LeBron James added another accolade to his all-time résumé on Monday night, joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to rank in the top 25 on the all-time scoring and assist lists after scoring 15 points and dropping 13 dimes in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 117-103 win over the Orlando Magic at Quicken Loans Arena. Ever since his introduction to the world via the pages of SLAM and Sports Illustrated, basketball fans and pundits have subjected James to ceaseless comparisons — to the Big O, to Michael Jordan, to Magic Johnson, to Larry Bird, to Kobe Bryant, and on, and on — and the tale-of-the-tape measurements have continued as LeBron's gone from heavily hyped high-schooler to unquestioned future Hall of Famer.
As you'd expect of someone who's won two NBA championships, four Most Valuable Player awards, two Olympic gold medals and just about every other individual and team honor you can think of, James doesn't really sweat the compare-and-contrast game these days. And while he has spoken in the past about the career goal of ranking at the top of everybody's list, he'd prefer we didn't use these milestones as an occasion for evaluations aimed at elevating one player above another, thanks. From Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:
"I think what we get caught up in, in our league too much is trying to compare greats to greats instead of just accepting and acknowledging and saying, 'Wow, these are just great players,'" James said. "I think in the NFL when you talk about great quarterbacks, they don't really compare great quarterbacks. They say, 'Oh, Joe Montana is great.' You know, 'Tom Brady is great. Aaron Rodgers is great. Steve Young is great.' (Terry) Bradshaw, all those great quarterbacks they never compare them as much, but when it comes to our sport we're so eager to say, 'Who is better, Oscar or (Michael) Jordan?' or, 'Jordan or LeBron or Kobe (Bryant) or these guys?' instead of just accepting greatness."
"And if you understand the history of the sport, then there is no way you could ever forget Oscar Robertson," James added, according to ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "This guy, he averaged a triple-double for, like, forever."
It is perhaps worth noting that, while James might not go in for the "who ya got?" barstool argument, he hasn't always been opposed to cross-generational, purely theoretical, the-stuff-of-video-games-and-image-editing fancy when it comes to considering his place in the basketball firmament. He even used a similar quarterback analogy:
[James] revealed on Wednesday that the screensaver of his phone is a Photoshop image of himself handling the ball while guarded by Michael Jordan in his prime. "Jordan was my superhero growing up," James said. "He was the guy I feel helped me get to where I am today. As a competitor, who would not want to go against the best? That's like asking [Tom] Brady would he want to go against [Joe] Montana in the fourth quarter."
That said: It would be very nice to praise all rather than pick one! There's plenty of room in all of our heads and hearts for the wide variety of wonderful players who have graced NBA courts in the past, who presently perform every night, and who will enter the grand stage in the year to come. No two players are exactly alike (though not necessarily for lack of trying). Sweeping changes in countless facets of the game — from strategy to rules, from conditioning to skill training, from depth and quality of competition to strength of supporting cast, from injuries to dumb luck — make apples-to-apples player and team comparisons across eras just about inconceivable. There's a reason why Steve Kerr called it "literally impossible" to weigh the "1995-96 Bulls or 2015-16 Warriors?" debate.
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There's no way to be right about something like this, but that also means there's no way to be wrong about something like this, which means that everyone gets to continue thinking that he or she is right about something like this, which means that everyone gets to keep arguing about something like this, which is all many people really want to do, anyway. And that's more or less fine, provided nobody assaults anybody, which is unfortunately not a given. Those inclined to do so can embrace debate; those who prefer to ignore that stuff can just go, "Man, these two individuals not in direct competition with one another were both pretty great." It's neat to live in a free society and have personal agency over our emotional decision-making.
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