LeBron James is officially listed as the third best player ever (Garrett Ellwood/ Getty).
There are lots of good players in the NBA, and among that top tier LeBron James stands out as the best of the bunch. There's nothing he doesn't do well on the basketball court, apart from shooting from outside at an elite leve and re-invigorating hair follicles. The only way to discuss his place in the league, or to criticize him, is by comparing him to the cream of the historic crop.
As with most basketball arguments, that means he's going to be compared to Michael Jordan, to whom he cannot possibly measure up at this point in time. Yet, Dwyane Wade, LeBron's teammate in Miami and a Chicago native who grew up watching Jordan, says a comparison is warranted. From Ira Winderman for the South Florida Sun Sentinel (via PBT):
"Just watching LeBron play, I mean he's just playing at a different gear right now," Wade said. "That monkey is off his back and now he's just playing basketball. I think we'll continue to see a better LeBron James -- it's scary to say, a three-time MVP -- than we've seen.
"And it's because all he's got to do is play basketball now. He doesn't have to worry about what he hasn't done, even though it will always be something. But he got the biggest one off this back. He played exceptionally well."
Jordan well? That is a debate Wade called reasonable, but also still somewhat premature.
"He's on that level," Wade said, "but he has a lot more to do to get there. I think he understands he has an unbelievable opportunity to be one of the greatest to play this game. But that's when he gets done playing, he can say that.
"Right now, he has so much more to cover in his career. He's just getting started at the same time when Michael kind of just got started. We'll see how it all shakes out. I hope it shakes out the same way. I'll be a very happy man."
Wade is close to both men — in addition to playing with James, he also works as one of the primary endorsers of Jordan Brand (though that reportedly could change soon). And while Wade certainly has every incentive to make his teammate look as good as possible, what he's saying here really isn't so crazy. HIs qualifier that James has a long way to go to equal Jordan's career is the key point here, and the one that typically ends all comparisons of the two players. The larger point — that James is currently playing at a level we typically associate with Jordan — has some value.
What that means, in simplified terms, is that LeBron is playing an excellent all-around game that helps him control the sport without just scoring. He defends, sets up his teammates, hits jumpers, drives, scores in crunch time, etc. Those were all things Jordan did at his best, as well, and when the Bulls won championships he led them in most of those categories. James has done the same with the Heat and Team USA, and arguing otherwise is primarily a case of being difficult or misunderstanding this moment-specific commentary.
Again, the point here isn't that James is already his equal, but that for a comparatively brief period of time he is dominating several phases of the game in a way we haven't seen since Jordan. Kobe Bryant and others have been great in their own right and won more championships than LeBron, but he's alone in the post-Jordan era for displaying this kind of well-rounded game. We don't have to claim he's already among the best players ever, because that's a career honor. But what he's done over the last few six months deserves our attention, because runs like that don't happen very often.
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