It is no secret that LeBron James is still, even at 32 years old, the best basketball player alive. His sustained excellence has been somewhat improbable, as he is in his 14th season in the league and has logged nearly 50,000 career minutes between the regular season and playoffs. One would think that he would start to either slow down or break down over time; after all, he’s already logged more minutes than Michael Jordan and he retired two separate times in his career. James hasn’t had that luxury, but it still hasn’t mattered.
If anything, LeBron James has improbably improved this season.
As a general rule, though, we as basketball fans have gotten bored of LeBron James. We’ve become used to the ridiculous alley-oop-off-the-backboard finishes, the absurd passes, the left-handed, Olajuwon-esque post moves, and the chasedown blocks to win championships. We regard him casually willing his team to an NBA title, the first professional sports title in 50 years for his city, the city of Cleveland, as commonplace. Now, he’s having the best playoff performance of his storied career. Guess what? He’s still not getting the recognition he deserves.
The reason why there has been such a muted reaction (or, more accurately, no reaction) in the media has been because we have come to expect this from James. From the time he was in high school, the expectations on LeBron have been sky-high; if you don’t believe me, he and his St. Vincent-St. Mary squad took on top-ranked Oak Hill Academy on national television in December 2002 at the start of James’ senior year. James was also on the cover of Sports Illustrated in February of that year at the age of seventeen; he was mentioned in the accompanying article as the heir to Michael Jordan before he could even vote. It’s easy to see that bizarre and outright nutty expectations have followed LeBron James in every level of his basketball life.
And yet, somehow, someway, he has almost always surpassed those expectations. This season, and particularly the playoffs, has been no different.
The problem is that every time James falls short of any expectation of him, realistic or not, he is criticized mercilessly by fans and pundits alike. Even when he does come up big, his loudest critics say, well, very stupid things. There are some people (cough, cough, Skip Bayless) who will literally go to any and all lengths to discredit James’ accomplishments over the course of his career. And even when he does succeed, those same people will still be there to find a way to delegitimize his successes.
That is why we need to stop trying to smear LeBron’s career and appreciate what he has done. So far in these playoffs, he’s averaging a staggering 34.3 points per game and has posted a 126 offensive rating, a postseason figure Michael Jordan only achieved once. Jordan may very well have been the greatest playoff performer in NBA history, but James is entering territory that was previously uncharted.
And just think about how consistently great LeBron James has been over the course of his fourteen-year career. James has averaged at least five rebounds, five assists and 20 points per game every year he has been in the NBA. Remember how much has changed in the league since LeBron entered the league; eleven days before James was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Antonio Spurs defeated the then-New Jersey Nets in six games in the NBA Finals. Since that time, the Nets moved to Brooklyn, the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder, the New Orleans Hornets became the New Orleans Pelicans, and six teams have moved into new arenas. Virtually the only constant in the NBA over that time period? LeBron James.
He’s been legitimately amazing for fourteen years. His greatness has spanned over two decades, countless pop culture fads, and three United States presidents. On the day he made his regular season NBA debut, the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 was Baby Boy by Beyonce and Sean Paul. Last week, it was Humble by Kendrick Lamar. In the fourteen years between Beyonce and K-Dot topping the charts, LeBron James has been consistently other-worldly at his craft.
Of course, there will come a time when James is not the player he is now. He will reach a breaking point sooner or later (unless he’s superhuman, which I’m not entirely convinced he isn’t). When he does, many more people will realize just how great he was; unfortunately, those same people aren’t able to appreciate just how special he is right now. After all, he’s currently toying with a whole franchise and, for that matter, an entire country.
It is very difficult to predict how much time LeBron James has left as the undisputed best basketball player on earth. What is known is this: we need to appreciate LeBron for how good he is right now, and we need to do so before it’s too late.