LBJ's legacy: Ranking LeBron

Posted: January 17, 2014

IN HINDSIGHT, I should have considered the source. But back in December 2002, Kwame Brown - yes, that Kwame Brown - was the closest thing to an expert on what high-school phenomenon LeBron James would face as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

In 2001, Brown became the first high-school player selected at the top of the draft, by the Washington Wizards.

Brown, who would go on to become a confirmed bust, talked about what it would be like for James, the consensus No. 1 pick for 2003, coming right out of high school.

He had his doubts.

"It's definitely a different game," Brown told me back then. "I think the scouts that are saying [James] is ready to play right now are in for a rude awakening. I think he's never going to be able to live up to the hype. To say that he's [Michael] Jordan in his prime is [ridiculous]."

Um . . . right.

A little more than a decade later, James is a two-time NBA champion, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time NBA MVP and unquestionably the best basketball player on the planet.

No, he has not become Jordan yet. He may never reach that acclaimed level. But now, when Kansas freshman swingman Andrew Wiggins is the newest flavor, he is being called the next LeBron James, not the next Jordan.

Tonight, James makes his second appearance of the season at the Wells Fargo Center when the Miami Heat plays the 76ers.

His status is light-years away from what it was when he first came to Philadelphia in 2002 as the star of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.

We had all heard the hype about the basketball prodigy from Akron, Ohio, who was burning up courts across the country. But it wasn't until the 17-year-old came to Philadelphia that December that I actually saw him play in person.

That night at a sold-out Palestra, James and his St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates crushed the defending Public League champion, Strawberry Mansion.

James scored 26 and pretty much did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He could have scored 70.

While I wrote then that James "was a man playing with and against boys," I wasn't convinced he could immediately do that in the NBA.

I've never been big on proclaiming athletes great before they've even competed once at the highest level. I've always been a "show me first" kind of critic.

Looking back, at least I was smart enough to remember what I had written 7 years earlier when I saw a kid who was contemplating jumping to the NBA directly from Lower Merion High.

I flat-out stated that Kobe Bryant was not ready for the NBA, and I went on to produce a long list of potential players for the 1996 draft whom I would have taken before him.

After Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Ray Allen, I won't repeat some of the names I mentioned because of embarrassment. Let's just say Oklahoma swingman Ryan Minor wasn't the worst candidate I named.

With that fresh in my mind, what I wrote about James was: "Clearly, he's a phenomenal prospect . . . There's no way to know how successful he'll be in the NBA when he's being guarded by the best players in the world. He'll be the boy. They'll be the men.

"I'll reserve my opinion until next year, when he begins playing with the big boys."

Again, I still can't say that the NBA should change its documented acknowledgement of Jordan as the greatest player of all time. But James has played his way into the discussion.

He is fulfilling all of the hype that was dished out in 2002, and at just 29, he has a lot of prime time left to revise the conclusion about who is the best of all time.

I admit that I have biases.

I saw Jordan in his prime and covered the final three of his six NBA titles. I've seen Bryant evolve from a precocious 17-year-old to a five-time NBA champion and the greatest player in the storied history of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Over a more complete body of work, Bryant is still the closest thing to Jordan that I've seen.

But James is the most versatile, well-rounded and complete basketball player that I have ever seen.

Because of his size combined with his skill set, he can do things that neither Jordan nor Bryant could.

James' MVPs put him behind only Naismith Hall of Fame members Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Bill Russell (five) and Jordan (five.)

It is reasonable to believe that James will have the most MVP Awards by the time he is done.

James was the 2004 Rookie of the Year and has been selected for nine consecutive All-Star games. He is a seven-time first-team All-NBA and in all probability will finish ahead of Karl Malone and Bryant, who currently share the record of 11 first-team selections.

But the thing that most has James on track to establish an all-time legacy is that he now has multiple NBA titles to go along with the obvious playing ability.

Championships are what usually make the difference in the "Greatest of All Time" debate.

Jordan was 6-0 in the NBA Finals with the Chicago Bulls and was a six-time Finals MVP.

James lost in his first trip the Finals with the Cavaliers in 2007 and then lost again in his first season in Miami, to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.

The loss to Dallas was a crushing blow to James, especially considering the expectations that went with him joining All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

It was amplified because of the public-relations backlash James got for the ill-advised live television collaboration with ESPN, "The Decision," in which he announced his move to Miami and ripped out Cleveland's heart.

At one point, James, who to that point had only been praised, joined Michael Vick at the top of polls for "Most Hated Athlete."

That was kind of interesting because James is a noted philanthropist and has never been involved in any off-the-court scandal. The hit to his popularity was solely the function of a personal business decision he made once he became a free agent.

I was one of those who questioned whether he was taking the easier route to a title by going to Miami instead of staying to build a champion in Cleveland.

Looking at it realistically, would it have been better for James to have stayed in Cleveland and ended up titleless like Karl Malone and John Stockton in Utah, Patrick Ewing in New York or Reggie Miller in Indiana - or be like Shaquille O'Neal, who left Orlando and won three titles with the Lakers and another with the Heat.

Still, there were those who took glee in the Heat's failure, James' failure, to beat Dallas. Without multiple titles there would be no meaningful legacy, and James was 0-2 in the Finals.

James attacked the issue in the way that had to be respected - he took account of his faults and sought to elevate his game.

After training with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post game, James unleashed his full potential in 2011-12.

He won his third MVP, but more important, he was the best player in the NBA Finals as Miami beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Last season, James repeated the MVP double-double.

Now Miami is looking to become the first threepeat champion since the 2000-02 Lakers of Kobe and Shaq.

Being a champion also has restored James' image to the point where he again is the most popular basketball player in the world.

It was a December night in 2002 when this high-school kid who was being hyped as the best basketball player ever first played in Philadelphia.

I thought he should show us first.

LeBron James certainly has. And there seems to be a lot more to come.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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