I enjoyed Jeff Gilliland’s column Saturday on LeBron James, and can’t argue much with the points he made.
As a student of the NBA – and someone who doesn’t think the league just started when Larry Bird or Magic Johnson entered it, or Michael Jordan a few years later – I’ve often contemplated which legendary player from the past LeBron most reminds me of.
Sometimes I think it’s Magic Johnson, but even though he improved as a scorer over the course of his career, Magic was never the potent points machine LeBron can be.
Other times I settled on Oscar Robertson, with the Big O’s combination of strength, power and intelligence. Like LeBron, Oscar often led his team in scoring, rebounding and assists, and was a go-to defender. Like LeBron, Oscar was a triple-double machine.
But the best comparison I can think of is Wilt Chamberlain. That might seem odd at first. Wilt was a 7’2 center who dominated the NBA like no player before or since. One season, Wilt average 50 points per game. He scored 100 points in a single game. He regularly averaged 22 to 24 rebounds a game.
Most film we have on Wilt comes from his later years, when was a little slower and taking fewer shots. But in his first five or six years, Wilt was a gazelle on the court, sprinting baseline to baseline. He was graceful and fluid.
But in 14 years, Wilt only walked away with two championships, one with the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers, the other with the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers. He played most of his career in the era of the great Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics teams, which won 11 championships in 13 years.
Wilt often lamented that nobody roots for Goliath, and he was the Goliath of the game. He was regularly pushed, shoved, pulled and even bitten, with referees often looking the other way. The refs thought Wilt was big and strong enough to absorb the punishment, and they kept their whistles in their pockets. LeBron gets the same indifference from the officials.
Along with being great, Wilt was often considered moody. Some thought the game came too easily to him. Would he walk on the court and score 50 points? Or would he barely take five or six shots, focusing instead on defense, rebounding and passing? Wilt paid little attention to what coaches asked of him. He knew better than they did, he sometimes said aloud.
One gets the feeling that LeBron James has much the same attitude. LeBron has never played for a coach regarded as one of the greats of the game. He’s played for no one he particularly respected enough to allow to push him.
In the opening game of the NBA Finals this year against the Golden State Warriors, LeBron scored 51 points, but his teammates’ mental lapses and a terrible change of a block/charge call late in the game forced an overtime, easily won by the Warriors. After the series ended with a Warriors sweep, LeBron claimed he basically broke his hand by punching a whiteboard in the locker room after Game One, and played the rest of the way with the injury.
As great as LeBron is, you never know what to expect when he walks on the court. He often talks of the importance of “playing the game the right way,” and that’s admirable. He believes in a team game, and that means hitting the open man with a pass rather than forcing a shot.
But he employs that philosophy even when his team is not of the caliber necessary to make playing the game the right way work. Sometimes, what is needed is for LeBron to take the game over, to score the points, to force the issue. Sometimes he does that, but too often he doesn’t. Like Wilt, you never quite know which LeBron is going to show up.
LeBron is now at another crossroads in his career. He’s able to opt out of his contract and hit the free agent market, as he did in 2010 when he left Cleveland for the Miami Heat. The way he left back then – with a primetime ESPN special infamously announcing he was taking his talents to South Beach – enraged Cleveland fans (and the Cavs’ owner).
If LeBron leaves this time, it will be different. There will be no burning of his jersey. Yes, there will be sadness among Cleveland sports fans. But LeBron, on his second stint, led the Cavs to the championship in 2016, and so the promise was fulfilled, at least to a degree. If he leaves, fans will wish him well.
LeBron is arguably the greatest player in NBA history, yes, greater than Michael, greater that Wilt, greater than Oscar, greater than Russell – if all that’s considered is his sheer talent when it’s on full display. The only caveat to that claim is the enigmatic behavior LeBron often displays along with that talent.
When Michael Jordan and Bill Russell took the court, especially in the playoffs, there was no question which player was showing up, and a championship was usually the result.
LeBron is more like Wilt. The talent and ability are beyond question. The mood is a game time decision.
Good luck, LeBron. We hardly knew ye.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456, or follow on Twitter @AbernathyGary.
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