With the back-end of his 17th season officially underway, LeBron James is in position to secure yet another career-defining moment by bringing the Lakers the title they so desperately covet. Regardless of the outcome, though, LeBron deserves far more appreciation than we have given him.
Wrap your head around this fact: For two full decades, LeBron James has been under the largest microscope in the history of sports.
Following a Sports Illustrated cover at the age of 16, a handful of nationally televised high school games, a Hummer scandal, and multiple years of making his peers look like kindergarteners in comparison, LeBron entered the NBA Draft as a starry-eyed 18-year-old. He wasn’t just any 18-year-old, though. With higher expectations than any professional athlete has ever shouldered, he was prophesized as the next face of basketball. After all, from the age of 15, James was lauded as the heir-apparent to Michael Jordan. Even LeBron, himself, would be the first to tell you that these lofty expectations were seemingly out of reach.
At the start of his career, LeBron was one of very few athletes who boasted a universal approval rating. James was accustomed to filling gyms in high school, but once his talents hit basketball’s biggest stage, the pandemonium surrounding LeBron took on an entirely new persona. Memorabilia stores could not keep the number-23 Cavs jersey in stock for longer than a day. Cities felt a reverberating buzz when James came to town. He electrified every venue he visited and left crowds in awe with his gravity-defying athleticism. The only empty seats found in LeBron-inhabited arenas were those of fans who were standing to obnoxiously cheer on their new favorite player.
Skeptics of the self-proclaimed ‘Chosen One’ were few and far between, but they existed nonetheless. The fully grown men he would be battling against once his NBA career began were the most notable. Hesitant to anoint James as the next big thing, players and media members tried to make sense of the situation. With Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal recently coming off of a three-peat as well as Tim Duncan and the Spurs in the midst of what would be a 15-year dynasty, James had a lot to live up to. Little did the skeptics know, though, that LeBron’s first professional game—a game in which he posted a stat-line of 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds, and four steals—would be a microcosm of the stranglehold that he would impose on the league for the next two decades.
Looking back, those critics could not have been more out-of-touch with the reality of James’ talents.
After silencing almost every critic he could have possibly had during his rookie campaign, LeBron waltzed into his sophomore season as bona fide, must-watch television. Needless to say, he did not disappoint. He made a massive leap from rookie sensation to full-blown NBA superstar in just one year, drastically improving in every single statistical category other than free throws (a .04% decrease from the year prior).
At the age of 20, LeBron was already averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per night. Because of these absurd numbers, conversations surrounding LeBron being the best basketball player in the world began to heat up. However, James’ quote-unquote failure to lead the abysmal-but-improving Cavs to the playoffs quieted the debate until at least the next season began.
LeBron made yet another leap in his third season, and, for the first time since 1998, the Cleveland Cavaliers were playoff bound. His first playoff game saw him record a triple-double. His third playoff game saw him score 45 points and make his first career game-winning shot.
Two games later, James continued his domination as he poured in for another 38 points. That same game, LeBron hit another game-winner. The Cavs took Game 6 in Washington, and after averaging almost 36 points per game in his first playoff series, the basketball world confirmed what they already believed:
LeBron was meant for this stage.
Unfortunately, the Cavs ran into the buzz-saw that was the Detroit Pistons in the following round. They lost in a seven-game heavyweight boxing match against the league’s most physically imposing roster, and James was sent home packing for the first time in his young career. Unfortunately for the Pistons, though, LeBron would soon be back.
After experiencing the heartbreaking defeat—as well as a long offseason in which James was constantly reminded of how he was unable to get past his biggest Eastern Conference adversary—LeBron’s numbers actually took a slight decline.
While he was still incredible to behold, watching him on a night-to-night basis led one to believe that, for the first time in his NBA career, LeBron James felt the heavy burden of pressure on his broad shoulders. Some attributed his ‘decline’ to his at-times unnecessary unselfishness, and some went so far as to say that he had just simply lost focus after finally getting a taste of the Playoffs. Interestingly, though, despite his apparent drop-off, LeBron led the Cavs to their second consecutive 50-win season.
Once the Playoffs began, the Cavs were the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
With LeBron leading the way, the Cavs hastily swept the Wizards in the first round and—though Vince Carter and Jason Kidd were a handful all season—handed the New Jersey Nets a convincing semifinals loss. These series meant little in comparison to what was next on the Cavs' plate. The stage was finally set for something LeBron had been awaiting since the previous season: A rematch with the Detroit Pistons.
After an extremely even first four games (331 points for the Cavs, 327 for the Pistons), Game 5 was advertised as a chance to take control of a deadlocked series. With a raucous Palace of Auburn Hills crowd, the odds seemed to be in Detroit’s favor. Come tip-off, though, it was even more evident that the teams were more evenly matched than they previously appeared to be. Through three quarters, the game was unsurprisingly tied.
What happened next will live forever as one of the greatest Playoff moments in NBA history.
When LeBron erupted during the fourth quarter and continued his domination through the two following overtimes, the league was put on high alert. Scoring the Cavs’ final 25 points as well as 29 of their last 30, James finished the game with 48 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. The Pistons did everything they could to slow him down, but LeBron was absolutely unstoppable. Pull-ups, fade-a-ways, and step-backs. Strong drives to the hoop. Acrobatic lay-ups. Emphatic dunks. You name it. LeBron mercilessly gave the Detroit Pistons death by one-million cuts, providing fans with one of the most memorable performances of all-time.
“Jordan-esque,” Steve Kerr referred to it as.
This was the tack that took the air out of the Pistons’ sails. LeBron’s coming out party. The King’s coronation. LeBron again dominated Detroit in Game 6, and, for the first time ever, spring-boarded the Cleveland Cavaliers into the NBA Finals.
The East was officially LeBron’s.
Obviously, the history books will show that the Cavs lost in those very NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs. Still, basketball fans will always remember these moments as the beginning of the LeBron James era. Leading a roster consisting of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, and a group of misfits and has-beens to the NBA’s biggest stage was a testament to James’ greatness. He got over the hump and, in his second Playoff appearance, led the worst NBA Finals roster of all-time to the brink of a title. Who does that?
However, for all of the historical significance that this moment offered, it, unfortunately, set the stage for something almost insurmountable: Even higher expectations and standards than James had ever experienced before.
This idea would become a theme throughout the rest of LeBron’s career.
LeBron went on to win two MVP trophies during his first stint in Cleveland, but he failed to make it back to the NBA Finals with the roster around him. After a historically significant Playoff run in 2008-09 that was unfortunately cut short by the Orlando Magic, LeBron’s future in Cleveland began to come into question. Now being constantly criticized for failing to break through the Championship barrier—and still only at the age of 24—the pressure continued to grow until it broke LeBron and the Cavs in the 2009-10 Playoffs. Their shocking second-round loss to the Boston Celtics capped LeBron's exciting seven-year run with the Cavs in disappointing fashion.
Two months later, the Miami Heat came calling. LeBron’s time in Cleveland was over.
Similar to how his 2007 victory over Detroit was the beginning of the LeBron James lovefest, his 2010 free agency decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami was the beginning of universal LeBron despise.
Now portrayed as the biggest villain in sports, the pressure James felt was amplified. His first season with Miami was exhilarating to watch as he put up yet another remarkable statistical season. Though the Heat struggled at first as they tried to divvy up playing time and figure out their best rotations, they finally looked to be on pace to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the season once the chemistry issue was resolved.
The Heat ran through the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and LeBron was officially back in the Finals—this time, though, as a heavy favorite to win the title. However, a poor performance in those very Finals—one that led the Heat to an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks—ensured LeBron becoming the butt of all jokes.
The hate surely continued, but LeBron went on to have a remarkable tenure in Miami. Adding two more MVP trophies to his trophy case as well as finally winning his first two NBA titles, LeBron had officially solidified himself as the greatest basketball player in the world. Most NBA fans, though, were ignorantly unimpressed. I mean, why would anybody ever be impressed by someone who dominated the NBA, became a better player every season, won back-to-back MVPs and Championships, and blossomed into a top-10 player in NBA history before our very eyes?
Though James' Miami stint could be summed up as the best four-year stretch of his career, things admittedly did not end the way LeBron would have hoped. The Heat suffered injuries to both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and the end-result to LeBron’s fourth and final season in Miami was an NBA Finals beat-down loss to one of the greatest teams of all-time.
Feeling a need to right the ship that he had dramatically wrecked just four years prior, LeBron decided that it was time to head back home to Northeast Ohio. In joining a would-be superstar in Kyrie Irving as well as Kevin Love and a handful of promising young pieces, LeBron made the Cleveland Cavaliers appointment television once more.
Though three of the four years ended for James in upsetting defeat at the hands of another one of the greatest teams of all-time, LeBron delivered on a decade-old promise to bring his hometown their first professional title since 1964. One of the most undeniable professional basketball accomplishments of all-time, the Cavs victory over the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals after falling behind 3-1 in the series is something that only a Hollywood director could logically conceive. Odds are, something like this will never happen again.
One should-be title, one actual title, and the greatest 15th season by any athlete in the history of sports, LeBron James’ most recent tenure in Cleveland finally pushed him into his own version of basketball nirvana. Combining his four seasons in Miami with his four seasons as a Cavalier, James had incredibly accomplished something that no one since the 1960s Celtics had done: Compete in eight straight NBA Finals. Not only that, but the public opinion regarding LeBron was finally beginning to sway in a positive direction. After a tumultuous—yet all-in-all successful—second stint in Cleveland, James came to the conclusion that there was only one thing left to add to his already preposterous basketball resume: win a title in purple and gold.
Making his exodus to the west coast in July of 2018, LeBron joined a team of young, inexperienced players who had never before seen a circus the size that he brings. Sure, Kobe’s final season was mayhem, but the Lakers were not even close to being a contending team that season. Now, though, with LeBron still playing at an extremely high level, it was time for the Lakers’ existing talent to crank it up a notch. It was time to make Los Angeles basketball relevant again.
The Lakers limped out of the gates to start the season with three straight losses, but they quickly turned it around. By the time Christmas rolled around, the Lakers were 19-14, good enough for the 4th spot in the Western Conference standings. LeBron, as he had always done, seemed poised to make yet another playoff run. For the first time in his storybook career, the injury bug struck James down with a strained groin during the Lakers’ heavily anticipated Christmas Day matchup against Golden State.
Naturally, the supporting cast struggled mightily to replace his 27 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists per night. Because of this, the Lakers rapidly precipitated out of the Playoff race, sliding to ninth in the standings where they sat two games back of the Clippers. Once LeBron came back, things seemed to be trending positively regarding his health. LeBron was playing more minutes each night, racking up the same numbers he always has.
When LeBron’s teammates were alerted of potential Anthony Davis trade rumors that would have sent almost half of the roster to New Orleans, the supporting cast threw in the towel. By mid-February, the Lakers began to plummet. Once the Playoffs were out of reach, LeBron was listed as inactive for nine of the Lakers’ final 14 games.
For the first time since 2005, LeBron James was a member of a team that failed to make the Playoffs.
In the most shocking part of the entire campaign, Magic Johnson—just minutes before the Lakers’ final game of the season—held an impromptu press conference announcing that he would not be returning as a member of the Lakers’ front office. Finishing the season at an embarrassing 37-45, the Lakers had become more of a sideshow than an organization to be taken seriously.
Something needed to be done.
That coming offseason, that 'something' was realized in the form of Anthony Davis.
And, oh, what a difference Davis has made.
Since their acquisition of the 7-foot megastar, the Lakers have been a dominant force. They are bigger, stronger, and faster than nearly every team in the league. They can be bullies. They can be finesse. They can play fast or slow. They can do virtually whatever they want whenever they please. A championship is a real possibility thanks to Davis and the supporting cast. If the Lakers were a Volkswagen last year, Anthony Davis is the improved motor that turned the car into a high-performance Audi.
Let’s not be confused, though: LeBron is the driver.
Since his forgettable previous season, LeBron has emphatically answered every single question that had been raised regarding his downfall. And now - just as Wilt, Jerry West, Magic, Kareem, Shaq, and Kobe did before him - LeBron has a chance to be enshrined eternally alongside the pantheon of Laker legends… if he brings the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Los Angeles.
He may never be the greatest Laker of all time, but make no mistake: LeBron James is the greatest player to ever don the magical purple and gold. Many people will cringe upon reading that sentence, but the evidence is clear. Save for The Decision, LeBron James has had one of the most illustrious careers in professional sports history. His accolades include, but are not limited to:
Career averages of 27.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game.
The best player on two different Championship-winning teams.
A three-time NBA Champion.
A three-time NBA Finals MVP.
A four-time league MVP.
A two-time Olympic Gold Medalist.
A 16-time All-Star.
A 12-time All-NBA First Team member.
A Five-time All-NBA Defensive First Team member.
The third-highest scorer of all-time.
The eighth-highest assist-man of all-time.
And, at the age of 35, in his 17th professional season, still counting.
Call him whatever derogatory name you please - LeBum, Washed King, the most overrated player of all-time, but just know one thing: You are on the wrong side of history.
When LeBron finishes his career, players, coaches, and organizations will let out a collective sigh of relief. No longer will they have to deal with a 35-year-old man dunking on their heads and crushing their playoff hopes. No longer will ‘LeBron James’ appear in a box score with 36 points, 14 assists, and 12 rebounds. No longer will players be hesitant to start a fastbreak in fear of an impending LeBron chase-down block. No longer will coaches have sleepless nights over the fact that, for almost twenty years, none of their schemes have even come close to slowing him down.
After nearly two full decades of dominating the NBA and media headlines alike, we have reached a strange impasse regarding LeBron. His statistics are no longer enough to impress. As a matter of fact, fans have gotten to a point where they are considering someone to be declining because their averages are only 25 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds per night. If anything, we somehow expect LeBron to do more.
His career has included dozens of all-time great moments, so it is no surprise that people are unimpressed by stats. Doing the same thing year after year definitely does possess a notable fatigue. Think about that logically, though: Shouldn’t we be even more impressed by that fact? In his 15th season, LeBron played every single game, averaged 27.5 points, 9.1 assists, and 8.6 rebounds, and led a terrible roster to the NBA Finals. At the age of 35, LeBron is playing a career-low in minutes, averaging 25 points per night, leading the NBA in assists, and has the Lakers sitting comfortably as the number-one seed in the deep Western Conference. There is no historical comparison for what he has done in his NBA career, and there is no historical comparison for what he is currently doing in his seventeenth NBA season.
Media outlets and closed-minded basketball ‘fans’ continue to seek excuses to knock the crown off of King James’ head, but those sad attempts have yet to come to fruition. He might be on a slight decline, but at the age of 35, isn’t that expected? Why do we feel the need to question somebody who, time and time again, has shown that he is one of the top-two basketball players who has ever lived? Even today, LeBron still might be the best player alive.
Yes, Giannis might be a freak of nature. Kawhi definitely might be a robot. Durant might be an alien.
But LeBron James? He is a planet. Undeniable gravity and insurmountable peaks are all-too-normal for him.
Once the Playoffs tip-off this April, he will remind everybody of that fact. I am sure he yearns for the moment to yet again prove every single doubter of his wrong. At some point, LeBron’s reign will come to an end, but for now, let’s do what we should have been doing a long, long time ago.
Be thankful for the hours of entertainment he has provided us.
Appreciate greatness while you can.
Stop taking LeBron James for granted. Once he’s gone, there will never be another.