Culture of Hoops

Sonny’s Top 50 NBA Players: #1 LeBron James

Resume: 25.3 points (3rd in league), 6.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists (7th in league), 1.6 steals, 375 free throws made (5th in league), 528 free throw attempts (4th in league), 36.1 minutes (5th in league), 49% FG, 35% 3PT, 71% FT … Team Record in Games Played: 50-19 (3-10 without) … Playoffs: 30.1 points, 11.3 rebounds (career best), 8.5 assists (career best), 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 42.2 minutes, 42% FG, 23% 3PT, 73% FT, 14-6 record … 3rd in MVP Voting, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star

In the four years I’ve been doing this Top 50 Players Countdown, twenty different players have been featured in the Top 10 of the list, and probably twenty other guys have come damn close to getting a spot in there. Three different franchises have won the NBA championship, three different players have won an MVP Award, and a whole new crop of young and talented players have made their way to the NBA, ready to stake their claim as the next great superstar. And still, all four years I’ve been doing this, only one man has ever been featured at the top of the list and had their individual write-up posted on the day the next NBA season begins. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

LeBron James is still the best basketball player in the world. For a variety of reasons that statement may be easier to dispute now than it has going into any of the previous four seasons (and really, you could make the case that LeBron was the best player in the league going all the way back to 2008 or 2009), but after looking at this decision from all angles, putting LeBron at the top was the safest choice.

Now let’s say I wanted to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s say I’m a knowledgeable NBA fan who wants to make a case against LeBron James as the best player in the NBA — and please note, I said a “knowledgeable NBA fan,” not “crazed LeBron hater” since there is a massive difference between the two. My case would look something like this:

So last year was the first year since LeBron reached his peak where there seemed to be a noticeable drop in his play on the court. He wasn’t quite as bouncy, he definitely slipped defensively and he didn’t regularly impose his will like he had in the past. He missed 13 games last season, the most he’s ever missed in a single season and he’s thirty years old, and still dealing with back issues. He finished third in MVP voting last year, his worst finish since the 2011 vote, and yes, that’s sort of comical that a third place finish could indicate a slippage in play, but hey, it might. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and others are all coming into the primes of their careers.

And as for his heroic postseason performance … it wasn’t even close to his best Playoff showing. He was insanely inefficient, jacked a ton of poor shots and for the fourth time in his career, he lost in the NBA Finals. 

Quite a compelling case against The King, I must say. But of course, I have a rebuttal:

Sure, LeBron may have suffered a drop in efficiency, athleticism and maybe even regular season dominance, but let’s not forget:

A) A drop from 57 percent shooting (his mark in both 2012-13 and 2013-14) to 49 percent isn’t nearly as damaging as one from say 49 percent to something like 41 percent.

B) Efficiency has a lot to do with the looks you are getting within the offense you are running, and as we saw firsthand, it took Cleveland quite a while to click, even when completely healthy. And even once they were at their best and at full strength, it’s not like they were ever an efficient machine like the Miami Heat became while LeBron was there.

C) After twelve years in the league, LeBron knows what’s really important. Playing into April, May and June is what matters most. That’s a big reason why LeBron-led teams have only been the #1 seed in the Playoffs three times in his career. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and as LeBron ages he will continue to preserve himself for the postseason, and if that means he’s only 80 to 90 percent as good in the regular season, then that’s just the reality of the situation, and it doesn’t worry me one bit.

D) As for a drop in athletic ability, this is normal. It happened with MJ, it happened with Kobe. The great ones evolve and LeBron is no different. In fact, he might have more of an advantage with this than other greats have had in the past. LeBron is a basketball chameleon. He can adapt to any role. We’ve seen him play point guard, power guard, point forward, small forward, power forward and even some center. He’ll be just fine in just about any role.

And as for his postseason performance … look, he’s been much more efficient and just as prolific in past postseason series, but it’s been a while since a LeBron-led team has been so shorthanded in the Playoffs. Call it bad luck or whatever, but it’s an indisputable fact that in the Finals LeBron James, just about single-handedly, came damn close defeating one of the best teams in NBA history without his two best teammates on the floor.

The 2015 NBA Finals may not have been an exhibition of LeBron’s all-around basketball brilliance … they were however a testament to the fact that just about nobody in NBA history has been quite as capable of carrying such a super-human burden for so long and so deep into the Playoffs, leading an undermanned team while putting up ridiculous numbers and operating as the hub of the offense every possession for nearly 48 minutes a game.

It’s hard to believe that any player entering their thirteenth season in the NBA could have too many more years of such night to night, season to season brilliance. LeBron has played over 43,000 minutes (regular season and playoffs combined, and that puts him at 9th on the all-time list) and he’s logged almost half of those in the last five years. He’s dealt with an achy back, frequent bouts with cramping, countless rolled ankles, a couple of broken noses and several hundreds of hard fouls that just add up over time. And again, he’s going into year thirteen.

But even if he’s on the wrong side of thirty, and even if he’s 2-4 in the NBA Finals, there is still no safer bet in the NBA than LeBron James; one of the most skilled players and greatest leaders the game has ever seen. Those two distinctions are absolutely indisputable.

What is disputable is that LeBron’s time on top will last too much longer. This is a golden age of talent in the NBA, so take my advice and appreciate it all. There’s no better time to start than tonight.


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