scorer in NBA history if you combine both regular season and playoffs.
Even if he’s not considered a score-first player, his scoring stats are off the charts…
What’s even crazier to consider is that James has never been thought of as a pure scorer like some of his counterparts, such as smooth bucket-getters Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, but even so, James is an absolute scoring machine.
James doesn’t just rank third in career points, he’s fourth overall in career point-per-game average at 27.1, he has led the league in scoring once (back in 2007-08 at 30.0 points per game) and since arriving in the NBA back in 2003-04, he is first in scoring average, just ahead of Kobe Bryant, Durant and Allen Iverson.
He’ll probably retire with the most playoff series won…
A lot is made of James’ legacy being somewhat lacking, at least when discussing championships in comparison to the other top GOAT candidates.
However, despite his 3-6 Finals record, James has done a lot of winning in his playoff career – to the extent that there’s a solid chance he finishes his time in the NBA with the most playoff series won by a player.
As of now, James sits tied for fourth in that benchmark with 35 postseason series victories, alongside Tim Duncan and Scottie Pippen, one behind third-place finisher Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (36), three behind second-place finisher Robert Horry (38) and merely four behind the player who’s in first place right now, Derek Fisher, who has 39 playoff series wins.
No one can touch his sustained level of long-term excellence…
Another important factor in James’ GOAT case is the otherworldly durability he’s enjoyed in his career.
James boasts an amazing 16 All-Star Game appearances in a row, as well as more 1st Team All-NBA selections (12) than any other player in history while being tied with Kobe, Abdul-Jabbar and Duncan for most overall All-NBA selections (15) as of now. That will surely change when the 2019-10 teams are announced.
James will retire with more MVP votes than any other player in league history, and more Player of the Week and Player of the Month awards than anyone else ever.
The teams he left in free agency were utterly devastated…
Sure, there is something to be said that James has already switched franchises three times in his career when situations got difficult and left to join situations more conducive to winning (in two of those cases, forming Big 3s and creating super teams right away), which doesn’t look great for his GOAT case compared to other candidates.
At the same time, however, him doing that has greatly empowered players in the NBA to now do what they feel is right for their careers and not care so much what the media and fans have to say about it – undoubtedly a great thing in a league where ownership has so much power.
On top of that, the fact that the teams he left were so much worse without him the following seasons says a lot about his importance as a player. The first time James ditched the Cleveland Cavaliers, they saw an obscene 42-win decrease without him (that’s the biggest season-to-season dropoff in league history, by the way); the Miami Heat saw a 17-win decrease when James went back to Cleveland; and when he left Cleveland the second time, they went through a 31-win decrease.
It almost goes without saying, but, obviously, those three teams missed the playoffs those respective seasons. That means they went from contender status to out of the postseason from one season to the next, all because LeBron left.
The circumstances were pretty different but in comparison to the Chicago Bulls winning 55 games in their lone full season without Jordan during his first retirement, the numbers are noteworthy.
He managed to live up the unprecedented hype…
Before even arriving to the NBA, James had hype that maybe only one other player ever (Kareem) could come close to matching. And even then, James’ hype probably exceeded that of Abdul-Jabbar’s since media coverage of sports in the early 2000s was much more intense than it was in Abdul Jabbar’s heyday.
James was so popular as a high-schooler that ESPN would even broadcast some of his games and recap the ones that they didn’t show live on SportsCenter.
What’s more, as a junior, James was even featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, an honor bestowed to only the most iconic of prep superstars in sports history, with the classic headline dubbing him The Chosen One.
The fact that James wasn’t just able to live up to that hype as an NBA professional afterward, but exceed it, is legendary.
He has made it to nine Finals…
That includes making it eight straight Finals from 2010-11 to 2017-18, a record that can only be topped by Bill Russell, who reached 10 straight Finals back when the NBA had far fewer teams.
James’ nine Finals appearances are the fourth-most of all time, and the most since Magic Johnson, who likewise reached the championship series nine times.
And although the common knock on James is that he’s lost six Finals series and won just three, even in some of those championship bouts that he lost, he was probably the best player on the floor. Additionally, James often faced difficult odds to win the Finals he took part in, as James-led teams were only favored to win two out of the nine championship series he was in, per Basketball-Reference.
He’s basically only lost to absolutely top-notch competition…
It might sound like an excuse, but James legitimately has a history of facing incredibly difficult odds when it comes to his Finals opponents, which has in turn greatly swayed his record in the all-important championship series.
The teams that have beaten him in the playoffs boasted a 74.1 percent win percentage in the regular season – the highest mark among 25 NBA legends we looked up, ahead of Durant (73.3 percent) and Jordan (71.3).
He didn’t get as much rest between seasons, though he more than earned it…
James is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats of USA Basketball, winning three gold medals (two Olympic, one Americas Championship) with the team and taking time out of five of his summer vacations to represent his country when he really didn’t have to.
The fact that he’s still going so strong today at age 35 despite missing out on so much off time only speaks to his greatness.
James ranks second all-time in Olympic scoring, behind just Carmelo Anthony, with 273 points, a feat that he was able to accomplish because he devoted so much more time to USA Basketball than any other GOAT candidate.
The analytics back him as a strong GOAT candidate…
Finally, as far as LeBron’s case to be considered the GOAT goes, the advanced stats insist that James is up there with anyone.
There’s more to basketball – and GOAT candidacy – than numbers, but James ranking near the top of every major advanced metric with time left in his career to finish even higher on the lists speaks volumes.
So even if you don’t think James has earned GOAT status quite yet, as he continues to amass accolades (and he’ll surely earn plenty more before his time in the league is done), isn’t it possible – if not likely – that you’ll change your mind? Particularly if he’s able to add another ring or two to his collection?
Time will tell a lot, but as is, James’ career is already one of the most impressive in sports history.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.