David Shepard puts LeBron James’ greatness in context

Is LeBron James the GOAT? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is indisputable: there has never been a player this great this far into his career

CBS Sports Radio Weekend
October 12, 2020 - 4:08 pm
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LeBron James just had one of the FIVE all-time greatest NBA Finals performances we have ever seen. This is at AT ANY AGE, and in year 17 he’s still at his peak.
 
LeBron won his first NBA title at 27 years old in year nine as a member of the Miami Heat. He was also the 2011-12 regular season MVP that year and would eventually be named the 2012 Finals MVP. Look at when he won his first Finals MVP compared to his 4th Finals MVP.
 
          PPG   RPG  APG   FG%
2012    29      10      7        48%
2020    30      12      9        59%
 
LeBron was the best player on the planet when that Heat beat the Thunder 4-1 in the 2012 NBA Finals. In year 17, you are NOT supposed to be better as a professional athlete than you were in year 9. That’s exactly what has happened. LeBron is defying the odds and then some.
 
LeBron compared to that OTHER #23

At some point today, this week and – who are we kidding? – the next few months, the name Michael Jordan will come up in relation to who is the greatest of them all. When LeBron won Finals MVP on Sunday, he knocked off Jordan to become the second-oldest Finals MVP in NBA history (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the oldest when he won his at age 38). If you look at how LeBron did in his Finals MVP performance at age 35 compared to Jordan’s Finals MVP Performance at age 35, LeBron clearly outplayed Jordan.
 
                 PPG   RPG  APG   FG%
LeBron      30       12      9        59%
Michael     33        4       2        43%
 
What is even more impressive than LeBron at age 35 thoroughly outplaying Jordan at age 35 is the amount of games LeBron had coming into their respective NBA Finals series compared to Jordan. LeBron had a lot more mileage on the odometer. By age 35, LeBron had played a total of 1,519 games, including playoffs. Jordan, on the other hand, had far less with 1,103 games played, including the playoffs. LeBron had played more than five FULL SEASONS more than Jordan. It’s also worth mentioning that LeBron has played a lot more international games than Jordan as well.
 
In EVERY single NBA Finals Game in 2020, LeBron was not just great, he was all-time great
 
LeBron joins Shaq as the only two players in NBA history to score at least 25 points on at least 50% shooting six times in the same Finals. When Shaq did it in 2000, he was in year 8, and that was one of the greatest performances we had ever seen in the NBA Finals. LeBron, as mentioned, was in year 17. He averaged 12 RPG while Shaq averaged 17 RPG. BUT LeBron averaged 9 APG while Shaq averaged just 2 APG. LeBron in year 17 was better in the Finals than Shaq in year 8.
 
I challenge you to find a single NBA Finals series in which any NBA legend didn’t have ONE off game. You’d be hard-pressed. That never happened for LeBron in these 2020 NBA Finals.

LeBron in Game 1 - 25 points, 53% shooting, 13 boards, 9 Assists. This is something LeBron has never done before in an NBA Finals game in his nine previous appearances. Only five other players have done this. Top 50 All-Time players in James Worthy, Shaq, Dave Cowens and Bill Russell. The sixth player to accomplish this is Draymond Green, and two things are true for Green. When Green did it in 2016, he was one of the 10 best players in the NBA that season, and it was the best game of his NBA career.
 
LeBron in Game 2 - 33 points, 56% shooting, 9 Boards and 9 Assists. Only two other players have accomplished this in NBA Finals history: James Worthy and Jimmy Butler. Worthy was the Finals MVP when he did this in 1988. That was over Lakers teammates Kareem and Magic, just to illustrate how great of a performance that was. When it comes to Jimmy Butler, that was one of the two greatest games of his nine-year career.
 
LeBron in Game 3 - 25 points, 56% shooting, 10 boards and 8 Assists. Only 8 other players have accomplished this. Some familiar names in Kareem, Bird, Magic, Shaq, James Worthy and Bill Russell. Those six are Top 50 players all-time. The other two are Draymond Green (see Game 1) and Jimmy Butler (See Game 2)
 
LeBron in Game 4 - 28 points, 50% FG, 12 Boards & 8 Assists. Just three other players have accomplished this. James Worthy, the 1988 Finals MVP; Jimmy Butler (the other greatest games of his career); and Barkley in 1993, the year he won regular-season MVP
 
LeBron in Game 5 - 40 points, 13 boards, 7 Assists on 71% shooting. This had never been done by anybody else in NBA Finals history until Friday.
 
LeBron in Game 6 - 28 points, 14 boards, 10 Assists on 65% shooting. Aside from LeBron and Anthony Davis, the rest of the Lakers shot just 30% in Game 5. You could understand if LeBron came out sluggish because of the load he had to carry in Game 5. The King had different plans. The only other player to accomplish this was Worthy (see Game 4)
 
Sunday was LeBron’s seventh 28-point triple-double in the NBA Finals. That is as many 28-point triple-doubles as every other player in NBA Finals history combined.
 
What LeBron did in year 17 in the NBA Finals is unimaginable
 
Stamina/Fitness - LeBron played at least 39 minutes in each of the final five games of this series. That is as many 39-plus-minute NBA Finals games as every other player in year 17 or later COMBINED. To give it more context, there have been 145 NBA players that have played 17 NBA seasons or more.
 
LeBron’s Third-Biggest Asset (Rebounds) Before LeBron, there had been just eight Finals games where a player in year 17 or later has had a 9+ rebound game in the NBA Finals. LeBron did it 6 times in this series alone.
 
LeBron’s Second-Biggest Asset (Scoring) There had only been three games in NBA Finals history before this season in which a player in year 17 or later had at least 25 points on at least 50% shooting from the field. LeBron did it in all six games of these NBA Finals.
 
LeBron’s Biggest Asset (Passing) Before LeBron, there had been just two games where a player in year 17 or later in an NBA Finals game had 7 Assists or more. LeBron did it six times in this series, tripling that total.
 
Compared to all other NBA greats, regardless of age and season, LeBron finds himself in elite company in every single game that he played in the 2020 NBA Finals. In year 17, he still reigns supreme over all the other NBA superstars, something we have been accustomed to witnessing with LeBron since Zion Williamson was just three years old. You can engage in fun debate when it comes to LeBron’s greatness against any other NBA icon. The one thing you can’t dispute at this point is there has never been anybody in the history of the game this deep into an NBA career that’s close to this great. The world was expected of LeBron from Day 1, and he not only met those expectations, he built his own galaxy system. I’d say long live the King, but given what we just witnessed (pun intended), we will be seeing this King for a whole lot more!

CBS Sports Radio producer David Shepard is a former ESPN researcher, a former Division I college basketball practice player, and the host of The Good Shepard YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter @TheGoodShepard_.