Top 50: LeBron James, no. 1

by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17

First off, I voted LeBron 1, Kobe 2, KD 3 and DWade 4, and any internal debates I had about that ranking centered around slots 2-4. I think LeBron was easily the best player in the League the last two regular seasons, and while I hated what happened in the Celtics series like everybody else, in retrospect we know he was dealing with some combination of a bad elbow, thinking about his future, brutal rumors about his mother, and, most of all, the fact that the Celtics provLeBron Jamesed in the following weeks that they were a lot better than anyone (other than perhaps die-hard fans such as our own Tzvi Twersky) thought.

Of course, as is noted on every single Top-50 post, these rankings aren’t about last year. They’re about this season. And when I think about LeBron, and this season, I actually bring my mind back to the first time I saw him play in person, a 2002 high school match-up between he and Carmelo (Bron was a junior, Melo a senior). I was at the game with LeBron expert Ryan Jones, who had prepped me for LeBron’s impressive size and scoring ability, but what I hadn’t comprehended before then was his court vision.

I saw a lot more of LeBron when he was a high school senior, and obviously watched the beginning of his NBA career very closely, and my first favorable impressions only grew. The positives were almost endless: incredible build, great leaping ability, good teammate, could score with ease in transition or half-court sets, took big shots…but none of it stuck to me like the passing. No matter his crappy teammates. No matter his obvious mismatches. If a guy is open, LeBron is going to find him. In many ways, even though the hype, the No. 23 on his jersey, the potential to be the “best in the game,” all conjured up thoughts of Michael Jordan, the essence of LeBron’s game — passing — was much closer to Magic Johnson’s.

Unfortunately for LeBron and his fans, by the standards of elite, championship-winning NBA teams, the collection of teammates he had the last few years stunk. Oh, sure, with the help of a solid defensive system and an interchangeable cast of role players who at least played hard, LeBron was able to overcome their deficiencies during the regular season.

Playing the bulk of his minutes when the defensive pressure on he and his teammates was low — blowout wins, regular-season games in general that don’t count for much — LeBron was able to conduct the Cavaliers offense like a maestro. He could play on the ball or off, make quick no-look passes or dribble for half the shotclock, sit on the perimeter or go inside, notch an assist or score almost whenever he needed to. The results? Frankly, remarkable.

Many of you may have forgotten these numbers in the wake of what transpired since, but LeBron averaged 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1 block per game last season for a 61-win team that played at one of the slowest paces in the League and whose second-best player was Mo Williams. Read that sentence again. And again. There’s a story on that was written July 2 asking how much losing LeBron would hurt the Cavs. The bulk of the story is mathematical jargon, but let me summarize for you: If the Cavs had an average NBA player last year in place of LeBron on the roster, the numbers and analysis crunch out something to the effect of 30 wins.

Understand: LeBron James took a team that, minus him, would win 30 games, and won 61. Much of the above narrative would hold true for the last five Cavs seasons.

Then, every year, the Playoffs started. Does LeBron get nervous? Can he not carry the weight? Critics seem to think so, but how do you explain Pistons Game 5 in ’07? The buzzer-beater against the Magic in ’09? The 35-9-7 average stat line in ’09? Shit, even last year, when he “failed” so badly, LeBron averaged 29-9-8 over the postseason. For his career, his per-game playoff averages are 29-8-7 (with a bunch of blocks and steals thrown in for good measure). Are you fucking kidding me? Does that read like someone who chokes when the games matter more?

I refuse to have Kobe Bryant be a big part of this post, but for comparison’s sake, KB’s career playoff numbers are 26-5-5. The guy some other folks think can take LeBron’s crown, Kevin Durant, has never had a single playoff game as good as LeBron’s average playoff game.

It seems clear to me that the postseason is when the warts of LeBron’s teammates show up the clearest. There’s better pressure on the ball. Shooters get closed out on quicker. Rebounds are chased harder. When the stakes are high and every guy on the floor is playing his hardest, average players can become below-average. And below-average players can become downright useless. And who did LeBron have for teammates in Cleveland? A lot of average and below-average players whose games went down as the intensity went up.

And when LeBron is forced by his teammates’ poor play to not only be by far the best player on the floor (which is always the case), but the only player capable of even being effective (think of Game 6 vs. the Celtics last season), much of his genius is lost to circumstance. You can’t be Magic when your teammates suck. You can be Michael, but LeBron isn’t Michael. At least not in the cold-blooded, no-way-in-hell-are-you-stopping-me-from-scoring sense. (Michael actually didn’t win too much that way either; his greatest successes came when Scottie Pippen had a huge role on the team, too. But you knew Mike could do it if he had to.) Other than that Pistons series in ’07, I can’t think of too many times LeBron showed that ability in the postseason. It’s just not his game. He can score a bunch of buckets, yes, but his game is more complete than that. He is, really, a Magic-Michael hybrid.

Working on this piece took me back a couple years to a LENGTHY inteview Justin Walsh did with me over at BallisLife in August of 2008. Justin asked me about LeBron and I had a lot to say. Here’s a part of it:

“I think LeBron is the best player. I’m not saying he’s perfect, but I’d take him over anyone, personally. I like to think of him as a Magic/Michael hybrid, which has never existed and that’s why to me he’s the best. I don’t know what’s going to come after him, and I guess we have to see what type of teammates he gets with and if he stays motivated, but I think that when his career ends, he will be the best player who has ever played. To me it’s because Magic is arguably the best PG of all time, and LeBron has that size….And you’re right, it’s not fair to compare LeBron to Kobe or Michael, but he can score ALMOST as well as them. I may be getting too carried away, but having a Magic Johnson-Michael Jordan hybrid player, how could he not be the greatest of all time when we are talking about two of the five or six best ever and we have a guy combining the two attributes? There’s a lot of backlash with how much coverage this guy gets. He does sell pretty well when he’s on our cover, but we also get a lot of hate directed at him in letters and in the comments and to me that’s ludicrous…I mean he is 23 years old. This guy, he has almost 11,000 points at 23 years old. That is UNBELIEVABLE. This is unprecedented… I get a little worked up because it’s remarkable what he’s doing.”

Remember, I wrote that two-plus years ago. And I’m not embarrassed by it. The Magic and Michael comparisons are hollow in the title department so far, but LeBron is still only 25, and, finally getting back to this season, he now has the two things I noted that he’d need to reach his potential: good teammates and some motivation.

I think the ability to run with a fellow top-5 talent in Wade and a top-15 talent in Chris Bosh should help LeBron let his inner Magic out in ways NBA watchers have never seen. The regular season should be another orgy of stats, with Bron probably capable of a 25-10-10 year if he got the minutes and really paid attention to his stats.

But it’s the postseason when Wade and Bosh should have their true effect on LeBron, because unlike the guys in Cleveland, DWade and CB will still be able to get theirs, so LeBron and the Heat should be able to take their regular-season play right into the Playoffs, as opposed to the way the 60-win Cav teams handed LeBron the ball and shriveled up in the postseason.

I love this quote from LeBron about who will take the last shot for the Heat in SI‘s NBA Preview story about how Miami will play this season: “It’s about who is going to make the right play. I’ve always been a guy, even when I was in Cleveland, who has made the right play. Sometimes we lost the game, and sometimes we won the game, but I always tried to make the right play. It’s not always about scoring or making the game-winner. It’s about putting your teammates in position to succeed.” Well, for the first time in his eight-year NBA career, LeBron has teammates who are likely to succeed.

Motivation-wise, it’s hard to look at the numbers LeBron put up in Cleveland and say he didn’t go hard every time out, but we know he was pretty spoiled there. He was a hometown hero, worshipped by fans, protected by the press, and looked upon as the savior of a city. He had his haters on SLAMonline, sure, but there wasn’t a long list of people LeBron could come out firing at who had talked shit about him.

Now? He’s basically the NBA’s public enemy number one. Whether he earned some of the hate for the horribly executed “Decision” or not, LeBron has had the chance to listen to people at every spectrum of the game — from Hall of Fame players to renowned reporters to everyday fans — talk about him like he’s the worst thing the League has going for it.

And he knows the best way to shut them all up is to win.

In closing, I want to note that much like an American society where people seem to be taking extreme views and sticking to them — the “left” and “right” seemingly getting further and further apart by the day — our beloved comment section seems to be lacking a sense of, “good point, never thought of that.” It’s more like, the Kobe lovers stick to their guy, the LeBron lovers stick to their guy, and there isn’t a chance in hell that some writer or fellow commenter is going to convince a person their view is wrong.

So while I’d love it if my write up changed a few minds or has some fair-minded fan reconsidering their view of LeBron, I know that isn’t likely. Instead, I’ll just sit back and let LeBron convince you this season.

Player Team Position 2010 2009 2010 2009
Ray Allen Celtics SG 50 36 10 9
Gilbert Arenas Wizards SG 49 34 9 8
Lamar Odom Lakers PF 48 33 14 10
John Wall Wizards PG 47 NR 13 NR
OJ Mayo Grizzlies SG 46 46 8 12
Al Horford Hawks C 45 NR 6 NR
Jason Kidd Mavs PG 44 45 12 10
Joakim Noah Bulls C 43 NR 5 NR
LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 42 39 13 12
David West Hornets PF 41 31 12 8
Monta Ellis Warriors SG 40 NR 7 NR
Andrew Bogut Bucks C 39 NR 4 NR
Yao Ming Rockets C 38 NR 3 NR
Brandon Jennings Bucks PG 37 NR 11 NR
Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 36 NR 11 NR
Stephen Curry Warriors PG 35 NR 10 NR
David Lee Warriors PF 34 NR 10 NR
Brook Lopez Nets C 33 NR 2 NR
Gerald Wallace Bobcats SF 32 NR 7 NR
Manu Ginobili Spurs SG 31 29 6 7
Tony Parker Spurs PG 30 15 9 3
Kevin Garnett Celtics PF 29 13 9 3
Rudy Gay Grizzlies SF 28 44 6 9
Josh Smith Hawks PF 27 40 8 13
Andre Iguodala 76ers SG 26 26 5 6
Al Jefferson Jazz PF 25 23 7 7
Russell Westbrook Thunder PG 24 NR 8 NR
Chauncey Billups Nuggets PG 23 19 7 5
Tyreke Evans Kings PG 22 NR 6 NR
Danny Granger Pacers SF 21 21 5 5
Carlos Boozer Bulls PF 20 32 6 9
Paul Pierce Celtics SF 19 17 4 4
Joe Johnson Hawks SG 18 20 4 4
Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 17 27 5 8
Amar’e Stoudemire Knicks PF 16 16 5 6
Steve Nash Suns PG 15 22 4 6
Tim Duncan Spurs PF 14 6 4 1
Chris Bosh Heat PF 13 13 3 4
Derrick Rose Bulls PG 12 18 3 4
Brandon Roy Blazers SG 11 10 3 3
Pau Gasol Lakers PF 10 14 2 5
Dirk Nowiztki Mavs PF 9 9 1 2
Deron Williams Jazz PG 8 11 2 2
Chris Paul Hornets PG 7 4 1 1
Carmelo Anthony Nuggets SF 6 7 3 2
Dwight Howard Magic C 5 5 1 1
Dwyane Wade Heat SG 4 3 2 2
Kevin Durant Thunder SF 3 8 2 3
Kobe Bryant Lakers SG 2 2 1 1
LeBron James Heat SF 1 1 1 1

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’10-11 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jeremy Bauman, Maurice Bobb, Erildas Budraitis, Sean Ceglinsky, Ben Collins, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Manny Maduakolam, Eddie Maisonet, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Charles Peach, Branden Peters, Quinn Peterson, David Schnur, Todd Spehr, Kyle Stack, Adam Sweeney, Dennis Tarwood, Tracy Weissenberg, Lang Whitaker, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.