Culture of Hoops

Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century – #1 LeBron James

Well hello there! Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 NBA Players Countdown! In case you are new here, or if you haven’t heard what will be different this time around, allow me to explain!

(That third exclamation point was not necessary)

Typically how this works is in the days leading up to the NBA season, I release a countdown of the Top 50 players currently playing in the National Basketball Association. This year I decided that it was time to remix this idea, expand the pool of players, broaden my horizons, and give myself an excuse to watch a bunch of old games on YouTube.

This time around I’ll be counting down the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s (this means we’re looking at a seventeen season sample size that goes from the 1999-00 season all the way through the 2015-16 season). I’ve detailed the criteria I used to make this awfully long list. If you want to check it out, you can do so by clicking here.

The Resume 
13 years, 13 quality, 12 All-Stars … 13 Top Ten MVP Finishes (’04-’16), 12-time All-NBA (’05-’16), 6-time All-Defensive Team (’09-’14), 4-time NBA MVP (’09-’10, ’12-’13), 3-time NBA Finals MVP (’12-’13, ’16), 2-time All-Star Game MVP (’06, ’08) … Best player on three NBA Champions (’12-’13 Heat, ’16 Cavaliers), Best player on four runner-up’s (’07 Cavaliers, ’11 Heat, ’14 Heat, ’15 Cavaliers) … Leader: Points Per Game (1x), Free Throws Made (1x), Minutes Per Game (1x), Player Efficiency Rating (6x) … Playoff Averages: 28-9-7, 2 steals, 48% FG, 32% 3PT, 75% FT, 3 NBA Finals MVP’s (199 Games) … One of seven players in 2000’s with a 60-point game

Overall Averages: 27.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 39.0 minutes, 50% FG, 19.7 FGA, 34% FT, 4.0 3PA, 74% FT, 8.3 FTA, 987 Games Played

12-Year Regular Season Peak: 27.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 38.9 minutes, 51% FG, 19.8 FGA, 34% 3PT, 4.1 3PA, 74% FT, 8.5 FTA, 908 Games Played

Well, we’ve finally reached the finish line on this Top 50 NBA Players Countdown. It would be easy to say that today’s post is the culmination of a nearly year-long process, but the fact is this “process” has been something I’ve been indirectly involved with my entire life. Sure, this is only the fifth year I’ve done some sort of Top 50 list. I put this list together each year because I love writing, I love the NBA, I love the game of basketball and I love everything that Sports in general is capable of doing for me and everyone else.

Sports serve as a great distraction from the sad parts of our lives or the things we don’t necessarily want to deal with. We can view from a distance and understand we aren’t directly involved, but we fully capable of becoming so wrapped up, so immersed, so invested, that it consumes us to a sometimes unhealthy degree. When you have a bad day you come home, put a game on television, space out for a bit and realize things are bound to get better. If you’re upset you find a game to watch; often times, it’s one from the past that you already know the result of because it’s one you’ve rewatched on multiple occasions, and because it reminds you of a better time, a time when you were wholly and truly happy … happy to be a part of something bigger than you and out of your control, happy because things broke your way, happy because you are able to live your life viewing something you’ve always loved.

For me personally, a large number of the best moments of my life have involved sports. Some people won’t understand this. Some people would hear someone say something like that and think, “Damn, their life must be really shitty.” I like to think I’ve lived a pretty fulfilling life. I have an incredibly supportive and loving family. A smart, beautiful, encouraging and driven girlfriend. A group of friends that I have created a lifetime of memories with. A stable of acquaintances that are quality people and a blast to be around. But yet, you ask me to put a pen to paper and list some of the moments in my life that I was happiest and you’re going to see a lot of familiar names and quite a few occurences that you can find on YouTube.

I remember watching Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns win the 2006 National Championship in thrilling fashion over USC.

I remember watching Roger Federer win countless Grand Slam tournaments over the last decade and establish himself as the greatest male tennis player ever.

I remember being thrilled by moments created Stephen Curry, Adam Morrison and Jimmer Fredette at the college level, and I’ve even been lucky enough to see my favorite college basketball team, the Connecticut Huskies, win National Titles in 2011 and 2014.

I remember far too many Chicago Bears victories, including a delightful 2006 season that went to shit because Rex fucking Grossman was our Quarterback. God damn it.

And then there is LeBron James.

You guys looking at your computer screen right now likely know me personally to some degree. If you don’t know me, all you need to do is look at any one of my Top 50 posts and you’ll see traces of my admiration for the man. I don’t hide it well, nor do I ever really try to. For better or worse, that has become a part of who I am. If someone asked me to describe myself, somewhere in my description I’m likely mentioning that I’m a LeBron James fan. Again, it’s who I am, and that makes me very similar to many other people around the world.

My two-man advisory committee, Paul Clark and Gianni Zambito … they are for better or worse, connected to Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan forever in my mind. My Dad … he instilled a love of the Chicago Bears in me that is both painful and perfect, and he loves that team far more than I do. My Mother … I’ve seen her transition from being the most loyal and informed Utah Jazz fan to the most loyal and informed Miami Heat fan I know. Everyone I know I can make some sort of association between them and a player or team. If you love sports, you are undeniably connected with something or someone. It’s just how it works. And frankly, I think that’s a fucking beautiful thing.

LeBron’s been my guy for over fourteen years now. You, the reader, likely know what a long journey like that with a beloved athlete or team is like. There are ups and downs, heartbreak and happiness … it’s not too different from our real lives, except when you are invested in sports you have no control over what they do or what happens to them. The free will that we possess in our lives is out of the picture when you leave it all up to someone else. And that can lead to some moments that change you, or at least momentarily alter you as a person.

Now I got lucky enough to decide on February 19th, 2002 that LeBron James would be my favorite athlete. That was the day after LeBron, a high school Junior, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Before he ever played an NBA game, that was my guy. It didn’t matter where he played in the NBA, I had found my guy. Fortunately, LeBron was drafted a year and a half later by the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that played only three and a half hours from where I grew up. Because I had parents who were such sports diehards, they accomodated me multiple times and took me to see LeBron in person at least once every year I was living in western New York and LeBron was in Cleveland.

In those seven seasons LeBron began building an impressive, yet often-critiqued resume. From the tender age of 18, it was clear that LeBron had all of the physical gifts any athlete could ask for. Built like a power forward, runs like a wide receiver, passes like a point guard, understands the game like he’s some sort of NBA Einstein. He was, and still is the total package; he remains the best basketball player I’ve ever seen step on the hardwood. No, LeBron can not yet claim to be the most accomplished player in NBA history, but he is the best basketball player. Better than Bird and Magic. Better than Duncan and Kobe. Better than Wilt and Russell. Better than MJ.

In those seven years, there were countless nights that I felt like I was on top of the world all because LeBron did something special. Too many occasions to recall in regular season games. The triple-double in his first career Playoff game. The duels with Gilbert Arenas in that same series. His 48 point masterpiece at Detroit in Game 5 of the ’07 Conference Finals. The way he took on Boston all alone in the ’08 Conference Semi’s and nearly toppled the soon-to-be champions. The entire first MVP season in ’09. His buzzer beating three-pointer against Orlando in the ’09 Conference Finals (which I missed because I was at prom … this is one of maybe five of LeBron’s 199 postseason games that I didn’t watch live). His second MVP season in ’10 and the feeling that this was finally the year LeBron would get his ring.

You know how it goes though. More often than not, at the end of a season you don’t end up happy. It’s cliche, but only one team wins the title at the end of every season. 99 percent of the time you’re favorite athlete or team isn’t a winner more than they’re a loser. With all of that pleasure I was lucky enough to feel, I had to deal with a fair share of pain too. Blowing a 3-2 lead against Detroit in the ’06 Conference Semi’s. Getting swept by San Antonio in the ’07 Finals. Losing that Game 7 in Boston in ’08 despite LeBron’s best efforts. Losing three of the next four games to Orlando after LeBron hit the game-winner in Game 2 (this series was probably the hardest I took any LeBron loss). Getting upset by Boston in the 2nd Round in 2010. I took all of those on the chin. It didn’t feel good. I’m not afraid to admit that countless tears have been shed. And when LeBron and the Heat lost in the 2011 NBA Finals, I, like LeBron, had to do some soul-searching in that offseason.

The best part about being a sports fan is that it gives you an opportunity to feel a certain type of elation that you can’t manufacture on your own. Again, if you aren’t a passionate fan of any athlete or team this notion will seem foreign, but the diehards out there know what I’m talking about. There is an unfortunate flipside though … when you’re really emotionally invested you leave yourself vulnerable to being absolutely devastated by losses. It hurts so bad you catch yourself momentarily contemplating whether the pain is worth it, and in 2011, when I nor LeBron had yet to find out what it was like to win an NBA Title, it’s a real question you need to ask yourself. And let me tell you, it feels even worse when you’re supposed to win.

For nearly a decade now, LeBron James has been expected to win. A player who was that prolific and could do so much on a basketball floor and had accomplished so much at such a young age just couldn’t quite break through and get a ring … it became something I was thinking about almost every day, and the longer he went without a title, it became a greater and greater historical anomaly, and a greater burden on me. Yes, I, someone who has never uttered a syllable to LeBron James that he’s heard, was profoundly effected because LeBron James was struggling to win an NBA title. But remember, being a LeBron James fan became a part of who I was and people knew it. You don’t think I heard all of the stupid LeBron has no Rings jokes. If you give LeBron a dollar he’ll give you a quarter back. LeBron leaves his phone on vibrate because he has no ring. God, that shit was annoying.

Finally in 2012, after years of criticism LeBron finally broke through. Now with the Miami Heat LeBron, along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, won his first NBA Championship. In three straight series the Heat faced a deficit (2-1 against Indiana, 3-2 against Boston, 1-0 against Oklahoma City) and in three straight series LeBron was brilliant and carried the Heat out the hole (the most notable: a 45-point evisceration of the Celtics in a win-or-go-home Game 6 in 2012). He had finally gotten that elusive first ring, and twelve months later he’d already be winning his second in a classic seven-game series against the San Antonio Spurs. At this point the resume qualified him for the pantheon: 2 NBA Titles, 2 NBA Finals MVP’s, 4 Regular Season MVP’s, multiple All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams, and a decade of seasons where he was putting up 27-7-7 and at least one “Holy Shit” play every game.

And here’s how spoiled I had become … when LeBron went back to Cleveland from Miami (a move I was openly hoping for from the moment he decided to “take his talents to South Beach” in the Summer of 2010), I still felt like I needed one more title. I had hit the lottery when I chose my favorite player in 2002. I had experienced what it was like to be a fan of an NBA Champion twice, and I fully realized my favorite player was among the greatest athletes to ever live, and yet I still felt like I needed one more. What a selfish prick I am.

It’s common knowledge that LeBron was and still is a savant of sorts … someone a step ahead of many of his peers, both physically and mentally. He could do things men his size couldn’t, and year after year he found ways to expand and improve on his game. He had no jumper when he came into the league and he’s since found one. He was a below-average defender early on in his career and he turned himself into a versatile defensive menace. He never played in the post when he was younger, and now he’s an offense all by himself when he commits himself to playing there.

He’s arguably the greatest passer to ever live, and a reluctant scorer who could end up the league’s all-time leader if he continues on at the pace he’s at. For thirteen seasons he has been indestructible, probably the most durable superstar ever and for about a decade you could surround him with the least inspiring supporting cast imaginable and his presence alone would qualify a team for championship contention. For six straight seasons LeBron has played in the NBA Finals, and that’s a feat that no star player in the modern era can match.

With that said, I always found it bewildering, considering all of what I mentioned in the previous two paragraphs was almost universally agreed upon, that there was still a certain amount of skepticism regarding LeBron’s place in NBA history. It seemed like his detractors were always quick to bring up his shortcomings (and yes, I can acknowledge that his track record isn’t pristine) and blame them on some sort of malfunction of the heart. It was as if they thought LeBron didn’t want it badly enough or that he didn’t have the intestinal fortitude or the fight many other greats have had. My, how this narrative has changed.

Having dealt with an unthinkable amount of pressure from the age of 18, an ungodly amount of minutes (47,000 and change) and ridiculous wear and tear on his body due to the night to night burden of being The Man for a title contender, LeBron had to dig deep heading into Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Facing three elimination games in a row, two of which were at Oracle Arena (the best home court advantage in the league) LeBron delivered three of the most iconic postseason performances in the history of sport (he averaged 36 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists per game in the last three games of the Finals), displaying a dominance and desire that slammed the door on any suggestions that he wasn’t worthy of being in the Greatest of All-Time conversation.

3,028 miles away from Oracle Arena, the site of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, I nervously watched in my living room, trying to gain control of my bodily functions as the 4th quarter play out (no lie, with about 2 minutes left in the game I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet … I think I almost had a stroke). When the final buzzer sounded I did the same thing in front of my television that LeBron did inside Oracle Arena.

I laid face down on the living room floor and I cried. I couldn’t hold it in. It was unquestionably one of the best nights of my life. I’ve been racking my brain for five months now and I can’t tell you a singular moment in my life when I was happier than I was when the Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA Title. It was a night when I personally felt justified and I can’t tell you why that’s the case. More importantly, it was a night that made someone I have loved for a very long time happy, and that made me happy.

This was also the night that I realized that a love for Sports is a truly remarkable thing. To see people in Cleveland crying tears of joy, just like I was … that was profound. And to think that there are people all around the world who get the opportunity to do that because they love a player and they love a team and they get to partake in the happiness that their idols feel. That’s special. God I love sports.

And that’s why I do what I do. I sincerely hope you’ve all enjoyed reading along for the past month or so. Your support means almost as much as that third LeBron championship did.

1 Comment

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

To Top