Is LeBron James the GOAT? Yes and No

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Stats

When trying to evaluate two players from different eras, peeps tend to look at stats and championships first. While this may seem like the most efficient way to determine an edge for one player or another, it can never completely tell the entire story.

On top of stats, the visual aspect of players from bygone eras simply don’t physically match-up in old grainy videos and early photos. Using two of baseball’s greatest players as an example, looking at pics of Babe Ruth and Mike Trout and trying to imagine the “Babe” somehow outperforming Trout in today’s MLB doesn’t compute in the minds of a younger generation of sports fans.

This directly fuels a “recency bias”, and the NBA’s greatest performers will all face this type of scrutiny as a new generation of athlete is perpetually ushered in.

LeBron’s GOAT Status

When assessing LeBron James as the GOAT, his longevity is the first thing that stands out. James has been performing at an extremely high level approaching twenty years now. LeBron has won all the awards and is deserving of being on the short list of those to consider when it comes to the NBA GOAT.

Although the obvious comparison (and perceived last hurdle to clear) in considering James as thee GOAT is convincing the Michael Jordan crowd that “King” James is indeed the largest figure on basketball’s Mount Rushmore. Funny thing is, many people still make the case that LeBron isn’t even better than Larry Bird — let alone “His Airness.”

Passing the Eye Test

I can hear the scoffs (with the Bird comparisons), but just consider the mindset of those who’ve seen all eras, including the early ballers which younger fans can only catch in old YouTube videos or maybe see in a reference on social media.

The lanky-bodied optic of players from that era (not to mention those horrid short-shorts) is immediately apparent in 80s (and early 90s) b-ball. Outside a handful of guys like Charles Oakley and Kevin Willis (who had that Dwight Howard thingy going on), most cats didn’t resemble players of today. That’s not any type of indictment — just a testament to the steady overall progression of athletic performance through the decades.

There is zero argument that LBJ was gifted with a superior genetic blueprint from a physical standpoint (compared to Bird), and the eye-test proves as much. Nevertheless, if LBJ was born 60+ years ago and played with Bird and Magic, his career and legacy would have had a different look. To what extent is anyone’s guess, but I wish Elon Musk had a damm functioning time machine, so we could find out.

Just take a gander at people in photos from around the beginning of the previous century and compare them with pics of today. Many professional athletes from that frame often had a visible gut while being devoid of muscle definition. Even so, they utilized what they had and played at the very highest level for that time period. We shouldn’t hold the era and athletic environments which they played in against these once great players.

With that in consideration, perhaps we can be more understanding toward those who choose to hold an NBA player from past history as the greatest they’ve personally ever seen. Unfortunately, though, the term “no country for old men” often becomes apropos in these exchanges, as the here-and-now flourishes in the psyche of the mainstream via an unprecedented modern medium barrage.

It’s common to see someone get hit with an STFU or GTFOH as they try to make a case for Kareem or Magic or Wilt as the GOAT. Woah! Where’s the love, bruh?

Different Era — Different Results

As times change through progression, so does the American athlete and the leagues they compete in. Advances in training methods, nutrition, kinesiology, medicine and therapy have all helped today’s NBA player maintain and play at a higher physical level than those of yesteryear. However, this shouldn’t snap tell us that today’s baller is better just because of these advancements. In fact, this logic carries an underlying slight of those who represented the game of basketball as the best in the world within their given eras.

It’s impossible to deny that athletes in this new millennia are more advanced (from a pure physical standpoint) than those from the old ABA and NBA days. It’s also undeniable the game has evolved in many ways as well.

Hooping in the 80s and 90s was a different time. Hand-checking and knocking a guy on his ass if he even thought about repeatedly driving down your lane was the norm. Today’s NBA is more of an entertainment product, with players regularly taking a 3-4 steps to the rim amid guys who often give up on defense. The emphasis on three-point FG attempts is now paramount around the league.

Many are surprised to find Larry Bird didn’t even average a full 3-attempts beyond the arc (per game) even though he’s associated with the triple while being a pioneer big man of that era. In fact, most NBA teams in the first few years of 3-point existence didn’t average three bombs per contest.

By comparison, today’s NBA rosters jack up between 30-40 trey attempts per game. Individual players now regularly launch 8-10 threes all by their lonesome. Steph Curry put up 15 shots behind the arc earlier this week vs the Pacers; he’s basically averaged double-digit attempts for several years now. Today’s 3-pt barrage is quite a contrast to the Atlanta Hawks, who shied away from the arc after its inception:

OK, LBJ is DEFINITELY the GOAT…..of HIS Era

From a broad-brush perspective, today’s NBA is vastly different. In fact, it simply doesn’t resemble the game many have watched since the merger.

Strategy now revolves around spacing of the floor allowing a player to drive, roll, cut and post-up — and of course, find an open shooter for the three. The game has continued to methodically shift with offensive and defensive game plans changing while rolling out new zones and presses.

One of the greatest and most respected coaches had this to say:

“There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it,” Greg Popovich told ESPN. “Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the 3s. If you made 3s and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition D was involved. You don’t even care.”

LeBron James and his skill set has dominated in this environment for nearly two decades now. So much so, his fraternity of GOAT professors has increased exponentially in recent years. Many on the fence have become convinced he’s the best to ever lace ’em up. But, is he really?

The great GOAT divide as 2022 approaches is generally between Old-skool, which holds up the MJ banner, and the new-gen crew who vote for LeBron. This debate will likely never have a consensus “winner”, and maybe it’s for the best.

When trying to make a case for the GOAT, one has to take many factors into consideration (such as those touched-on above), which leads some to mention greats such as Bird, Magic, Kobe, Kareem, Wilt, West, Oscar and Russell in the GOAT convo.

These men performed at the very top-shelf level on this planet within their time on the court, and they deserve love and props for their contributions — regardless of perceived visual and statistical shortcomings when judged by NBA fans of today’s respective era.

The Bottom Line

Deciding the NBA GOAT is ultimately and purely subjective, but that won’t dissuade strong takes on many fronts when it comes to personal all-time favorites.

For those who wonder if LeBron James can now lay claim to being the one and only GOAT, the answer is yes…..and no — depending on who you ask, of course.

However, as LBJ continues to rack up the stats, he’s more likely to win-over additional voters — especially if he manages to win another title before he calls it a career.

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About Post Author

Steven Miller

Dedicated Cardinal and St. Louis takes; grab-bag posts on a variety of sports and related issues; whatever hops on my radar. From the sandlot to the hard court to the gridiron, I'll take a deep-dive for you. Thanks a bunch for reading! wordsrfun2@protonmail.com
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  • Dedicated Cardinal and St. Louis takes; grab-bag posts on a variety of sports and related issues; whatever hops on my radar. From the sandlot to the hard court to the gridiron, I'll take a deep-dive for you. Thanks a bunch for reading! wordsrfun2@protonmail.com

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