This post was born from a conversation with an old friend yesterday that left me feeling very unsettled. While arguing about the current state of the league the topic of Lebron vs Kobe came up, as it often does. Readers will know that I usually refrain from entering this debate, but because it was Paul and because we go way back I entertained the argument. The bit that left me unsettled went as follows:
Rob: “Kobe is the second greatest shooting guard to ever play the game, by a mile, and has been for a couple of years now… and he still might win another title or two…”
Paul: “Lebron is already an all-time top five small forward, and he hasn’t even reached his prime! What’s your point?”
Wait wait wait… Lebron, already an all-time top five small forward? That can’t be right. That’s a bit of a stretch… isn’t it? I told Paul he had a mental disease and the conversation degraded pretty quickly, but I did promise him I’d write a blog on this. Is Lebron, a guy barely into his sixth season, a guy without a ring, a guy whose ceiling we haven’t even begun to explore, already a top five small forward of all time?
When I think about the greatest small forwards to grace the hardwood two names immediately pop into my head, and a few other names slowly filter in. For me it starts with Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen, two players that are so different it’s funny to think they both share the label “small forward”. Dr J undoubtedly cracks the top five, I know Havlicek and Baylor deserve to be there even though I never saw them play, and you probably have to put James Worthy there too. You’ve also got guys like Rick Barry, Bernard King and Dominique Wilkins all top five worthy. These are absolute legends of the game, guys with long established careers at the top who achieved so much success. Can Lebron really be mentioned amongst these names already?
The jersey with Bird on the back
Larry Bird was a pretty harmless looking tall skinny white guy, but he put the fear of God into everyone he played against. The fact he could do this without dunking on people’s heads was a testament to his genius and mastery of the sport. There is a phrase a lot of fans and analysts use to describe great individual performances that weren’t forced or driven by self-gratification: in the flow of the game. “Kobe scored 61 against the Knicks but Lebron had 52, and he did it in the flow of the game”. Whether you believe such a construct exists, you have to understand that everything Larry Bird did was “in the flow of the game”. He lived inside that flow. It was Larry Bird’s flow and everyone was just riding the wake.
So when you talk about Larry’s legacy you can’t just look at the three rings, the three MVPs, the two Finals MVPs and the nine-straight All NBA First Team selections. You have to go back and watch tape of those intense playoff battles against the Pistons and the Hawks and the Lakers, and watch Larry in the flow, watch him dominate, watch the opponents wilt. If Lebron was sapped of his athleticism and muscle and quickness and tattoos, do you honestly think he could command the fear and respect that Larry did? I’ll give you a clue: the answer is no.
You think Lebron averaging 30-7-7 with 1.8 steals and a block is impressive? At his peak Larry was averaging 30-9-7 with 1.6 steals and a block, not to mention shooting well over 50% from the field and 40% from long range. During his 1986-87 season Bird averaged 33-9-9 for an entire month. John Hollinger would be having seizures if Larry Bird played today. Yet Lebron will be remembered more because he puts up his numbers in an eye-popping fashion, he mesmerizes and terrorizes and posterizes like few before have. Larry did it in his own effortless way. In the flow of the game.
What Lebron needs to pass Larry: A few MVPs (easy), a few rings (harder) and a heap of legendary playoff performances (hardest). Right now Lebron probably only has one “legendary” playoff/finals game, the game 5 against Detroit, and that ranks as high as anything Larry did. But Lebron needs to build a legacy littered with these performances to match Larry Legend, who had more than I can count. He also needs to become the unquestioned master of mental domination in the league – a mantle that is held by Kobe and has been for a few years. When Lebron can walk around with the arrogance of a three-time champion, look opponents in the eye and say “I’m gonna score 40 on you tonight”, maybe then we’ll talk about Bird. Until then, consider this off limits.
The jersey with Pippen on the back
I’ve said this before, but I don’t know how someone can win six titles, be a seven-time All-Star and an eight-time All-Defensive First Team member and still be underrated. Somehow Scottie Pippen is. He is undoubtedly the best defensive small forward to ever play the game, probably the best defensive player I’ve ever seen, and certainly the best player in NBA Jam Tournament Edition. The stat I love the most when it comes to Scottie was that in 1994-1995 he lead his team in every major stat – points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. That is insane. He was the first guy to do that since Dave Cowens in 1977-78, and no one has done it since. Not Jordan, not Lebron, not anyone.
People like to remind us that Kobe never won a title without Shaq, but Jordan never won a ring without Scottie. While we don’t doubt MJ’s greatness, there is little question in my mind that without his #33-wearing sidekick MJ and the Bulls would have not dominated the nineties like they did. When you’ve got a player putting up 21-7-7 and he’s not even the best player on the team, you can start to understand why the Bulls were invincible.
Does Lebron have a hope of touching Pippen’s legacy? Definitely. Historians will look back on Scottie’s career and say he never lead his own team to glory, that he was always the second banana. Lebron has already lead his own team to the Finals, something Pippen never did, and you get the feeling that it’s just a matter of time before Lebron gets his ring. Pippen’s legacy would have been cast in a completely different light had the Blazers not blown that 13-point lead in the fourth quarter of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. That Blazers team was good enough to win it all, and Pippen would have shaken the “only with MJ” tag and could have finally claimed to have lead his own team to glory. As it was, it became the founding of Shaq and Kobe’s legacy. Funny how one game can change so much.
What Lebron needs to pass Scottie: Unless Lebron keeps improving his defense people will always put Scottie above him, because Lebron’s abilities on the offensive end simply do not outweigh Pippen’s defensive talent. But there’s every chance LBJ keeps improving his D, gets a few Defensive First Team selections, and if he can throw a few rings into the mix, he will cruise past Pippen. Either way, we can’t make a call on this for at least 3-4 years.
The jersey with Erving on the back
Lebron’s path to stardom has been similar to that of Dr J back in the 70’s. Here was a physical freak whose ability to play above the rim was redefining the game. Dr J was a revolutionary, and had he been more successful and won a few more rings, he would unquestionably be a top five all-time player. But as it turned out, he spent most of his NBA career living in the shadows of Larry, Magic and Michael, so we remember him more as a high-flyer than a winner. Lebron has similarly redefined the game with his physical freakishness, boggling the minds of spectators with moves no one thought possible. The question is, will Lebron too be remembered solely for his athletic feats, or for winning?
What Lebron needs to pass the Doctor: One ring and an MVP would pretty much do it.
The jersey with Worthy on the back
The role player who was a seven-time All Star and a Finals MVP, and who robbed Lebron of the honor of ever being called “Big Game James”. Just look at his playoff averages compared to his regular season and you’ll understand where the name comes from. But being the beneficiary of playing alongside Kareem and Magic, Worthy never commanded the limelight and defensive attention that guys like Lebron do. Worthy was the third best player on that Lakers team. Who is the third best player on the Cavs today? Ilgauskas? Wally Szczerbiak? I hope you understand the difference here.
What Lebron needs to pass Worthy: I originally had “Lebron has probably already passed him” here. But if Lebron’s career ended today, there’s no chance in hell he is ranked above Worthy on the all-time SF’s list.
The jersey with Baylor on the back
Everything I’ve learnt of Elgin Baylor has been directly due to Kobe slowly breaking all his records over the past few years. When you hear a guys name thrown around when talking about 50 point games and scoring streaks you kinda get the impression he was a big deal. He averaged 38.3 points in the 1961-62 season – still the highest regular season average by anyone not named Wilt Chamberlain. His 61 points in game 5 of the 1962 Finals is still the Finals record. He averaged 13.5 rebounds per game and he was only 6-5. He was one of the most spectacular players of his era and light-years ahead of his time. Lebron could only dream of matching Baylor’s scoring prowess, although I will admit it seems a lot more likely now than it did a couple of years ago. Remember when Lebron came into the league, even after a couple of seasons, people were still talking him up as a Magic Johnson-type point-forward who could run the offense while still getting shots for himself? That all completely changed during the three-way scoring title duel of 2005-2006, where Kobe, AI and Lebron seemed determined to out-gun each other on the way to 30+ ppg averages. Sidenote: It was around this time when Lebron was repeatedly quoted as saying “Kobe is the best player in the league”. You cannot underestimate the influence Kobe had on Lebron during this time, showing that the league’s best player could dominate at both ends of the floor while averaging 35+ points. If Lebron James hadn’t watched Kobe throughout those crazy scoring years, I guarantee you he would have evolved into a very different, less points-hungry player.
What Lebron needs to pass Baylor: Elgin was a freak but he never won a championship. In that sense, if Lebron plays at this level for the rest of his career but never wins a ring, his legacy will be written similarly to Elgin’s. If he wins a championship he passes Baylor by default.
The Jersey with Havlicek on the back
John Havlicek won more rings than Lebron James ever will. He’s a Finals MVP and a 13-time All Star. He is the all-time leading scorer of the most famous franchise in the NBA’s history, the Boston Celtics. Some small forwards may have passed Havlicek in their on-court abilities, athleticism or scoring, but no player can match him for success. Like I said earlier, I’m not going to pretend I saw this guy play, but I do own the Awesome Endings VHS and John Havlicek is in there a lot (the steal against Philly, the running bank shot that should have beaten the Bucks before Heard’s miracle). Sidenote: That Awesome Endings VHS was the first basketball video my parents ever bought me, and it instantly lead me to claim Isiah Thomas as my favorite player, thus making me a Pistons fan for life. It it still one of the most entertaining NBA videos ever produced.
What Lebron needs to pass Havlicek: As mentioned, Lebron will never surpass Havlicek for team success, but he will in individual ability and arguably already has. Seriously though, eight titles? I’m thinking Lebron needs at least three to pass him.
I know there are other small forwards that deserve a mention, but it’s pretty clear to me that right now, Lebron James is on the outside looking in. He’s not amongst the top five all-time small forwards. He’s probably not even in the top eight (I’d still put Nique, King and Rick Barry ahead of him). Lebron simply hasn’t been around long enough to match it with these guys. But it could all change very quickly. If Lebron wins an MVP and a championship this season (yes Lakers fans, it could happen) he catapults at least three of those guys. But to rest amongst the elite of Bird, Pippen, Baylor and Havlicek, Lebron James is going to need a few more years.
Many might say that Lebron has bigger fish to fry than being a top five all-time small forward (or that he’s not a small forward at all). That Lebron is on a path to be the G.O.A.T. There seems to be a ground swelling of media hype lately that Lebron is destined to become the greatest of all time, and that only he, not Kobe, can dethrone MJ at the top. I half agree with these people – there’s just not enough novelty in Kobe’s game to make people think he’s bigger and better than MJ. But he’s got a long way to go.
In six seasons so far Lebron has won a scoring title, hasn’t been named to one All-Defensive team, hasn’t won an MVP (although probably will this season) and is still battling the mantle of “Best Player in the League” with the reigning MVP Kobe Bryant. Contrast that to Jordan six years into his career where he’d already captured a bunch of scoring titles, an All-Defensive Player of the Year award, an MVP, and earned a reputation as being undoubtedly the league’s best player. Six years into his career Michael Jordan forced people to start thinking he might become the G.O.A.T based on what he had achieved – Lebron is doing it based on what he could achieve. There is a big difference. Normally we wait till a player’s career is over before we re-write the history books. Lebron’s legacy is not that patient. As Bill Simmons said, “this is unlike anything we’ve ever seen… and it’s already historic”.