To preface, this is not meant to poke fun at the Los Angeles Clippers’ collapse or lament the Bucks for once again showing their true colors. As easy as that may be, great teams struggle sometimes, especially those in their infancy like these. No team or player is immune to it.
Instead, I want to use these latest two events — stars losing in situations where they should not — as another example of how rare greatness really is. To be specific, there is a difference between a great player and the best in the game, a star versus a champion. The NBA is full of talented players, some of whom will end up in the ranks of the best to pick up a basketball, but no matter how many times we try to forget it, to say otherwise, the man atop that throne has always been LeBron James. And he’s proven that to be true once again.
He may not have been named the MVP this season, as that award rightfully went to Giannis Antetokounmpo, but throughout these unusual NBA playoffs, it has become clear that LeBron James is still the best in the league. At the age of 35, James is averaging 25.3 points per game, a career-high 10 assists and eight rebounds. Along with that, he has led the Los Angeles Lakers to the Western Conference Finals that looks all but over.
What LeBron is doing on the court this season, and has been doing for years, is largely unprecedented. Looking across the career stat sheet, he’s clocked in at over 25 points per game each season since his first, shot well over 40% from the field, rebounded the ball and even rose his assist totals as he has shown himself to be a scorer and facilitator. No player has been a more consistent, reliable and capable leader than James for the last decade.
We’ve seen powerhouses struggle, as a combination of stars does not always equate to success. But for James, it has. With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he handled all the noise and criticism to win trophies; and in Cleveland, he did the same with all the odds against him.
Now, with Anthony Davis alongside, James has shown his ability to take a step back without leaving any question of who the leader is in Los Angeles. That is the balance and value that only a player like LeBron James can provide.
While some players slowly fade away, James is one of the few exceptions, looking as good at 35 years old as a decade ago, seamlessly adapting his game over the years. Drives to the basket are as easy as ever, while his court awareness has only gotten sharper. We take that for granted, too.
Anytime a player comes up with an incredible season, NBA pundits tend to get excited, calling it the next greatest thing and the rival to King James. We’ve seen it with Stephen Curry (my favorite player), Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and now Giannis Antetokounmpo. Time and time again, though, those names change, but James’ does not.
Ever since he came into the league, James has been the NBA’s focus, every misstep scrutinized and every success celebrated. There has been so much of the latter, for so long, that we have come to take it for granted. His numbers could not be more consistent, All-Star worthy each and every season, with his name in the MVP conversation and his team in the Finals each year. We forget that he brought a team to the Finals eight consecutive times, often with very little help. How incredible is that?
Some players have done it once, maybe twice. But none have been the mark of consistency like James. And when you are that consistent, you tend to be forgotten. Seeing stars struggle, like two-time champion Kawhi Leonard or MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, serve as a reminder of just how difficult it is to succeed in the NBA. And to do it again. And again. And again.
The only man who has done that is LeBron James. Not only on the court but off it too. In a league that has been committed to social justice, James has been at the forefront of that charge, both in words and, more importantly, in action. To be the best in both areas, especially in the latter, is the true definition of greatness.
Let’s put away the incessant greatest of all-time conversation that can never be answered. Stop putting today’s stars up against the one who is the very best. Instead of comparing greatness, let’s celebrate it. Not only in the future, long after James ends his playing days, but now, while we can all watch him because we are privileged to do just that.
He will soon hang up the purple and gold, even though the pursuit of another Larry O’Brien trophy says otherwise, but one day, that time will come. Let’s not let it be too late.