How not to talk about LeBron James

Ok, let’s start with something light. As some of you may or may not know, there’s this guy, his name is LeBron James, and he’s pretty ok at this whole basket-ball game. Cool. You might also know that James used to play for a certain Midwestern team but then decided after becoming a free agent to take his talents to Miami. That’s ok too.

What’s not ok, in fact what’s really stupid, is the conversation surrounding James. I don’t mean the whole “OMG HOW COULD YOU LEAVE US” bit that Cleveland was doing, which is the equivalent of a guy who lives in his parents’ basement and schedules his showers to coincide with the full moon wondering why his girlfriend left him. I also don’t mean the part of the James conversation that goes “OMG HOW TACKY” because, shit, you media people have been all but fellating him for 7 years and you wonder why he thinks he’s god allmighty? No, what I’m referring to is the pernicious strain of commentary that alleges that LeBron James will never be “great,” and specifically that he will never be as good as Michael Jordan.

Now it goes without saying that most sports commentators are idiots. We’re talking here about people whose job it is to take what Alvy Singer’s second wife referred to as “a bunch of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop,” and finding something to say about it other than “that one guy is really great at stuffing a ball through a hoop.” It turns out that watching this hoop-stuffing is a lot of fun for many people, and if you’re smart like Bethlehem Shoals or a small number of other worthwhile writers, you’ll find something interesting to say about the game that goes beyond the stupid and formulaic (apologies for the redundancy). Maybe you might write about what basketball tells us about the state of economic or race relations in the country, or about how the game has evolved over the decades, or about some interesting statistical metric (FORESHADOWING) that tells you something you didn’t know before.

But chances are, if you’re a sportswriter, you’re an idiot who has trouble dressing themselves. So of course you’re never going to write anything interesting because that would require you to have interesting and novel thoughts; much easier to simply pick up a common thread (“LEBRON WILL NEVER BE JORDAN”), add your own contribution (“I AGREE”), and laugh all the way to the bank while people who actually know what they’re talking about weep into their gin. It’s not only an easy thing to do, but it’s also an easy way to score points off cheap moralism. Of course you can never go back and implicate yourself and your ilk in promoting James to the skies, but you sure can turn around and scoff and pass cheap, stupid judgments that make you feel good about yourself.

This all would just be par for the course except for one problem: LeBron James is really great. It doesn’t matter how you feel about him personally; the guy is an absolute monster on the court, excelling in almost every statistical category for his position. He scores, he assists, he rebounds. He’s nearly unstoppable in the open court, an insane combination of speed, power, and accuracy. He is clearly the best player in the NBA today, and the LeBron-Kobe comparisons are simply laughable: Kobe wasn’t even the best player of the decade in his prime, and he’s in no way better now than James, who just has more of everything. Given these unarguable points, Jordan, as the universally acknowledged best player of all time, remains the only real point of comparison for James.

But that comparison cannot be made by talking heads on TV divorced from the facts. There is one thing, and one thing only, that will determine James’ status in the basketball hierarchy, and that is his performance on the court. And that performance can be measured, across many dimensions. It’s measured by some obvious metrics like points scored, field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists, and some non-obvious ones like PER and win shares. How do we know that Jordan was great? We know this because he leads the NBA in all time win shares per 48 games with an astounding 0.28 in that category (incidentally, Jordan led both the 80s and 90s in that stat; it also happens to be what James is averaging for the 2010-2011 season in the same category). We know this because he’s third on the all-time scoring list, and could have easily been first if he hadn’t missed two seasons. We don’t, incidentally, know this because Jordan has 6 titles (a statistic which means nothing for assessing individual greatness). But what we do know, and the reason why we’re justified in putting Jordan on top of the pyramid, is that he really was a great performer as quantified by just about any objective measure of basketball excellence.

For the same reasons, we can be nearly sure that barring catastrophic injury, James will finish his career (which I suspect has a good decade left in it) as one of the best players of all time. Simply projecting his career arc forward and integrating with respect to time allows us to confidently conclude this. And again, we know that this is so (or, for future events, have good reason to believe it) because we possess multiple statistical tools indicating this. We don’t need “intangibles” or “hunger” or “will to win” or any of this other bullshit that gets talked about year after year by the sports media, which reflexively in the absence of any semblance of original content will reach for tried and tired cliches. All we need to know is: what is James doing on the court? And we have the information that allows us to evaluate his performance and that’s all that matters. He could never win a championship in his life and conceivably end up being a better player than Jordan if he plays better as measured by the relevant indicators.

Of course, being better than Jordan would be incredible because Jordan is every bit the statistical monster that James is and then some. But so what? If we’re being honest assessors of basketball excellence, then we should admit that there is a possible (indeed, even plausible) combination of statistical indicators that would amount to a player who is better than Jordan. Maybe James will be that player and maybe he won’t, but the final judgment can’t be rendered without the relevant information. To simply declare Jordan the best by fiat and then assert that James can never measure up is not only to belittle James’ skills, but Jordan’s too. It is the recourse of the lazy and the stupid, not of anyone who is interested in evaluating the game with open eyes.

Edit: The main thesis here, just to avoid confusion, is that statistical methodology trumps “gut feeling,” when it comes to evaluating players. If at the end of the day you like Jordan better than James because of certain aesthetic preferences, that’s fine; what matters is that any initial degeneracy is broken by reference to some objective factors rather than “I like player x/I don’t like player y.”

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