Scottie Pippen is one of my favorite players of all-time. I loved his defensive tenacity; his “do it all to win” attitude; the way he carried the team when he had to; how he supported Jordan wherever necessary and willed his teammates to rise above any obstacle.
He is one of the 25 greatest NBA players ever…but as a judge of talent? Some clarification is needed. After the final whistle blew in Chicago, and Lebron and Wade’s furious rally to close out the series was finished, Pip went and made what just might be the most crazy-brilliant comment of his life. Pippen’s full quote in case you missed it:
“Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to ever play the game. I may go so far as saying Lebron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game.”
End quote. Cue debate.
LeBron is curently not the Greatest Player of All-Time…let’s be clear on that.
First thing to do is break down the quote itself. Was Pippen stating, unequivocally that LBJ is better than MJ?
No. His words are “may be”, as time will eventually allow us to define the legacy of LeBron. The most interesting part of this statement may be the context in which Pippen stated it. Jordan
definitely somewhat tainted our final image of him; pulling away from his graceful, epic shot against the Jazz by returning for two abrupt and controversy plagued seasons with the Washington Wizards.
LeBron, on the other hand, is infront of us right now and is playing the most complete basketball of his career. His defense has been astoundingly versatile; his offensive flurries staggering, and his crunch time play a thing of beauty. Three times in the final game against Chicago I was certain the game was over. The Heat would have to head back to their own floor in order to advance. And then…they did not. Lebron’s two three pointers – similiar to the ones he used to finish the Celtics – were things of beauty. In the final moments, you can see his confidence in himself in the way he shoots. These are not off balance, hurried or mistimed in any way. He strokes them with the perfectly squared shoulders of a vet. His drives to the basket are virtually unstoppable; and in the final moments neither Chicago or Boston had anyone they could throw at him to even slow him down – there may be no one in the league to throw at him.
Yet, as I have written before, at times it appears LeBron chooses to play this way. At other times he does not. Are we just spoiled by how easy he makes the game appear? He does things no one else in the history of the game has been able to. Every aspect of his game appears effortless – the rebound in traffic, the laser-perfect pass in transition, the alley-oop, the step back jumper, the three in transition that barely ripples the net – are all things of easy beauty. LeBron can do all these things and more, and yet this is how we always view him: we always want more from him. We stand back and say, “alright, he is amazing…but what else has he got?” His best is never good enough because we have become accustomed to his greatness. Down 10? No problem, LBJ can close out the game. Maybe he has always been so otherworldly that he can never rise to fully meet our expectations for him.
In the wake of The Decision, I believe one reason most people have been slow to come back to supporting LBJ is the fact that he damaged his chance to be the greatest of all-time. Whether he could attain that status or not was and is still up for debate but we saw his actions and fateful choice in the Summer of 2010 as a betrayal. Not just to the city of Cleveland or to the NBA as a whole – but rather to the entire idea of greatness itself.
If there is one thing we as fans want to be able to say they have seen more than anything is the greatest player of any given sport. One of our frequent troubles with greatness is the need for comparison to the players we have already seen. Case in point: there will never be “another Jordan” because each NBA player follows a unique career trajectory. Pippen was smart to clarify that in his comments: LBJ will be the “greatest player” not an MJ clone.
At the end of the day, he will be the person we compare others to, as we do to Jordan. While we may see players who resemble Jordan in style or attitude (ie. The Mamba) the most important thing to remember is that everyone is an individual and the circumstances to their rise to greatness will always be different. LeBron has always followed his own path, be it in carefully crafting a public image or how he goes about winning. He saw Cleveland was never going to be able to get over the Title hump. Whether or not he colluded with Wade / Bosh is immaterial (secretly we want him to have done so, in order to make sense out of his actions) as winning was his ultimate and only goal as his determined play has shown proven this season.
During the aftermath of the Pippen quotes, Scottie sent out a tweet further reinforcing that he “knows what he is talking about” and obviously Pip is uniquely qualified to pass judgment. I think he saw what we have all been waiting desperately to catch a glimpse of: LeBron’s ceiling – perhaps over time he figures out how to become fully invested in all facets of every game once he gets the first taste of a title. When Jordan was 26 he was in a very similiar position to LBJ: he had 2 MVP’s and 0 titles. What followed was 2 three-peats and the greatest basketball witnessed on this planet thus far.
LeBron may have physical skills that surpass Jordan – he is already“the most talented player of all-time”. His physical tools appear to have been handed down specifically from the Basketball gods for the purpose of dominating the game. He is still fully learning how to harness them – but at times has put on astounding displays such as his shut down D on Derrick Rose during the most critical situations of the series. LeBron, like Jordan cannot afford to shy away from tense situations and must perform at his finest during them. Those are the images we have of Jordan; he was at his most magnificent when it truly counted – his shot against Utah serves simply as the finest example. (Jordan also had frequent moments where he destroyed opponents for the sheer competitive joy and losing ate him alive until he was able to remedy the situation)
LeBron is not the same. He began his career playing the game like a businessman – always working some kind of angle and concerned with his “brand”. He played 7 years in Cleveland, carrying the franchise back to the top echelon of the NBA ranks. Then – and we should have seen it coming – he decided it was all about winning. Unlike Jordan who was consumed by winning from the outset, LeBron seems to have come to this conclusion much more organically. We measure greatness in terms of winning and LBJ has a lot of winning to do. He has accomplished everything in the NBA with the exception of winning a title. He will never be satisfied with just one.
Could he become the Greatest of All-Time?
Anything is possible – and perhaps we should not simply dismiss Scottie Pippen’s comments out of hand. Here is a potential scenario I will submit for approval: A Plan For LBJ’s Basketball Dominance / Roadmap to Becoming the Greatest of All-Time:
1) Win 3 more MVP awards – For LBJ this could be done a number of ways…the simplest being playing crazy defense and leading the league in scoring. Or, he could just average the elusive triple double.
2) Win Defensive Player of the Year 2-3 Times – The most inspired part of LeBron’s play in the last two series has been his remarkable defense. He has earned his first spot on the All-Defensive Team, all he has to do is continue to play with outrageous energy and focus.
3) Finish the All-Time Scoring Leader and in the Top 15 in Assists – This would give him a pretty solid resume…but is still not as important as the following:
4) Win 6 or more titles…at least 4 consecutively – The hardest part of the equation. Some great players never win one title (Malone / Barkley) and are forever known for it. Hakeem won 2 straight and could not win any more. Duncan has 4 and is probably the greatest Power Forward ever. Jordan has 6; objectively the magic number for this generation to measure themselves by. Kobe certainly sees it as his benchmark to surpass and perhaps LBJ should as well. Winning 6 titles grants you NBA immortality but does not necessarily make you the GOAT – despite Kobe’s belief to the contrary; Kobe’s number of three-peats? However…if LBJ were to win 5 or 6 in a row in a talent rich era? He would have an inside track on the best player ever (or “Most Complete Player” ever?) Additionally, (because, really, he needs more a challenge) one of the titles would have to come with Wade injured. LeBron has to show that he is resilient enough to forge ahead despite adversity.
If LBJ does all that…he would have an outside shot. More than anything we cheer for greatness. LeBron is already one of the 15 best players in the history of the League, but he is nowhere near the top of the mountain. Scottie Pippen was merely pointing out LeBron’s potential but the endgame is far from sight. As the 2011 NBA Finals begin, we may be witnessing LBJ take the first tentative steps towards the legacy that awaits but that is all we are witnessing…for now.