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LeBron and Limits of Human Achievement

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.

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Sheldon Hirsch is the co-author of "The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball."

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