LeBron and Limits of Human Achievement

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As the NBA season begins, one of our favorite topics will resurface - the all-time ranking of players - particularly as it relates to the polarizing Lebron James. His fans believe that James rivals Michael Jordan as the greatest player ever; skeptics claim he is overrated. Where does James properly rank?

First, we should set apart the three Great Centers (Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar) and their peers as a separate category. Centers and perimeter players have such different skills and roles that it is impossible to compare them.

The consensus is that the elite group of perimeter players includes Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Lebron James, even mid-career, belongs in this illustrious group. He has four regular-season MVPs, two championships, two Finals MVPs, an unofficial 2012 Olympics MVP, a 27-game winning streak, and seven first-team All-NBA honors in his first 10 seasons.

James also has a superb postseason record. He ranks first all time in scoring average in Game 7s, including 45 points against the Celtics in Boston Garden in 2008 and 37 in the Finals last year. He has multiple games on the short list of most clutch or greatest postseason games ever: Scoring the last 25 points against a tough Detroit defense in 2007; scoring or assisting on 32 consecutive points down the stretch in a must-win game against Orlando in 2009; 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists in another must-win game against Indiana in 2012; 16 points in the fourth quarter against San Antonio in Game 6 in 2013.

Remarkably, in a season-and-legacy-on-the-line Game 6 in Boston Garden in 2012, he had 45 points and 15 rebounds. Not only did James make almost every shot until the game was decided (virtually by himself), he also held future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce to 4-of-18 shooting and 9 points. Outscoring Pierce 45-9 in a game of that magnitude on Pierce’s home court might have been a near-perfect game. 

James’ detractors emphasize his poor series in the 2011 Finals against Dallas and the Game 5 debacle against Boston in 2010, but everyone has low moments (Jordan shot 41 percent in the '96 Finals against Seattle and Bryant 40.5 percent against Boston in 2008). You’d have to remain consumed by “The Decision” and ignore the overwhelming evidence of James’ clutch play to deny him a place in the group, and even a reasonable claim to the top spot.

However, the other players could also reasonably make a claim for the perch. Consider Baylor, a 10-time first-team All-NBA player, largely forgotten. In 1960, he averaged 35 points and 20 rebounds a game, and followed that in 1961 with 38 points and 19 rebounds per game. He averaged over 38 points per game in consecutive postseasons. He scored 64 against the Celtics and 71 against the Knicks in regular-season games, and in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals he had 61 points and 22 rebounds against the Celtics - while being guarded by Satch Sanders with Bill Russell lurking behind, two of the greatest NBA defenders ever.

Those are crazy numbers for any era. Baylor was the best passing forward of his time (six times in the league’s top 10 in assists) and ranks high with modern defensive metrics. Baylor’s athleticism was even further beyond his own contemporaries (as YouTube can attest) than either Jordan or James. It could reasonably be argued that nobody was better than Baylor.

Then there’s Kobe Bryant, maybe the toughest player ever, who has five championship rings, may end up the all-time leading scorer, and scored 81 points, yes, 81 points, in a game that mattered, not a last game of the year with the scoring title on the line charade. When the 2008 Olympics was on the line, the best players in the world all deferred to Kobe, and he bailed them out. It could reasonably be argued that nobody was better than Bryant.

Mr. Clutch, Jerry West, scored 30 points or more in 31 different Finals games, 40 points or more in 10 different Finals games (both records), averaged an absurd 46.3 ppg in a playoff series against Baltimore in 1965, led the league in assists and won all-defense honors four times. Hard to top the NBA Logo.

Yet Mr. Triple-Double Oscar Robertson, Magic, Bird, and, of course, Jordan have their own superb resumes.


The reason why each of the eight players can make a reasonable case for the top spot emerges from Stephen Jay Gould’s book “Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville”: Once someone has done about as well as anyone can do, by definition nobody can do much better. Gould illustrated the gamut of talents within a sport as a bell curve on a graph, the x-axis characterizing increasing ability as it goes from zero out to the right, and the y-axis describing the number of people with different levels of ability. As overall performance improves over time, the entire bell curve moves to the right on the x –axis. However, the improvement at the right-hand tail of the bell curve, the few very greatest athletes, slows down considerably. Eventually, the right tail hits a “right wall,” an apparent “outer limit to human capacity.” 

Ample evidence supports Gould’s observations. Consider representative track and field events (untainted by steroid allegations): The broad jump world record is 23 years old and has advanced less than three feet since Jesse Owens 78 years ago. The men’s 1,500 meters record is 15 years old and has decreased only 7 seconds in the last 46 years. The 800-meter record has decreased less than 1 second in 32 years. The men’s pole vault and high jump records are 19 and 20 years old, respectively. This pattern characterizes much of women’s track and field and even horse racing. Secretariat still holds the record for all three Triple Crown races, 40 years later. 

We also find a looming right wall in aspects of basketball and baseball. The NBA leaders in free throw percentage shot between 91 and 96 percent in 26 of the last 27 years (the outlier took relatively few shots). 

Julius Erving dunked from roughly the foul line in the slam-dunk contest in 1976. In the 37 contests since, no NBA player has dunked from appreciably farther out.

The speed of fastballs (measured by commonly used modern devices) seems to have reached the right wall. J.R. Richard threw 100 mph in 1976, Rob Dibble 101 in 1992, Mark Wohlers 103 in 1995, and in the 18 years since Wohlers, the record has been extended only 2 mph by Aroldis Chapman. The fastest pitches in baseball remain clumped around 100-plus mph. Human biomechanics probably preclude more than about 105.

Thus, in multiple areas where we are purely objective, we find only incremental improvement over time (sometimes seemingly no improvement at all) in the greatest achievements - evidence of relative limits to athletic performance. Of course, team sports involve more complex skills than running, jumping and throwing. However, there is no particular reason to believe that in basketball, for example, the shooting, dribbling and passing skills of each generation’s top players have improved at a greater rate than their pure athleticism. It seems that in team sports as well as in track and field, there are a few transcendent players, who not only dominate their peers but whose stars shine brightly well into the future.

Baylor, West and Robertson were the first perimeter players to approach the right wall, followed by Bird, Magic and Jordan, then Bryant and James. In that small region abutting near-maximal possible achievement, these remarkable players become nearly indistinguishable. Bill Simmons, for example, in “The Book of Basketball” spent 15 pages analyzing Oscar Robertson and Jerry West and concluded that West ranks higher “by a hair” because he “had a better handle on the Secret” (i.e. that winning is not about “statistics and talent as much as making teammates better and putting your team ahead of yourself”).

If West vs. Robertson is decided by something so subjective and vague, it speaks mostly to the difficulty of ranking these players. Other experts make their own arguments - the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan has argued passionately for Bird - but these opinions seem to reflect whom one has rooted for or covered more closely, or a particular statistic, style of play, concept of the game, talent or achievement that happens to resonate particularly well with the observer, rather than reflect actual superiority of the players in question. Thus, outside of Jordan, there is no consensus on the ranking of these players.

Instead of emphasizing arbitrary, non-compelling, fine distinctions, it seems more important simply to admire the brilliance of these players, each in his own way.

That said, the right wall is only “apparent” and does not represent an absolute impediment to progress. For the many observers who single out Jordan as a notch above the others, he slipped through a crack in the wall. Others may follow. A 7-footer with Jordan’s skills may come along. Or a Larry Bird with Lebron James’ speed; a Magic with Bird’s shooting ability. It will take this sort of miraculous player to break through the wall, and it will be breathtaking if it happens.

Don’t expect it soon: The current crop of who’s “got next” - Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and maybe Andrew Wiggins - are superb and may expand the elite group, but none of them looms as a miraculous wall-breaker. That person may not yet have been born.

As for James: He belongs in the elite group. That much we know.

Sheldon Hirsch is author of the forthcoming book "Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths" from the University Press of New England.

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