What We Talk About When We Talk About LeBron James - Pacific Standard

What We Talk About When We Talk About LeBron James

LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and the meaninglessness of being the best.
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(PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

(PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Last night, the Miami Heat won the NBA championship. They beat the San Antonio Spurs 95-88, making it two-straight titles and three-straight finals appearances. As every outcome in the NBA has become since he entered the league as an 18-year-old back in 2003, this was a referendum on LeBron James. It really isn’t, but that’s how it always gets framed. Every moment gets talked about like it’s some crossroads on James’ path toward some vague concept of “greatness.” When in reality, LeBron’s career has been, more or less, a straight blazed-trail, an asteroid crashed down from outer space, skidding across Earth, destroying everything in its path, somehow gaining speed despite the laws of gravity that apply to the rest of us.

By just about every measure—objectively statistical, anecdotal, and subjectively visual—LeBron James is a singularly phenomenal basketball player. He combines bits and pieces of so many players that came before him inside a massive body that shouldn’t be able to move the way it does. He’s 28, and he’s accomplished everything an individual and a teammate can accomplish in the sport. He is great, and he’ll continue to be great.

To consider one person as “best” in a game when success is determined by the most points scored by a group of five players against another group of five players is to misunderstand the concept of basketball.

Yet, it’s not possible to just accept that for some reason. (Well, the reason: We need narrative to make some sense of everything. But it goes beyond that.) There’s a fallacy with how we talk about LeBron James. At first, before he won multiple NBA championships, it was: “He can’t be great until he wins.” The black-and-white consideration—win and you’re one thing, lose and you’re another thing—is wrong, reductive, and unrealistic, in addition to not taking into account that basketball is played by about 18 different people throughout the course of a game, and one player can only do so much.

Now, he’s won two titles—at the same ages as Michael Jordan, the false-marker every possibly-transcendent basketball player is held up to—and he isn’t a choker; he’s a winner! But how great of a winner is he? Is he better than Bill Russell, who has 11 rings? Is he better than Michael? Is he The Best Ever?

Ignore that none of these players have ever played against each other. Ignore that rules have changed from era to era to era, making the games significantly different. Ignore that a player’s performance is shaped so much by the other four players on the floor with him. Ignore that coaching and tactical trends make certain players more effective in certain eras. Ignore that technological, societal, statistical, performance, and health advances would suggest basketball players on the whole are “better” now than they were when those things didn’t exist. Ignore all that.

And just look at “best.” It’s meaningless. Even if you define it as “the most excellent” basketball player. There’s no one answer to that because there are so many ways to be excellent and so many variables that effect how much of that excellence is outwardly obvious. We all define it differently—the most rings, the most points, my favorite, the guy I’ve seen play well the most and is therefore best—which means we’re all adding to it’s non-definition. To consider one person as “best” in a game when success is determined by the most points scored by a group of five players against another group of five players is to misunderstand the concept of basketball.

LeBron James is amazing. Just watch. It’s all you need to do.

http://youtu.be/CiogiHgt_eQ

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