By Jason Keidel
Sometimes an athlete is so singularly great for so long his deeds become common, if not soporific.
This NBA season morphed into the Russell Westbrook show, the pyrotechnic point guard stuffing the stat sheet like no one since Oscar Robertson. Somewhat lost in the personal greatness was the professional failure. If winning is the main metric of the greats, then Oklahoma City’s season didn’t match the hype, with 47 wins and a rather disappointing, first-round boot from the playoffs.
Meanwhile, LeBron James is suffering from Michael Jordan syndrome. Anyone with a faint interest in basketball knows Jordan was the best player in the world every season he played. But it became rote to vote for him, and therefore folks looked elsewhere, as if they were clever or even avant garde by picking Charles Barkley or Karl Malone or Gary Payton or any of the fine but still lesser players for NBA MVP.
So it is for LeBron. The disregard for his talent has become so pronounced, he not only loses MVP ballots, they actually voted for Steph Curry as unanimous choice. And this year has already been dismissed as a two-horse race between Westbrook and James Harden — both fine players, for sure. But neither has a single title, much less LeBron’s trident of championships. Or his soon-to-be seventh straight trip to the NBA Finals, unheard of in NBA annals since Bill Russell.
If you need more statistical proof, consider whom he just passed on the all-time playoff scoring list. This week LeBron leapfrogged Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, narrowing his sights to the GOAT, Michael Jordan.
When your peers are a conga line of single-name or nicknamed legends, there isn’t much more to say. From now on LeBron will only be juxtaposed with such nicknames, from MJ to Magic to Shaq.
This latest milestone caught the sports world by surprise. Because James has such a wide swath of skills, we forget what a sublime scorer he is. If LeBron wanted to score 30 a night, he could. Or 40, frankly. If he wanted to set his passing baseline to a dozen assists per game, he could. Likewise, he could easily snag a dozen rebounds per game.
His career speaks for him. But these playoffs are a fine sample size as well. Without obsessing over stats against Toronto, LeBron still scored 35 points, snagged 10 rebounds and had four assists in Game 1. In Game 2, he had 39 points, six rebounds and four assists. With a twitch, those turn into triple-doubles.
But LeBron, like his dwindling gaggle of peers, isn’t about stats. He doesn’t see the game in numbers, but in wins. And while Westbrook and Harden and Curry have breathtaking talent, they can’t dominate a basketball game in nearly as many ways as LeBron James can. Which is why, when the world scrambled to find a historical comparison, so many leaned on Magic Johnson. Just like the Magic Man, LeBron James is about the organic growth of the team, not dunking on the man in front of him.
While so many delight in the highlight, in the SportsCenter loop, on posterizing someone, LeBron’s poster includes a dozen men — he and his teammates. LeBron James isn’t just the best basketball player in the NBA, or the world, he has been so for a decade, and the margin between he and the next best is laughably large.
This ins’t meant to hammer Westbrook, who is a divine talent and may have had the most dynamic season of anyone. But is it a coincidence that OKC once had three of the five best players on earth and only he remains? Why were Harden and Durant so eager to leave what clearly could have been a dynasty?
Have you ever heard of anyone fleeing LeBron’s franchise? Has anyone ever said LeBron James was selfish, or difficult, or about anything other than making the club better? If Durant and Harden completed LeBron’s career hardwood trinity who knows how many titles he would have.
And remember the 2007 Cavs, whom LeBron shouldered alone into the NBA Finals. That Damon Jones/Daniel Gibson/Drew Gooden behemoth. Maybe the worst assortment of players ever to reach June. They were vaporized by San Antonio, which was a much better team. No one knew that better than LeBron James, which is why he’s been all about team. And why he’ll be in the NBA Finals again this year, while the alleged MVP won’t be there to play him.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
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