We are all witnessing something historic, and I’m not sure enough people either realize or appreciate it.
The story of the regular season in the NBA this year was the unprecedented stat lines Russell Westbrook and James Harden put up on a daily basis. Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson’s long-standing record for triple-doubles in a season with 43 of them and will likely be named MVP in a narrow decision over Harden.
The previous year, the Golden State Warriors broke the Chicago Bulls’ single-season wins record with a 73-9 record led by Stephen Curry’s second straight MVP campaign. Curry broke the record for 3-pointers made in a season in back-to-back years and established himself as the best shooter in NBA history.
Before that, Kevin Durant threw up a 32-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist line on near 50-40-90 shooting splits at 25 years old on the way to his first MVP trophy.
All of these players had a rightful claim to the title “best player of the season,” and that’s why they were each named MVP. However, the best overall player has been the same guy for the last decade or so.
It is LeBron James.
At 32 years old, James does not go all-out all season long like he might have in his younger days. In his last two years in his second stint with Cleveland, James averaged 25.3 points, and that took a slight up-tick this season to 26.4. Those are the three lowest-scoring seasons of his career since his rookie season. However, this season – again, at 32 years old – he set career highs in assists (8.7 per game) and rebounds (8.6 per game).
Last year, James led Tyronn Lue’s Cavaliers to the first championship in team history and had to go through the 73-win Warriors to do so. Included in that run was one of the most memorable plays of his career, the game-saving chase-down block on Golden State’s Andre Iguodala. With the Cavaliers down 3-1 in the series, James averaged 36 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 3.0 steals and 3.0 blocks while shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from 3-point range and 73.1 percent from the free-throw line over the final three games to lead Cleveland to the championship.
The year before that, without star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, James put up Westbrook-like numbers in the finals and did all he could to keep the over-matched Cavs alive against the Warriors.
At this point in his career, James clearly saves his best for the postseason, and his best is still absolutely spectacular. James — 14 years into his NBA career — is having arguably his best postseason since 2008-09 when he was 24 years old. The Cavs are a perfect 7-0 after Friday’s win against Toronto and James is averaging 34.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists while shooting 56.6 percent from the field, 48.6 percent from 3 and 71.1 percent from the foul line.
This 7-0 postseason start comes on the heels of a terrible close to the season by the Cavaliers that cost them the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland looked vulnerable.
But James is the King for a reason.
There’s no question that James’ physical tools play a big part in his dominance. If one was to build a perfect basketball player in a laboratory, he might look quite a bit like James — 6-foot-8, 250 (or more) pounds, explosive athleticism (even at 32 years old), seemingly super-human strength and far more quickness and mobility than to which a man his stature has any right.
However, there have been plenty of physical specimens in NBA history that did not even make it in the league, let alone come even close to accomplishing some of the things James has. It’s not the physical tools that sets James apart.
No, what makes James unique in the history of professional basketball is the fact that he pairs those physical tools with perhaps the highest basketball IQ in the league. James sees the game at a different level than most other players. While he is as unstoppable a scorer as the league has seen in some time when he needs to be, he is also arguably the best passer at his position in the history of the NBA and one of the best ever regardless of position.
James doesn’t have the jaw-dropping ball-handling of his teammate Kyrie Irving nor does he have the deadly accurate jump shot of another teammate in Kyle Korver, but there isn’t a player at his size that combines athleticism, intelligence and skill quite like James does. Every time he steps on the floor in the postseason he’s painting another masterpiece.
Those that complain about his flopping or argue that he just barrels his way to the basket are just looking for reasons to dislike him. Those that get stuck up on the times he didn’t make the winning play or on his record in the Finals are missing the forest for the trees. And that’s a shame, because they are rejecting a chance to enjoy one of the best athletes in the history of professional sports performing at the peak of his ability.
James arrived in the NBA directly from high school with more hype than anyone before him and arguably than anyone since. Yet every step of the way, he has lived up to and then surpassed that hype.
At 21 years of age, James led the Cavaliers to the playoffs while putting up 31.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists and shooting 48 percent from the field, 33.5 percent from 3 and 74.8 percent from the line. What were you doing when you were 21 years old?
I’m not going to get too deep into James background, but he overcame significant hardship in his childhood to become one of the most successful people in the world.
One could argue that there has never been a better face for a sports league than James, who is performing at the highest level on the field and is near spotless off of it. He is a family man who married his high school sweet heart. He is active in his community and cares about where he came from. He was drafted by his hometown team and thrived under all of the pressure that comes with that. He has never once gotten into any sort of legal trouble. Heck, perhaps the worst public decision he’s made was The Decision, and even that raised a significant amount of money for charity.
There has never been an athlete quite like LeBron James, and I doubt we’ll see another like him any time soon, if ever. As a 24-year-old who fell into his NBA fandom in the mid-2000s, I’m not qualified to argue where James belongs in the hierarchy of all-time greats.
However, I will say that I’ve never seen an athlete control a game with the stakes at their highest better than James. Watching the King in his court is a privilege that we should all cherish.
Basketball fans need to recognize James for what he is and give him the respect he deserves.
We are all witnessing greatness.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.