28 September 2020

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Who is the best player in the league? Part (3/7)

The generally accepted theory is that there are six conceivable best players in the NBA; players that if someone was to claim are the best in the world you wouldn’t look to place them under psychiatric supervision. Those six players are Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokoumpo and Kawhi Leonard. Over the next few weeks I will attempt to express the argument for each player as well as some of the factors that detract from their case.

The arguments presented in this piece, are not necessarily supporting my own point of view, rather, the feasible arguments that support a player’s case to be regarded as the best player in the world. The criteria for the best in the world include but are not limited to:

  • Team success
  • Influence on the sport
  • Longevity 
  • Individual performance
  • Résumé
  • “Eye test”
  • Peak of their powers

LeBron James

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For 2,378 days LeBron James reigned supreme over the NBA. From when LeBron won his first ring on June 21st 2012 to when he suffered his first major career injury on Christmas Day of 2018, there was seldom a whisper contending The King’s place at the top of the NBA hierarchy. 

James’ accolades and achievements are far superior to those of other superstars across the league. He leads the league in NBA MVPs, Finals MVPs and career points, to name but a few. The highlight of LeBron’s Career was undoubtedly his comeback against the 73-win Warriors; the three game stretch to bring the Cavaliers from the brink of defeat to the title was the greatest in NBA history.

Between game five and game seven, he averaged 36/12/10/3/3 and missed just 12 total minutes. As one of the indisputable top three players of all time LeBron James’ prime obviously outperforms every player in the league. The only reason this debate can take place is because he has started to decline from the completely dominant force he was from 2010 to 2017.

As The King’s athletic prowess has declined, he has entered a different phase of his career. LeBron has adapted to this change seemingly effortlessly. He gets to the line five times less a game than he did during the 2007-08 season and now shoots two more 3s a game. Throughout the 2019-20 season, LBJ has transitioned into the most extreme manifestation of a Point Forward. He has had the ball in his hand at a much higher rate than previously seen; over the course of this season he has attempted an average of 8.5 field goals having had possession for 6+ seconds, this is up 2.5 attempts per game compared to when he was in his prime at Miami.

In addition to this, he’s averaging a career high 10.6 assists per game. In the current season he is 3rd in the league in value over replacement player (VORP), this level of effectiveness has never been seen before from a player in their 17th season. Furthermore, during tight game scenarios LeBron is especially effective, shooting nearly 10% higher from the field when the margin is within five points.

The ‘eye test’ for LeBron this season has been an unforeseeable leap from his high-flying performances during his Miami days. The game at this stage of LeBron’s career comes so easily to him that he looks almost nonchalant whilst dominating in every facet of the offence. There’s been times that you can see the defensive stopper he once was, even if this is now a stand-out moment rather than the expected norm. Sometimes the effort is not fully there and it tells, however when he turns it on you can still barely buy a bucket against him.

If you watch LeBron’s play closely you can see just how simple the game is to him, the threat of him driving to the rim stops defenders being able to press on him and at 6’9 that gives him the ability to get high percentage looks from beyond the arc. Should he get to the rim he has the ability to utilise his greatest skill, his passing. LeBron’s ability to find the open shooter from within the middle of the paint is the thing that truly sets him apart from other scoring wing players, during the 2019-20 season he has assisted on 3.7 three-pointers a game.

He sees the game in a way only a basketball savant can. His understanding of the nuances of the game make him truly unguardable because he always makes the correct play, with a finely tuned sense of when to get teammates involved and when it is time to put the hammer down and do it himself. The other truly elite skill that 35 year old LBJ has is his ability to finish in traffic; around the basket he shoots 58.9% whilst contested. 

See the source image
LeBron finishes in traffic, Lakers outsiders

There was once a time when LBJ was the most polarizing player in the league, that title is now firmly held by Kevin Durant. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t any criticisms of LeBron; his Finals records and his free throw shooting leave a sour taste in the mouth of anybody that tries to argue that The King is the Greatest Of All Time.

LeBron’s Finals record has been berated on TV an uncountable, and perhaps unjust, number of times. If you actually break down the losses then there is a lot that three and six don’t tell you. His first Finals appearance pitted him against the San Antonio Spurs with a prime Tim Duncan, there isn’t any player that has ever played that could even make the series interesting, with LeBron’s supporting cast.

During this series there was never a feeling that James was not performing to a high standard, the sheer fact that he performed the way he did against the Pistons makes the criticism of any part of this playoff run unfathomable. Hence, holding this defeat over LeBron is merely a convenience for those seeking to create an argument against him.

His second Finals loss is the one that is indefensible. In the Finals of 2011, LeBron and the rest of the Miami Heat big 3 were dominated by the Nowitzki-led Mavericks. LeBron had the worst series of his career, averaging just 17.8 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists.

This was the single lowest point of LBJ’s career and the only time he can justifiably be accused of choking in the playoffs. The third Finals loss came when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had started to really fall off the cliff in terms of performance.

The Heat was outplayed by an all-round superior Spurs team, the Finals MVP got the award for guarding LeBron and holding him to only 28.2/8/4

His fourth NBA Finals loss game against a Golden State team that he most likely would’ve beaten if his 2nd best player wasn’t Matthew Dellavedova, and again, the Finals MVP controversially won the award for holding The King to an outrageous 35.8/13.3/8.8.

The 5th and 6th losses are self-explanatory, the greatest regular-season team of all time added the 3rd best scorer ever to their roster whilst LeBron lost his All-NBA Point Guard following the 5th. In the most recent series against the Warriors, LeBron had the greatest performance on a losing Finals team ever, posting up 34/8.5/10 including a 51/8/8 stat line in the instantly infamous JR Smith game. LeBron should only take the blame for the 2011 loss to Dallas, aside from that series he has been beyond stellar in the Finals.

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J.R Smith’s mistake will haunt LeBron, Sports Illustrated

The other critique of LeBron James is his free throw shooting, and unfortunately, in this, he has no defense. This season he has shot 69.7% from the charity stripe, for reference, that’s as close to Shaq numbers as it is to Durant. At the business end of the game, his Foul line shooting goes from bad to worse where he shoots an abysmal 66.4% from the line.

No one can pinpoint just what causes someone so obsessed with the game to be so poor at the most practicable shot in basketball. One of the theories I believe makes the most sense is that in his constant search for perfection he changes his free throw routine too often; for a shot that is easiest in rhythm, the constant tweaking is likely a disadvantage.

LeBron James has without a doubt been The King of the NBA over the past decade, and as he has entered the twilight of his career he is still comfortably the greatest basketball mind of this era. He remains effective on the defensive end when he locks in, and on offense, there has been next to no drop-off from his prime.

His ability to take over a game is unlike anybody in the league. The fact that we are even able to discuss a 17 year NBA veteran in the conversation for the best player is a testament to his ability to adapt. In the playoffs, LeBron is still, game on the line, the player I trust most to make the correct play. Although the four-time MVP is still unquestionably one of the most dominant forces in the league, he may now have relinquished his crown.

See why Curry and Durant could be the best player in the league:

Who is the best player in the league? Part (1/7)

Who is the best player in the league? Part (2/7)

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