For the first half of the 2012-2013 NBA season, Lebron James and Kevin Durant have been in a class of their own, playing chess while the rest of the NBA plays checkers. Durant has cemented himself as one of the greatest scorers not only of his generation, but in the history of the league. Meanwhile, Lebron continues to play point-power forward, anihiliating teams from the post with his size and superb passing ability, all while becoming an increasingly efficient shooter and maintaining his All-NBA 1st team defense. But in the last two weeks, he’s somehow taken his game a step further.
What Lebron has accomplished over the last seven games is hard to believe, even if you watched him do it. After his 30 point, 9 assist, 6 rebound game against the Portland Trailblazers last Tuesday (on 11 of 15 shooting), Lebron became the first player in NBA history to score 30 points while shooting over 60% from the field in six straight games. In his last game before the All-Star break, Lebron demolished Kevin Durant and the Thunder, scoring 39 points (to go along with 12 rebounds and 7 assists) and turning the entire second half into garbage time. Unfortunately, Lebron only shot 58% from the field (thanks to a meaningless late 3 point attempt that he missed), and his historic streak ended at six.
Lebron’s season averages look like this: 27.3 points, 6.9 assists, 8.2 rebounds, and a staggering 31.46 PER. In all likelihood, he’ll take home his fourth MVP trophy in five seasons, and will, at the very least, lead the Miami Heat back to the NBA Finals for a third straight June. All of his accomplishments over the last season and a half have garnered an extrordinary amount of praise. There have always been comparisons made between Lebron and Michael Jordan, but this season the comparisons have a different feel to them. Instead of comparing the two based on what Lebron could do, sports experts and fans alike can also compare what Lebron has done. At age 28, he’s won a title (and NBA Finals MVP), two Olympic gold medals, three regular season MVPs, two All-Star game MVPs, four NBA All-Defensive 1st teams, and six All-NBA 1st teams. That last sentence speaks for itself, but comparing Lebron to MJ at this point in his career encompasses one of the most interesting sports phenomenons: the desire of every generation to produce the next greatest of all-time.
All too often in the modern sports universe, athletes are crowned as legends well before their legacies have had time to cement. Most of this stems from an understandable desire: we want to be able to tell the next generation about all the athletes we were lucky enough to watch. “Yeah, I saw Lebron James play. I watched Usain Bolt run faster than any man has run before. I got to see Lance Armstrong beat cancer and win seven Tour De Frances.” (whoops, too soon?). My dad has never forgotten to remind me that he was in the Boston Garden for Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and Pistons, when Larry Bird made his famous steal. Someday I’ll tell my children about seeing Lebron and Paul Pierce duel in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2008. We (and by we I mean all sports fans) want to say we were a part of history. The problem is that our desire to witness history clouds our judgement, and we fail to realize what it means to experience greatness. Thus, every era, including this one, has become the era of “The Next One”, our hurried search to knock the previous “great of all-time” off their throne.
The “Next One” phenomenon also creates a bias in every generation that makes us believe that the athletes in our time are vastly superior to those that came before, and we’re always looking for evidence to prove that our bias is justified. This is not breaking news, it’s a fact: sports fans are biased towards the athletes that they have watched the most.
After Michael Jordan retired, every highly touted NBA recruit was labeled “the next MJ”, from Vince Carter to Tracy McGrady to Kobe Bryant, who has made an incredible of doing just that. Lebron is simply another player in a long list of next MJ’s that happens to be living up to his potential. As much as I’d like to compare them, I cannot. I never watched MJ and saw the things he could do night in and night out. I’ve seen hundreds of Lebron’s games, and about a dozen of them in person. I’ve never seen a more athletic human being in my life, to the point where I question whether Lebron is even a human at all. Jordan had the same effect on people who watched him play, but until they invent a time machine that will allow sports fans like myself go back and watch Air Jordan take flight, I can’t objectively compare them.
Plenty of NBA players want to be like Mike, as the famous saying goes. There have been players with similar builds and playing styles (Kobe and Dwyane Wade, to name a few), but as anyone who watched him in his prime will tell you, there will never be another Michael Jordan. Lebron James may or may not eclipse Jordan and become the greatest of all time, but no matter how the rest of his career plays out, I will tell future generations about the times I got to watch him play basketball. I can say without a shadow of doubt that there will never, ever be another Lebron James.