Even video games can’t properly rank just how great LeBron James is now

It’s an offseason dilemma, but a dilemma nevertheless. LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA for years, but over the last two seasons he’s somehow taken his all-around brilliance to another, fearsome, level. The NBA can counter James’ ridiculous basketball outlay with the same sort of tactics it has used for years on stars of various shapes and sizes. It can counter with team ball, withering depth, double or triple teams, or the “make him beat you by himself”-ethos. To varying degrees – like, taking the Miami Heat deep into a playoff series – it can work.

In a video game? Not as much. The games are getting smarter and smarter, but the sorts of hedges and off ball help that well-researched NBA coaches can adapt with on the fly just aren’t as prevalent in the star and shooting-crazed world of video games. Then there is the human element, which can never account for, say, Ray Allen (a top-ranked free throw shooter, in real and virtual terms) missing freebies down the stretch of a close playoff game.

What’s a programmer to do, though, when James keeps getting better and better after years of being ranked 98 or 99 out of 100 as a video game participant? A cool hundred? Writing at Sports Illustrated, Ben Sin discusses the unique frustration:

In the history of NBA video games, elite superstars have always been rated in the high 90s, with legends like Jordan and Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson at 99, the max. James has been rated between 95 to 99 for the past seven years. As early as the fall of 2006, he was given a 98 rating in NBA 2K7. A 98! In 2006, when he had no jump shot or post game! (He had a 97 in NBA Live 2007.) In 2011, when James’ lack of a post game and mental toughness led to a meltdown in the NBA Finals, he was already maxed out at 99 in that year’s edition of 2K.

That’s a “99” handed to a player that was taken down by those real world things we discussed above – the Dallas Mavericks thinking on the fly and initiating a zone defense that confused even the 99’ers. Though the Heat have been taken deep into playoff series by less top-heavy teams in the years since, James has smartly utilized those reps to figure out his own way to win on the fly.

Against the Pacers, Celtics and Thunder in 2012 James started slow before building up steam long enough to carry the Heat to an eventual win. Things were just as frightening for Heat fans at times against the Pacers and San Antonio Spurs in 2013, but James eventually prevailed by using smarts and those other-worldly gifts to make a winner out of Miami. He’s growing. It’s scary.

This isn’t to say that the makers of NBA 2K were utilizing hyperbole in years past when they gave James such a lofty ranking. He was that good. He’s been the best player in the league for years, and his crunch time stats (especially in the all-around department, including assists and efficient shooting) rivaled or bettered the sort of players he was compared with as the best in the game. The problem was that James’ teammates were lacking (as we saw in playoff losses in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009) or that James was left bewildered and clueless by better teams with smarter attacks (2010 and 2011).

James still appears to have those moments at times, but by the time a Game 6 or 7 rolls around he’s found his comfort zone. And now these video game makers have to account for that growth, somehow.

Sin went on to point out that Michael Jordan was rated over 100 in his debut as a license video game character, but that was more of a retrospective maneuver, as Jordan refused to grant permission for makers to use his image during his prime. There were ways around that, codes to create a “Player No. 23” for the Chicago Bulls that had superior gifts and rankings, but the NBA Live version of that player was only 6-4, which the 6-6 Jordan most assuredly is not. In his column, Sin talks up the changes we’ve seen to James’ game since his 98 ranking in 2006:

James got an 84 rating in post offense, in 2006, when the big knock on him was his lack of jump shot and post game. If 2006 LeBron is an 84 in the low block, then 2013 LeBron must be something like 130. Note that James was also rated a 79 from long range following a real-life season in which he shot 34%. The King is now a 40% three point shooter, so his three point rating, which was still as low as 77 in last year’s NBA 2K13 — should be somewhere in the mid-80s now.

Video games are far more sophisticated than the early attempts at emulating real life athletes in computer form. Still, we’re getting to a point where NBA 2K players may have to come up with an unwritten agreement, as it was during Bo Jackson or Lawrence Taylor’s heyday with Tecmo Bowl, that picking James’ Miami Heat is a no-go. Nothing against the people who play these sorts of games, but they’re not exactly working with Gregg Popovich’s wealth of knowledge, here.

Even Coach Pop couldn’t down James, in 2013. Maybe a spirited bout of NBA 2K this fall, even if James is awarded that mythical “100” status, could aid in Popovich’s personal revenge.

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