It was back in early May, when the idea for this article first came about. It came before the NBA playoffs had really gotten going, before the Miami Heat won the title and before Sunday’s Gold Medal basketball game. And interestingly, the whole idea, the whole concept of what is written below came courtesy of Kentucky basketball star Anthony Davis.
At the time, Davis had just wrapped up what was unquestionably one of the greatest seasons in the history of college basketball. He led his team to a 37-2 record and a National Championship. He won every award imaginable, short of People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” He was a shoe-in to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. And it was back in May when Davis also received his first real buzz as a candidate for the U.S. Olympic team.
That’s also where the idea for this article came from, and it came courtesy of a Twitter follower of mine. That follower asked me a simple question surrounding Davis, but one that made me think long and hard. The question: If Davis were to make the Olympic team and add a Gold Medal to all the hardware he’d already accumulated, couldn’t you make the case his 2012 season would be the best of any basketball player ever?
Wow, that’s a hell of a question, huh?
Interestingly, I couldn’t help but think of that conversation on Sunday morning, immediately following the United States’ 107-100 victory over Spain in the Gold Medal basketball game. This time though it had nothing to do with Davis (who, in his defense did nothing to disqualify himself from the argument) but instead everything to do with LeBron James. And after LeBron added gold to an already golden 2012 season that included an NBA MVP, NBA Finals MVP and his NBA title, the question had to be asked: Did LeBron James just submit the greatest basketball season of any individual player ever?
Now, before we get into the debate, let’s start with the qualifier and let me start by saying this: Yes, I understand that there is no true way for me to quantify whether LeBron had the “single greatest season ever” or not, in the same way there’s no way to quantify who the “prettiest girl at the bar” is or who is the “most annoying Kardashian sister.” Ultimately, it’s all subjective. Then again, so are most sports debates, and isn’t the subjectivity of it all while we love sports so much to begin with?
Still, no matter how you feel about The King (a nickname that LeBron has ironically dropped, yet finally earned), it’s hard to argue that his is amongst the greatest years any individual player has ever had.
To use the Olympic format (what can I say, I’m not ready to give the Olympics up!) there are a few folks vying for the bronze medal in the “greatest season ever” category. Davis certainly qualifies with all his Kentucky hardware and new gold bling. Bill Russell won an NCAA title and took home the gold as the U.S.’s leading scorer in the 1956 Olympics. And if you twist things around a bit, Michael Jordan won a Gold Medal in summer of 1984, then went on to average 28.5 points a game and win Rookie of the Year during the 1984-85 season. While that’s not technically one “season” per se, it’s hard to argue many have had a better 12 months than Jordan did from July 1984 to July 1985.
At the end of the day though, those are all worthy bronze candidates, but in the here and now, we are talking about the gold medal, the all-time best season. And when talking about the gold and this debate specifically, it all comes down to two men and two seasons: Jordan in 1992 and LeBron in 2012. In those years, each won the NBA’s regular season MVP and Finals MVP. Each won a title. And each followed it up with a Gold Medal.
Not too shabby, huh? It also makes a hell of a complex debate.
Honestly, the only truly appropriate place is to start with the stats, if only because that’s where most folks always start arguments like this. Now granted, I should note that for anyone who reads my work regularly, you know that I absolutely hate trying to make my arguments strictly with stats alone. I despise it. But for the sake of this argument, I do think they’re important to put everything into its proper context.
So what do the stats tell us about these two players and these two seasons? Well, just that these two dudes balled. Hard.
In the regular season, each was more than deserving of their respective MVP (ironically, it was the third for each). Jordan averaged a cool 30.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.3 steals, while LeBron put up 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists. In the playoffs, each was markedly better, with Jordan going for 34.5, 6.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists to LeBron’s 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists. Based on those stats alone, it’s kind of hard to argue that one was significantly better than the other.
Where the argument gets really interesting (not to mention a little eerie too) is how each player used that MVP season and the Olympics that followed to establish themselves as the undisputed best player in the world.
As crazy as that sounds, for Jordan, that was something that wasn’t universally agreed upon until he arrived in Barcelona. Sure he was coming off his second straight title and second straight MVP, but it wasn’t until the Olympics that he wrestled away the title of league’s best player from Magic and Bird. The recent Dream Team documentary did a better job of delving into this topic than I ever could here, but just know this: By the time he left Barcelona, no one questioned who the best basketball player on the planet was. It was Michael Jordan, and nobody else was close.
Then there is LeBron, who had a very similar summer in London these past few weeks. Like Jordan, we all knew LeBron was the most talented player in the league (those three MVP’s in four years do that), but the questions still lingered: When it came to the Olympics, would it really be his team? Yes he just won his first title, but let’s not forget that in Olympic play, it was Kobe who did the heavy lifting in 2008 and many wondered if he’d take control of the team this time around too. Then there was the possibility that Kevin Durant would take the torch straight from Kobe and skip LeBron all together. It didn’t seem likely, but was plausible.
Yeah, not so much.
Instead, for anyone who watched the Olympics, there was little doubt that this is unquestionably “LeBron’s time.” He might not have been the U.S.’s leading scorer in London (that title went to Durant) or their leading rebounder (he finished second behind Kevin Love), but in every sense of the word, he was absolutely their best player. There isn’t anyone that is arguing anything other than that today.
As a matter of fact, it was LeBron’s Olympic performance- an extension of what he did in the regular and postseasons, by the way - which is why I do believe that LeBron James just completed the single greatest season that any basketball player has ever had.
Now understand that this isn’t about the stats and the hardware, because ultimately stats and hardware are fleeting. What this is about is how LeBron played, how he dominated and what watching him over these last couple months has been like. And in an era where there has never been more high-end basketball talent both internationally and domestically, LeBron has simply established himself as the best player on the planet. Frankly, it’s not even close.
Seriously, name me a quality that you’d want from your superstar that LeBron doesn’t possess? You can’t. And if you can, it’s as nitpicky as nitpicky gets.
It was never more apparent than during this NBA season, when more than ever, LeBron really seemed to grasp not only what he was capable of, but what his team needed from him to win. On some nights, they needed him to score, and he did, like when he dropped 45 points in an elimination game against the Celtics in Boston earlier this spring. Sometimes Miami needed him to distribute; it was largely Shane Battier and Mike Miller who benefitted from LeBron’s 12.5 assists per in the last two games of this year’s NBA Finals. And on defense, well, is there any argument LeBron is the best in the world right now? There shouldn’t be, especially if you remember how effortlessly LeBron took Kevin Durant out of the action in the last few games of the NBA Finals.
And although it didn’t seem possible, LeBron only got better in London. Simply put, the guy did everything- I mean everything- needed to help the U.S. win gold. At 6’8 he handled the ball on offense, while also guarding the other team’s center at most points on defense. Just taking those two unique skills into a vacuum alone, name me one player on the planet who could do that? Right now, there isn’t one. Not Kobe, not Durant, not Chris Paul, Manu Ginobili or Blake Griffin. And that doesn’t even factor in LeBron’s new found clutch gene; his big dunk and dagger three sealed the win yesterday afternoon. In every sense of the word, LeBron really is playing on another level than everyone else.
Of course while those last few paragraphs are all well and good, they don’t fully defend the argument that LeBron’s 2012 was better than Jordan’s 1992. And for the same reasons I argued LeBron, you could argue Jordan. After all, Jordan dominated on both ends of the court, in both the NBA and internationally in the same way that LeBron did. It’s impossible to argue against that.
At the same time, there are two big differences that give LeBron the slight edge in my eyes.
The first is that as dominant as Jordan was at the Olympics, the international game played in 1992 simply wasn’t the same as what LeBron experienced this summer. I’m sorry, it wasn’t even close. International basketball was nowhere near as complex in 1992 as it is now, and Jordan wasn’t competing against the quality of competition either. While there was some individual talent back in 1992 (guys like Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac etc.), there wasn’t a cavalcade of NBA All-Stars (Ginobili, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol) for the U.S. to go through, nor even the quality depth of regular NBA non-superstars like Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Anderson Varejao or Patty Mills either. In 1992 it was a different game and different era, and with all due respect to Jordan, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. losing, even if he weren’t on the team.
But the U.S. without LeBron? Who’s to say?
Remember, while LeBron sat on the bench with four fouls yesterday, Spain cut the lead to six, before those two huge plays from LeBron sealed things. The simple fact that the game was that close to begin with shows just how far the international game has advanced.
More importantly, just thinking about LeBron’s presence in the post (again, he was the team’s second leading rebounder and routinely guarded the other team’s center) makes me wonder if the U.S. could’ve won gold without him. Understand that “starting” center Tyson Chandler played a grand total of nine minutes in yesterday’s Gold Medal game against Spain. Could the U.S. have survived if LeBron weren’t around and Chandler had to play 30? Who’s to say?
And finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the psychology of it all.
Look, we as a society (myself included) have already spent way, WAY too much time trying to psychoanalyze LeBron, so we won’t get too much into here. At the same time, it does bear repeating: There isn’t a single athlete in the history of sports who has had to deal with the criticism that LeBron dealt with over the last 18 months.
Now, did Jordan deal with plenty himself? Absolutely. But he never had to deal with the 24-hour, every time you turn on the computer, log on to Twitter or watch Sportscenter criticism that LeBron has dealt with every day for the last couple years either.
Not to mention that by 1992, whatever criticism Jordan had dealt with in the past was essentially over. Remember, by that point he’d already won his first title a year earlier and washed away all the “He’s a great scorer, but not a great basketball player” residual karma that came with it. By 1992, Jordan was essentially on a free roll, already established as the best basketball player in the world and a second straight title only proved that. Up until two months ago, not only was LeBron not a champion, we were wondering if he’d ever get there period. It was a pressure he dealt with every single day of his life up until just a few months ago. It was a reality he faced when he came to Las Vegas to start competing with this U.S. team. And in retrospect, to be able to overcome it all, only gives a new found appreciation as to exactly how much LeBron accomplished these last 12 months.
As we start to wrap up, I do think it’s important we get one thing straight: I’m by no means saying that LeBron is a “greater” player in totality than Jordan was. We all know that it’s going to take many years playing at an incredibly high level for that conversation to even begin. No one is saying that here.
But what I am saying, is that nobody in the history of basketball has anything quite like LeBron did in 2012.
Now, hopefully he’ll be able to relax for a few weeks before he gets to try and do it again.
If anyone can top what LeBron did in 2012, it might be LeBron in 2013.
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