The Los Angeles Lakers point forward’s pin-point passing and playmaking reached a peak this season as he won a fourth NBA title with a third team
After winning his fourth ring in his tenth attempt in the NBA finals, Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James has begged the question — is he finally in the conversation with Michael Jordan for the title “Greatest of All Time”?
The soon-to-be 36-year-old point forward was dominant in the 2020 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, averaging 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.2 steals.
His physicality — a key attribute that has allowed him to dominate the league since making his debut in 2003 — has remained undiminished, allowing him to muscle his way to the rim, taking knocks and multiple defenders on him. His defining skill — pin-point passing and playmaking reached a peak this season as he averaged a career-high 10.2 assists per game in the regular season (8.8 in the playoffs).
In the past, James would focus on the defensive end mostly on pivotal possessions, but this season, under the tutelage of the defensive-minded coach Frank Vogel, he elevated his play on that end. Fivethiryyeight.com’s advanced metric, RAPTOR (based on both per minute and box-score statistics), rated James among the top 10 defenders in the 2020 playoffs and second only to teammate Anthony Davis.
All said, it was a dominant performance by James, well aided by his superstar teammate Davis, and some robust contributions from other key role players that led the Lakers to a 16-5 run en route to their record 17th championship (jointly held with the Boston Celtics).
In elite company
Only three other players have made it to 10 or more NBA Finals — Celtics great Bill Russell (who won in 11 of the 12 finals in 13 remarkable seasons), Russell’s teammate Sam Jones (11 Finals, 10 rings), and former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (10 Finals, six rings — including one with the Milwaukee Bucks).
The Celtics were a dominant team in the 1960s in an era where there were only 10 NBA teams and Russell willed them to 11 titles through his overwhelming defensive presence.
James, with his versatility and achievements during a much more skilled and competitive era of basketball, can be considered as having surpassed Russell and Abdul-Jabbar in terms of individual accolades that takes into account team success.
His closest comparison in terms of skill, Magic Johnson, had an equally dominant career — five titles, nine Finals, three-time Finals and NBA MVP titles — and a similar role on offence as a point forward like James. But James has been a much more dominant scorer, third overall in total points scored in the regular season and second overall (behind Abdul-Jabbar) in total points in regular season and playoffs combined.
Comparison with Jordan
The only hurdle that James seemingly stares ahead is arguably Michael Jordan’s career performance — six wins in six Finals with MVPs in all of them, two “three-peats”, five MVPs, and one-time defensive player of the year title.
Jordan was ruthless after reaching his peak in terms of skills and performance, winning his titles by his peerless scoring powers and strong perimeter defence.
Jordan’s relentlessness and the Chicago Bulls’ dominance of the 1990s — he never lost an NBA final and the Bulls never had a Finals series that went to seven games — set him apart from other NBA superstars and his popularity and competitiveness made the NBA what it is today.
James has already played more years than Jordan and still has a lot left in this tank. And he won his four titles with three different teams — Miami Heat (that was constructed with three all-NBA team stars), hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and now the LA Lakers.
Unlike Jordan, who endured pain and defeat in his initial years with the Bulls, and then went to lead an indomitable machine, James reached the NBA finals much early in his Cavaliers stint, moved on to a more competitive Heat squad that won two titles, before reaching a pinnacle by returning to the Cavaliers and willing a less-talented squad to overcome the NBA regular season-winning, record-breaking Golden State Warriors in 2016.
He lost three of the four Cavaliers-Warriors finals but the Durant-Curry-Green-Thompson-Iguodala-led Warriors team was much superior in talent than the James-led teams.
James’ Heat also lost to a well-oiled San Antonio Spurs team in 2014, which paved the way for James’ return to the Cavaliers but his most painful NBA Finals loss was to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 as a Heat player and which featured his poorest performance (by his standards) in the Finals.
Yet, James’ longevity, ability to mould his strengths to multiple squads and playing under multiple coaches, constant improvement on offence and defence even while playing to his other-worldly strengths and the sheer statistical volume of production on the court, should, finally place him on the same pedestal as Jordan, albeit of this generation.