LeBron: Better Than Bird?
What a great time to be an NBA fan, with so many future Hall of Famers active. Among them, it is in my opinion most exhilarating to watch LeBron James, just turned 24, and Chris Paul, turns 24 in May, as young players who are already mounting a charge up the list of the game's all-time greatest players. How high can they go?
Well, both players raised the bar yet again last week with brilliant displays in big games. On Tuesday, CP3 turned in this beauty of a line in the Hornets' 116-105 win over the Lakers at Staples Center:
32 pts, 15 ast, 3 stl, 0 TO.
It was the first time a player had gone for 30+ pts and 15+ ast with 0 TO in a game since John Stockton did it back in 1989. (It's worth noting that David West [40 pts/11 reb] and Kobe Bryant [39 pts/7 ast/6 3pt] were also outstanding in a very entertaining game.) CP3 was everywhere, controlling the game as usual with his penetration and decision-making, and knocking down a variety of floaters.
Still, nothing we saw on Tuesday was comparable to the gauntlet LeBron laid down on Friday, in Cleveland's 98-83 showdown win over the Celtics:
38 pts (on 13-25 / 3-7 / 9-9 shooting), 7 reb, 6 ast, 4 stl, 3 blk.
It was an outright tour de force from LeBron, one of the best all-around games I've seen from him, mainly because those defensive numbers indeed reflect the disruption he caused on that end of the floor, an increasingly common complement to LBJ's production on offense.
On the ESPN broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy noted at one point that a defensive play James made was "Pippen-like" and that Scottie Pippen was the best help defender he'd seen (I agree). If LeBron's D becomes Pippen-like on a consistent basis, this is just going to get scary.
At one point, there was a graphic listing the top 3 MVP choices to date from both Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. Jax had LeBron-Kobe-D-Wade, while JVG was a bit daft with LeBron-Joe Johnson-D. Howard. Action Jackson and play-by-play man Dan Shulman teased JVG a little and there was some banter about the choices. Then Shulman asked if, despite the differences on their ballots, both men thought that LeBron was the clear no. 1 choice for MVP.
Neither analyst hesitated. Jax: "Clearly." JVG: "Clearly."
It amazes me how quickly the question "Who is the best player in the NBA?" has been rendered moot, after a few seasons where there's been legitimate debate among a few players (although Mssrs. Dwyer and Hollinger were ahead of the curve on this one, as usual...).
I'm sure that there are plenty of Kobe true-believers out there who beg to differ, but I'm sorry, the best player in the world is LeBron, and there's no question, and barring some sort of catastrophe, it will be that way well into the next decade.
Although there is no question in my mind that LeBron is currently the best player, I still found myself startled by how the on-air conversation continued after the MVP discussion.
Jackson said that, at age 24, LeBron is the best SF other than Larry Bird.
Van Gundy replied by saying, very simply, "Better than Bird."
It was a little bit confusing as it was unclear if they were talking about the best SF at age 24 or the best SF, period. It seemed like they meant "best SF at age 24", as Jackson indicated that he thought LBJ would be the best SF when all was said and done (there was no argument from Van Gundy).
Let's take a look at LeBron v. Bird stats at age 24. The biggest difference is that it is already LeBron's 6th season, while Bird was in just his 2nd season (1980-81) at age 24 b/c he had bounced around from Indiana to Indiana State and played his full four years of college:
G MIN FG% 3PT% FT% STL BLK REB AST PTS PER
LeBron: 35 36.6 .508 .302 .788 2.0 1.3 6.6 6.6 27.7 32.4
L Bird: 82 39.5 .478 .270 .863 2.0 0.8 10.9 5.5 21.2 19.9
Statistically, there is no question that LeBron is better at 24. The main question from here is whether LeBron can match the championship that Larry won at age 24 in 1980-81. Increasingly, the odds seem to be in his favor.
Again, it just kind of amazes me how quickly the discussion has seemed to evolve from "LeBron the prodigy with the great potential" to "LeBron is on track to be better than Bird."
And it's startling because, if you take a step back and remember that Bird is considered a top-10 player at least, a top-5 player by many, then how high up the list is LeBron going to go?
Certainly, it's nearly impossible to argue that LeBron is better, period, at this point simply b/c he has neither the 3 championships nor the 3 MVPs on his resume.
But, do I think LeBron is going to be considered better than Bird when all is said and done? I have to say I do.
Both are extraordinary passers for their size, Bird was a better rebounder and outside shooter, while LeBron finishes at the basket like few ever have.
I think LeBron has moved up the charts so quickly in part b/c he has answered the bell in two key categories:
1. Defense. This was cited by Van Gundy, who noted that the defensive improvements being exhibited by LBJ this season put him on a different level than Bird on that end. Larry was an underrated help defender who had very good anticipation, but LeBron offers unmatched athletic gifts on top of those traits.
2. Clutch Play. Of course, Larry Bird is considered one of the great clutch players ever, and a couple years ago, LeBron started taking a lot of heat for the perception that he was not a strong clutch player. I think he started to put those thoughts to rest with his 48-point performance in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, and in the last couple seasons he has been exceptional in clutch situations.
82games.com tracks "clutch" statistics (defined as "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points") and LeBron has been downright ridiculous this season, averaging 67.4 pts, 20.2 reb, 10.1 asts per 48 minutes in those situations, easily the leading scorer, and the 3rd leading rebounder.
It's a small sample size of 28 minutes (mainly b/c Cleveland has played so few close games), but it's consistent with his 2007-08 numbers in the clutch and the "super-clutch" (4th quarter or overtime, less than 2 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 3 points) - LeBron and Kobe stood out beyond all others in both of those categories.
All the talk about being clutch or not being clutch gets a little ridiculous - people wondered about Jordan's ability to deliver in the clutch as late as Game 1 of the 1991 Finals, when Chicago lost in the final seconds, for crying out loud. Still, LeBron is going to have to prove it once and for all in the Finals.
I had the opportunity to see LeBron play in person in high school. After the game, I e-mailed to a friend that the only question was "whether he goes down as one of the top 20 or so players of all-time or one of the top 2."
Increasingly, I lean toward the latter rather than the former: I think LeBron James has a chance to end up as one of the top 2 players of all time. (I'm not yet willing to go further than that!)
The beat goes on this week, folks: we've got Lakers-Spurs on Wednesday, and then an ESPN doubleheader on Friday with four of the top five players in the league, as well as four of the top five teams in the league: Hornets/CP3 v Cavs/LBJ and Magic/D-12 v Lakers/Kobe.
Savor it. Who needs football?