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SI Debuts: LeBron James
0:59 | NBA
SI Debuts: LeBron James
Tuesday August 2nd, 2016

LeBron James has been so exceptional from the onset of his 13-year career, it’s tough to whittle his greatness down to a compact list of 23 moments.

This summer alone James, delivered the first Cleveland title in more than 50 years, won his third Finals MVP and derailed the Warriors’ historic season. With those milestones and many more in mind, we present the best of LeBron, who is in the prime of his career and fresh off one of his best seasons yet.

LeBron’s debut (10.29.13): With all the pressure in the world mounted on his broad shoulders, James put together an NBA debut to remember at the tender age of 19. The Cavaliers didn’t pull out a win, but James’s cool demeanor and stat line (25 points, six rebounds, nine assists) set the stage for what would be a historic career.

• LeBron James chases the ghost from Chicago and basketball immortality

LeBron dunks on Tim Duncan (11.04.05): Stories questioning James’s athleticism have surfaced in recent years, as media outlets wondered aloud if he's lost a step. Those questions were unheard of at this point in James's career, and plays like this dunk over Tim Duncan made it clear why. ​

NBA playoff debut (04.22.06): James has had countless postseason memories, but his debut was certainly one to remember. He posted 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a win over the Wizards in his first postseason game, becoming the first player since Magic Johnson to post a triple double in his NBA playoff debut.

Playoff winner vs. Wizards (05.03.06): This finish from the 2006 NBA playoffs was emblematic of the way the Cavaliers functioned early in James's career. The Cavaliers gathered the ball near the baseline and every player on the Wizards roster trailed as he tight roped his way to a bucket. There were no Cleveland players to take attention away from James, but he still managed to close out a contested shot under pressure.

2007 East finals: 25 consecutive points vs. Detroit (05.31.07): As Steve Kerr said on the broadcast many years ago, James mounted a Jordan-esque campaign against the Pistons, scoring 25 straight points for the Cavaliers in every conceivable way.

“With no regard for human life” (05.10.08): James has thrown down plenty of dunks over the years, but few have received quite the reaction that this thunderous finish prompted from Kevin Harlan in Game 4 of the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals.

LeBron’s first MVP in 2009 (05.02.10): James has been a candidate for MVP every year since he accepted his first win in 2009. Back when he won as a member of the Cavaliers, James was thankful to receive such an honor in the state he called home, the place his basketball dream began.

• The Promise Keeper: LeBron realizes his dream with NBA title for Cleveland

LeBron sinks the Magic (05.24.09): The Cavaliers would eventually fall to the Magic in a six-game series, but not before James won Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals with a contested fadeaway three pointer at the top of the key in front of his home crowd. 

The Decision (08.10.10): This might not be the most obvious selection, but The Decision ultimately worked out in LeBron's favor. Sure, he could have handled it differently, but James raised millions for charity, won two titles in Miami and was ultimately welcomed back to Cleveland with open arms. The Decision also gave James his first real bout with adversity, and helped prepare him for the villain role awaiting in Miami.

Dunk over John Lucas III (01.29.12): LeBron James’s skillset is so vast that we sometimes forget just how athletic he is. Then he reminds us with a dunk like his finish over the head of John Lucas III, who was hurdled on this play.

Game 6 vs. Celtics (06.09.12): The last run of the ‘Big Three’ Celtics ended when James put together a Game 6 performance for the ages and scored 45 points to eliminate his heated rival from the 2012 playoffs.

Cramp-gate (06.19.12): LeBron James, one of the best-conditioned athletes in the world, was forced to leave Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals with leg cramps. He crumpled to the ground in that moment and appeared more human than he ever had before. After struggling to reach the sidelines, he returned with 2:56 left in the game and hit a clutch three-pointer to help Miami take a 3–1 series lead.

First title in Miami (06.21.12): After seven seasons in Cleveland, LeBron James bolted for Miami in hopes of winning his first NBA championship. After one failed attempt in 2011, James pushed the Heat past Kevin Durant’s Thunder and finally hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy high above his head. 

Dunk on Jason Terry (03.18.13): James’s vicious dunk over Jason Terry quickly became the subject of a million memes. Whether Terry was falling in a casket or being nudged by Simba from the Lion King, the impetus for the tumble was always James’s alley-oop flush.

Heat win 27 straight games (03.25.13): The basketball world watched the Warriors win 24 straight games this season, but the Heat ripped off 27 straight back in 2013 and went 53 days without a defeat. Only the '71-72 Lakers hold a longer streak at 33 games.

LeBron's block of Tiago Splitter (06.09.13): James’s history of series-altering blocks in the NBA Finals started here. The Spurs put together a clean pick-and-roll set for Tiago Splitter to turn and flush a dunk. James had other plans, as he flexed his strength and turned away the 6’11” center. After screaming for a few seconds, he even finished the offensive possession with a bullet pass to Ray Allen. 

Headband rampage (06.18.13): Up to this point, LeBron James had played almost every minute of his NBA career with a headband. But for a brief moment in the 2013 NBA Finals, James lost his headband and went on a rampage.

Second title in Miami (06.20.13): After dispatching the Thunder, Miami ran into the Spurs in the NBA Finals. For the second straight year, James capped the season with a title and earned regular season and Finals MVP honors.

Return to Cleveland (07.11.14): After two titles in four seasons in Miami, there was only one thing left for James to accomplish: a title in Cleveland. He knew that, and announced his return in a first-person essay for Sports Illustrated.

Game 4 buzzer-beater vs. Bulls (05.10.15): With the Cavs a few seconds away from being down 3–1, former Cleveland coach David Blatt designed a play that called for someone other than James to take the final shot. James would hear nothing of it. He called his own number, knocked down a three-pointer to win Game 4 and carried his team to an incredible comeback.

The Block (06.19.19): The Warriors had their top scorer, Stephen Curry, and best athlete, Andre Iguodala, trudging toward the basket in transition offense. None of this mattered after LeBron James erased what could have been a game-changing moment for the Warriors when he tracked down Iguodala and pinned his shot to the backboard, creating yet another banner moment.

• The Block: In-depth look at LeBron's play that sealed Game 7 of the Finals

Cavs first title (06.19.19): It took James more than one season, but he made good on a promise to lead Cleveland. James stopped short of guaranteeing a title in his return essay, but he accepted a challenge that was met the day his Cavaliers defeated the Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals after obliterating a 3–1 deficit.

Click here to read SI's cover story on LeBron James.

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