by Russ Bengtson

Someday, we’ll look back on this and laugh.

Someday soon, perhaps, when LeBron James is throwing up 39/13/14 lines on the regular and winning championships and making more money that most European nations and fielding eight-digit offers from SLAMonline Top 50: LeBron James, no. 2teams from Algeria to Zimbabwe and looking like a cross between Oscar Robertson and Bo Jackson and saving General Motors and selling shoes and, you know, hitting free throws it will seem inconceivable that there was a time when LeBron James was not considered the best player in the NBA. There is, though. And we’re living in it.

Is it close? Of course. Given the choice of one player for one year to build around, it’s a pretty safe bet that a fair number of NBA GMs would gladly take LeBron. As it is, quite a few teams are doing everything but arranging “accidents” to make sure they can have a go at LeBron in the summer of ’10. (Sure, there are also other Class of ’03 prizes to pursue, but LeBron is the biggest and no one else comes close.) “NEW YORK — Knicks big men Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry were tragically vaporized yesterday when a Cablevision satellite crashed into their Rolls-Royces in the practice facility parking lot. Further tragedy was only avoided because Curry and Randolph had parked hundreds of yards away from anyone else’s cars and were dismissed from practice an hour early. Team owner James Dolan, president Donnie Walsh and coach Mike D’Antoni were unavailable for comment.”

You know how many times Michael Jordan averaged at least 25, 7 and 7 in his career? Twice. You know how many times LeBron James has averaged at least 25, 7 and 7 in his career? Twice. Now, Mike posted his in an absurd 32.5/8/8 line in 1989, and LeBron has yet to average eight of anything. But does anyone think he won’t? No one’s averaged a triple-double since Oscar Robertson way back in 1962, but does anyone think it’s outside LeBron’s reach? Just wait until he turns 24.*

There is no more sure thing in sports than LeBron James eventually being the best player in the NBA, if not the best basketball player of all time. Just let him add a few things—a midrange jumper, better touch (and better judgement) from three, consistency at the line, more focus on the defensive end—and it won’t even be close. Here’s a guy built like Karl Malone who soars like Jordan and sees the court like Oscar, who, if he is to believed, is still getting taller and bigger without losing any of his phenomenal speed. And again, because it’s so unprecedented, he doesn’t turn 24 until December 30th. Jordan’s 32.5/8/8, his most well-rounded statistical season, came when he was 25. For LeBron, the best is yet to come.

Still, why compare him to the best of the best when he apparently isn’t even quite the best of the now? Why put that all-time weight on his back when he’s still striving to the best of his own time? This is just the way it’s been. Ever since LeBron came onto the national scene, he’s been lauded as the next big thing. The next biggest thing. The Chosen One and all that. King James. And he’s come so far, fulfilling so much of that potential in only five NBA seasons. He’s been to the Finals, won a scoring title, played in more career playoff games than Vince Carter. His points-per-game average is fifth all-time, and were he to walk away from the game right now, he’d be a lock for the Hall of Fame. That said, the promise of the future distracts from the reality of the present. LeBron James is not a finished product.

And maybe he never will be. There’s nothing wrong with that. There has yet to be a perfect player in any sport—I’m sure you remember that Jordan commercial about his failures being why he succeeds. And while that message was just another way to sell shoes—hey, Mike is human!—there was an element of truth to it. No one wins them all. Losing does teach a lesson. There’s a reason the road to the top is called a climb. You don’t start at the very top.

LeBron James is number two.

Just don’t expect him to stay here for long.

* Robertson actually averaged his triple-double—30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds—when he was 23. Also, he missed averaging additional triple-doubles by 3/10ths of an assist as a 22-year-old rookie, by half an assist as a 24-year old, and by 1/10th of a rebound as a 25-year old. Oscar was really, really, really good.

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