HOW GOOD IS LEBRON? PART DEUXMarch 5th, 2013
Since sports journalists spend our entire professional lives second-guessing others, it’s healthy to second-guess ourselves from time to time. That’s what I’ve been spending most of the morning and much of the afternoon doing in the wake of the response to my Monday post about LeBron James on si.com.
To be sure, one wades into these who-is-better-than-whom? waters with trepidation, knowing that sharks are swimming out there just beyond the breakers. You never write one and expect people to say: “Right on, Jack. My thoughts exactly. I’m recommending you for one of those MacArthur Fellows Genius Grants.” Still, it is always surprising, not to mention depressing, when many of the responses are so damn strange.
Such was the case with the LeBron James piece that was posted Monday on si.com. Here is the link to it.
But before I get to the strangeness, let me get to the main point. Which is:
I do wonder if my post ignored a crucial category, and, upon re-examination, if that wouldn’t change the results. I tried to make fair judgments, but you always second-guess yourself, and, upon, hearing the differing rationale of others, you sometimes third- and fourth-guess yourself. Much more on that later.
You should understand that checking out comments about stories and posts I’ve done is not my strong point. I was on Twitter for six months before I realized that people were actually responding to me. But in order to write this followup piece, I dutifully went through the dozens and dozens of responses that followed the post on si.com.
To review the premise …
I was prompted to write it by the number of times I’ve been asked about LeBron over the past few weeks. And I’m not even on the NBA beat full-time. With the dominating way he is playing, it seemed like a fair question. Still does. So I decided to take it on.
Allow me first to throw up a zone defense against some of the criticisms, the number one being that I am a “LeBron lover.” In truth, LeBron wouldn’t recognize me if I fell down in front of him, swallowed my tongue and went into convulsions. I’ve interviewed him one-on-one but that was a long time ago and he’s seen a lot of old white dudes since then. With the exception of Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek, each of whom I have met only twice, I know every single player on my list personally much, much, much better than I know LeBron.
One reader who emailed the website said that it was “reprehensible” to even write the piece. Wow. I might suggest that “reprehensible” is, say, Dennis Rodman showing love to Kim Jong-un. Another suggested that I wrote the piece in order to secure a one-on-one interview with LeBron, another because I wanted to “be like Chris Broussard,” another because I wanted to “hype Nike,” another because I’m a “Kobe-hater.” In fact, there were a lot of criticisms that I undervalued Kobe because I don’t like him. If I did undervalue Bryant, it wasn’t because I don’t like him; in fact, I just wrapped up a week of praising Kobe in a couple of recent SI and si.com articles. And, tell you the truth, I do like him.
I’ve been in this business for 40 years, and it still astounds me how often conspiracy theories are ascribed to journalists. There are no doubt instances when writers have vested interests or secret motives, but they are rare. You pretty much write an article because you believe that it’s a good subject, or that people will find it interesting, or that it deserves to be done, or that you have a deadline and no other idea, or some combination of all of them.
What I was trying to do in the case of LeBron was assess him compared to other players who are like him. Or given the fact that graceful 6’8’’ 250-pound ramrodders are extremely rare, somewhat like him. I explicitly ruled out centers, small point guards and some swingmen who did not face up and direct the offense frequently enough to be like LeBron.
But, sure enough, there came an avalanche of comments about players who were missing. Where’s Russell? Where’s Wilt? Where’s Duncan? Where’s Garnett? Where’s Barkley? Where’s Dr. J? Where’s Connie Hawkins? Where’s Stockton? Where’s Isiah?
It didn’t help that, for a while, si.com posted the headline IS HE THE GREATEST? over the piece. Again, that was not the discussion I was trying to have.
One reader was driven to distraction because I dared to compare LeBron to Jordan. “If you ask 10 basketball fans, coaches,
players who THEY would want to build a team around and you gave them the LeBron or Jordan option, 10 of 10 would pick Jordan!!!”
I totally agree. Which, if you read the piece, is how it came out. Jordan finished on top.
(This reader also referred to sports writers as “imbosiles.” One suggestion: If you’re going call someone else dumb, it would better reinforce your point if you didn’t look dumb yourself.)
A number of responders thought that it was “much too early” to compare LeBron to the greats. Ladies and gentlemen, this is his 10th season. He’s not an Akron teenager anymore. We’ve seen what he can do. Somebody said that “Magic’s numbers for his first 10 years are better than LeBron’s,” but, no, they aren’t. Magic had more assists (of course) but not more rebounds or more points. And that is not a knock on Magic. If you compiled the number of column inches I’ve written about Magic’s greatness over the years, it would wrap around Chris Christie’s Dockers. More than once.
As to the point that I am ignoring what one writer called “the inevitable end-of-the-career slide,” two things: First, I didn’t judge anyone by the end of his career, and, second, how much better can LeBron get? That was part of my evaluation process regading James. Barring injury, the LeBron at 33 might well be better than the LeBron at 28. Yes, he will have a down side at some point, but his up side is still going up.
That aside, here are some fair comments that deserve analysis.
–Dick “Fairway” Friedman, a former Sports Illustrated editor, suggested that I undervalued Larry Bird’s Wow Factor. With 4 as the top score, I gave Bird a 1. “When Bird started lighting ’em up from all over the court,” writes Friedman, “it had the same effect as a spectacular dunk or a no-look pass.”
Another friend, Dana Grubb, agreed: “The passing part of Bird’s game had people shaking their heads for years, as did his long distance shooting for a 6’9’’ forward. Factor in some of those highlight reel shots … and all together it was as demoralizing as some of the in-your-face slams.”
“Matt from Brooklyn” wrote something along those lines. “It seems to me that you failed to factor in Shooting as an individual category and how that is also apart of the Wow factor. Larry Bird has had many shooting nights that demoralized opponents. Kobe Bryant gets Wow points for dunks and unbelievable shot making. A Shooting category strengthens Larry’s case, Kobe’s case, and Jerry’s case.”
–Dana also took issue with the Winning category. “I would have rated Jerry West higher,” he wrote. “The Lakers couldn’t beat Russell’s Celtics, but they were right there at the end in many of those years and the point differential when it came down to seventh games, as it often did, was usually very close. West was also a good clutch shooter so I think his effort at winning was on par with others even though he didn’t rack up a bunch of championships.”
–Another reader, Marc E. Jaffe, said much the same thing about winning and Oscar Robertson. He wrote: “Oscar gets sorely penalized for not winning, but basketball was very different then. No free agency. He was stuck—and I mean stuck in Cincinnati—a true backwater town with an owner who didn’t care much about winning. Oscar was an incredible winner and proved it as soon as he got together with Kareem post Cincinnati. Give him 4 more points and he’s right behind MJ.”
–A couple of readers protested the exclusion of James’s teammate, Dwyane Wade. I tried to explain in the initial post that Wade wasn’t “like” James, even more so now because James has become the undisputed quarterback. But I hear you. I do. Wade was certainly the all-everything when he led the James-less, Bosh-less Heat to the championship in 2006. Maybe he should’ve been on there. I’m going back and forth … I’m kicking myself … There.. do you feel better?
But let’s get to the real meat of this.
–One Andrew suggested that, “in place of the silly Wow factor, you should’ve gone with killer instinct.” He added: “He [James] would be at the bottom of that.” Those many readers who commented about James’s lack of a killer instinct, or his immaturity, or running away from Cleveland … I get the message. But you are reading from an old script. I elected not to punish James even though, yes, he punked out from time to time in his early years, and, yes, The Decision was pretentious and ham-handed. In fact, I wrote exactly that as you see in this link.
But, look, times change. People change. Players change. To be fair and accurate, you have to change some of your perceptions about James.
Having said that, Andrew’s point about killer instinct is a good one. Several other readers compared Kobe and LeBron in this aspect and found James wanting. Another Andrew suggested adding a “competitiveness” category. On and on it went along that line.
So I have a solution. I will make the Wow category a 12-pointer, same as the others, and include intangibles such as “Mental Toughness” and “Competitiveness.”
Reconsidering everything, here are the (slightly) amended rankings.
I gave Oscar Robertson and Kobe Bryant one more point. Even though their averages aren’t quite as high as LeBron’s, as pure scorers they should rank as high.
I gave Larry Bird one more point. In truth, I probably bent over backwards trying not to overrate the guys I covered in their prime. But according to most readers, I undervalued the old guys … of which I am one.
REBOUNDING AND PERIMETER QUARTERBACKING
A number of readers wondered how I could put LeBron two points ahead of Bryant, who has been successfully posting up for years. I did consider James’s size in his ability to dominate down there, but I hear you: Kobe gets one more point.
DEFENSE AND LEADERSHIP
I didn’t do so well in my first swipe at this category. The comment about West was right on. Okay, he won only one title, but he played in 153 playoff games, averaging 29.1 points, 6.3 assists and 5.6 rebounds. And he was only known as Mr. Clutch.
Robertson doesn’t fare quite as well upon reexamination. He played in only 86 playoff games and his numbers were a little down from his standards (22.2, 8.9 assists, 6.7 rebounds). The Big O gets one more point for having to spend most of his career in Cincy, but West gets four more for coming close so many times.
It has now become a 12-point category, encompassing mental toughness and competitiveness (as admittedly difficult as they might be to define), along with the spectacular, opposition-deflating play.
Perhaps I did lean too heavily towards the dunk and the spectacular play, which, frankly, goes against my nature since I’m always one of those guys complaining that playmaking is highlighted too infrequently on the nightly clips.
So some changes are in order.
Jordan gets a 12 in WOW. Nobody was like him in his ability to make both the spectacular play and destroy you with his competitiveness. Here are the other adjusted scores.
Magic gets an 11. Bryant 10. LeBron 10. Bird 9. West 9. Robertson 9. Drexler 7. Pippen 7. Havlicek 6. Kidd 5. Pierce 5. Which leaves us with:
NEW POINT TOTALS: (A perfect score would now be 108.)
JORDAN 97 points
Okay, time to renew your complaints again. If you still think I’m an “imbosile,” well, there’s not much more than I can say.