LeBron James was being called “King James” by sports media soon after he entered the NBA. These days, the title is often shortened to “the King.” Perhaps a young James was crowned a bit prematurely, but there can be little doubt that the forward has earned recognition since coming into the league. The man simply possesses a combination of strength, speed, and athleticism that few players have. Indeed few players in history can lay claim to the raw physical ability that James possesses. Nevertheless, there seems to be a tendency in sports to get caught up in the moment and forget those who came before. James versus past NBA greats is a debate that will likely rage for a long time.
James has certainly accomplished quite a lot already in his NBA career. In his first season, he averaged slightly more than 20 points per game. He also had 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. That is a solid stat-line for a veteran, but is very impressive for someone who had just come out of high-school.
Predictably, James’ numbers and efficiency increased as he gained more NBA experience. His points, rebounds, and assists have all increased since his rookie year. Of course, this is something one would expect, but what has turned James from an excellent player into a seemingly unstoppable force is his increased shooting percentages. So far this season, James has shot 57 percent from the field overall and about 38 percent from behind the three-point arch.
It has been pointed out that part of what has made James a more efficient scorer is simply that he is getting better shots. Particularly, he has become much more effective in the post. This allows him to use his size and strength advantage to good effect. James is one of those players who defies traditional categories like “guard” or “forward.”
Despite his skill and athleticism, LeBron James would have some very stiff competition when compared versus NBA greats of the past. For example, Michael Jordan put up about 28 points per game in his rookie season and shot over 50 percent from the field. To be fair, Jordan did have the advantage of some time in the college game, but the numbers for his entire career are outstanding.
Jordan’s best season might have been in 1988-89 when he averaged 32.5 points, eight assists, and eight rebounds while shooting about 53.8 percent from the field. Of course, the ultimate statistic is championships, and Jordan’s six NBA titles coupled with six Finals MVP awards are tough to argue with.
Larry Bird is another name that gets mentioned during discussions of NBA all-time greats. Bird certainly did not have the quickness of Michael Jordan or the size and athleticism of LeBron James, but he showed that those traits are not always necessary. Bird’s best season from a statistical perspective might have been 1987-88, when he averaged nearly 30 points, plus nine rebounds and six assists per game. Bird was perhaps best known for his shooting ability, but he got it done in most areas of the game.
Of course, there are plenty of other players besides these three who have left a huge mark on the game as well. Deciding who comes out on top when comparing LeBron James versus past NBA greats is obviously a matter of opinion. If anything, perhaps such an exercise can help maintain some historical perspective.
Commentary by Zach Kirkman