Point: James on his way to all-time greatness

Ladies and gentleman, the King has arrived.

For as much flak as LeBron James caught amid his “Decision”-tinged departure from Cleveland, the eight-year veteran has finally proven he’s on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s all-time greats by winning his first championship ring.

Since his relocation to South Beach, critics have criticized almost every move the three-time MVP has made, writing him off as a good player, but one that will never be truly great. However, what most people fail to realize is this season, we’ve seen a different LeBron James.

His basic statistics are in line with his prior two MVP campaigns, but its the efficiency and dexterity in which he implemented his skills that set this season apart from years past. He bumped his field-goal percentage to a career-high 53.1 percent, thanks in large part to smarter decisions with the ball. Anyone who watched a Heat game this year can’t deny the way LeBron played this season — including the playoffs — was smarter, more effective and downright great.

Also take into consideration the difference between James’ play in last year’s Finals compared to this year’s. According to ESPN, in Finals games within five points and under five minutes left in regulation, James shot 0-7 from the field  — including 0-0 from the free throw line — and had a plus-minus of minus-16 in 2011. This year, he shot 4-7 from the field, 5-6 from the free throw line, scored 14 points and was a plus-16 in the same situations.

The naysayers will say LeBron’s first title didn’t mean as much because he teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, both of whom were eons better than almost any teammate James had during his stint in Cleveland. They will bash James and the Heat for essentially buying their way to multiple titles and claim the greatest players in NBA history would have done it on their own.

Seriously? They did it on their own?

Michael Jordan, the greatest player to ever step foot on an NBA court, always had Scottie Pippen as his go-to guy. He also had solid contributing cast members in Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman and B.J. Armstrong to help propel his Bulls teams to multiple championships throughout the ’90s.

The list doesn’t stop there, either. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Kobe Bryant had Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum over the years. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

Matching yourself up with great teammates doesn’t take anything away from a player’s legacy or drive to be great. In fact, it should only enhance the public’s perception of a player. If you want to win, you have to put yourself in the perfect location to do so. Players leave teams all the time to chase rings and to try to find the right formula to become the greatest player they can be, so why should LeBron still be as vilified as he is today?

In short, there’s absolutely no reason for it.

Set aside your personal judgment of James and take a look at what he did in this postseason alone. Gone were the chalk tosses, the pre-game jokes and the smiles. Instead, we saw James intently reading The Hunger Games to calm his nerves and focus his mind. We saw the stoic face of someone who wouldn’t take losing as an option — something we hadn’t seen from him in years, if ever.

We saw a player determined to not let anything stop him from achieving his ultimate dream: hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Still, for as much progress as LeBron made this season, it’s only the beginning. Plenty of very good players have won championships in the past, but it’s the difference between those who are content with winning one and those whose insatiable hunger for more that sets the good apart from the great.

Can LeBron continue his driven mentality to carry himself and his teammates to multiple titles? Can he prove to the doubters that he deserves to have his name mentioned in the same breath as Jordan, Bird or Magic?

Time will only tell the answers to these questions, but after James’ inspired performance this season, the odds are in his favor.

 

Reach the columnist at tpaxton@asu.edu

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