CLEVELAND, Ohio – Of all the Triple Crowns – in horse racing, baseball, skiing, cycling, snooker (honest) and other sports – the toughest is the one LeBron James is pursuing.
That is the age trifecta, from his Messianic Sports Illustrated cover to the first several of his seven straight NBA Finals to what should be his decline in his current 15th season and soon his 33rd year.
James was the greatest prodigy ever in his sport, making the SI cover as a high school junior, one year before the fictional Jesus Shuttlesworth of “He Got Game.” He made an immediate impact with 25 points in his first NBA game as an 18-year-old. He was the Rookie of the Year and the face of the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise. Global iconhood here he comes!
Earlier this season, when asked about his career-opener, he said, “At Sacramento.”
“We lost,” James said.
It showed his concern for team over individual achievement. He had set a record for the debut of a high school player going straight to the NBA.
He not only met, but exceeded the greatest expectations since the young Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and he did it in a 24/7 news cycle as social media followed his every move.
Prime – Rings
“I’m chasing a ghost,” he says, meaning Michael Jordan as the concensus greatest ever.
With three championship rings, James is only halfway to Jordan’s six.
Jordan’s Bulls never beat legitimately great teams in the NBA Finals, just newcomers (Utah Jazz) or newcomers who hadn’t been there in a generation (Portland, Seattle) or teams past their prime (L.A. Lakers).
But the Bulls did dethrone the bullying Bad Boys Pistons and held off the copycat thugs from the New York Knicks under Pat Riley and so did a great service to basketball.
James’ Miami team beat the greatest franchise so far of this century, the San Antonio Spurs, in one Finals and pulled off the greatest upset in Finals history by the numbers in another, beating the Golden State Warriors, who won a record 73 games, with an unprecedented rally from a 3-1 deficit, after finishing 16 games behind them in the standings.
James also has only the third triple-double ever in a Finals Game 7, averaged a triple-double in last year’s Finals loss, and in 2016 led both the Cavaliers and Warriors in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, an unprecedented feat.
Prime – Recruiting
James was never recruited to college. He was too good. But he used NBA free agency as a substitute for recruiting, creating Super Teams in Miami and here.
It is easy to lure players here because James is more like Magic Johnson than Mike, a willing and creative passer and a supportive teammate who can be critical, rather than the Jordan model of a critical one who could be abusive.
As for the Bulls’ Super Team, brilliant trades brought Jordan one of the great sidekicks ever, Scottie Pippen, and a risk/reward deal for Dennis Rodman paid off in a second three-peat.
Decline, what decline?
In his 15th season, James trails only 16 players in combined minutes in the playoffs and regular season.
Already the all-time playoff scoring leader, James, who is seventh in playoff games, trails only Tim Duncan in minutes under the high-intensity, maximum- stress conditions of the postseason – 9,370-9,127.
James’ 42-minute per game average shows the burden he has carried. None ever was greater than when he took a Cavs team minus two members of their old Big Three, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, to six games in the first of the troika of Warriors-Cavs Finals.
He will turn 33 on Dec. 30 in his 15th season, in which he has averaged over 28 points, only a 3-pointer from his all-time best of 31.4 points per game.
If you combine James’ four Most Valuable Player seasons and compare to this year, per @CavsFredMcLeod on Twitter the result is stunning:
- MVP Years: 28.1 PPG, 6.4R, 7.4A, 52 FGPct , 35.5 3-PointPct and .768 FTPct.
- Before Tueasday’s game against Atlanta: 28.3 PPG, 8.3R, 8.7A, .57FGPct, .417 3-PointPct .768 FTPct.
As part of his fitness program, James does not eat pork. He practices yoga, the flexibility regimen that extended the effectiveness of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar into his 40s.
So many players get the big money and become complacent. (Talking about you, Shawn Kemp.) James’ off-season workload, even given his many outside projects, is prodigious. This time, it is his outside shooting that has taken a quantum jump.
Nobody defies time, but James, like the sunsets on Lake Erie, is still spectacular.