By Jack McCallum
March 04, 2013

The question has been thrown at me, and anyone else whose roots go back a bit, on several occasions this season: Where does LeBron James -- who is only 28 and should have at least eight more years at a top level -- rank among the all-time greats?

Certainly the question was being asked again on Sunday after another superlative performance (29 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, only two turnovers) in Miami's 99-93 win over the Knicks, the 14th straight victory for the Heat.

The question is fair. That's how well James is playing. But I would present the question with a qualifier: How good is James compared to other players like him?

I've attempted a semi-scientific approach -- emphasis on "semi" -- for I am neither statistician, mathematician, nor John Hollinger.

Here we go.

The first challenge is to identify players who are "like LeBron." What has set James apart is the "conductor" aspect of the game, the ability to be in control wherever he is. Whatever we might call LeBron right now -- "point forward," "swingman," "guardward" (that's a new one) -- the emphasis is on his versatility. Therefore, to make the LeBron-comparison list, you must be an all-arounder, a triple-threater, a player who dominates on and off the ball, inside and out.

[MAHONEY: LeBron playing at incomprehensibly high level]

So I will not be comparing LeBron to pure centers such as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell or Shaquille O'Neal because they didn't go outside enough. And I will not be comparing James to pure point guards such as Isiah Thomas, John Stockton or Bob Cousy because they didn't go inside enough, unlike the other quarterbacks on my list.

Here are the players who qualify for comparison:

Point guards in alphabetical order: Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. (There is much argument as to whether West was in fact a point guard. He played in an era when the distinction was generally not so stark -- guards were just "guards" and forwards were just "forwards." But he was considered a 1 in his best years with the Lakers, with the shooting guard being Gail Goodrich.)

Shooting guards in alphabetical order: Kobe Bryant, Clyde Drexler and Michael Jordan.

Forwards in alphabetical order: Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Paul Pierce and Scottie Pippen.

It took a while -- and some consultation among colleagues -- to decide on Pierce. But with Rajon Rondo injured, Pierce is a true conductor, and, given his druthers, would've probably played his entire career like that.

The hardest decision was whom to leave out. Among contemporary players, that meant LeBron's formidable teammate, Dwyane Wade. Pre-LeBron, Wade certainly had the ball enough, and he drove Miami to the 2006 championship seemingly by himself. But with No. 6 out there now, Wade has lost his conductor status. Plus, he was never a great rebounder, with only one season above six per game. To emphasize: This is not a criticism of Wade; it's merely the rationale to leave him out of this discussion. I also left out Kevin Durant -- not quite enough years in the league, not quite enough playmaking with Russell Westbrook as a teammate.

Keep in mind this is not a Greatest Player piece. Wade and Durant may well end up as better players than some on the list.

As for the past, I eliminated several other great all-around players, such as Walt Frazier (not enough time spent inside) and Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving and Rick Barry (not enough time spent outside).

Here are the nine categories I came up with for evaluation: Scoring, Passing, Rebounding, Perimeter Quarterbacking, Interior Control, Leadership, Winning, Defense and Wow Factor. The first eight are worth 12 points and the Wow Factor is worth only 4. A perfect score, then, would be 100. (Hint: Nobody turns out perfect.)

The Wow is included not because I give a damn about endless replays of dunks, but, rather, because there is a benefit that comes from the exciting play, the one that lifts your team and deflates the opposition. Keep in mind that the scores reflect only achievement within the context of position. For example, not one of these guys is a 12 rebounder when compared to Chamberlain or Russell, but they can be a 12 when compared to the other all-arounders. And there can be multiple of any figure within each category.

So, get ready to argue with me:


Jordan -- 12 LeBron -- 11 West -- 11 Robertson -- 10 Kobe -- 10 Bird -- 9 Pierce -- 7 Drexler -- 7 Havlicek -- 7 Magic -- 7 Pippen -- 6 Kidd -- 3

This is pretty much a stat-driven category, and I relied mostly on points per game. Jordan sets the clear standard, although all of these players, with the exception of Kidd, could go get theirs when they wanted to. It is surprising how high LeBron ranks, considering how much he plays the role of playmaker. In that regard, he is most like the Big O.


Magic -- 12 Robertson -- 11 Kidd -- 10 LeBron -- 10 Bird -- 9 Jordan -- 9 West -- 9 Pippen -- 8 Kobe -- 7 Drexler -- 7 Havlicek -- 6 Pierce -- 6

You have to put Magic on top here for his mastery in both transition and the half court. This isn't a pure numbers thing -- Bird's 6.3 assist average from the forward position is extremely impressive, particularly because he played with good guards. Kobe is a good passer but probably hasn't done it quite enough over the course of his career. Havlicek's job was to shoot ... and shoot he did.


Bird -- 12 Robertson -- 11 LeBron -- 11 Magic -- 11 Jordan -- 9 Drexler -- 9 Havlicek -- 9 Pippen -- 9 Kidd -- 9 West -- 8 Kobe -- 8 Pierce -- 8

These guys are all terrific rebounders, even Kidd, who comes out near the bottom. You can't exactly follow the numbers -- Kobe would have more if he hadn't played with Shaq, and West would've had more if he didn't play with Chamberlain -- but what impressed me the most was Magic's career average. Bird is clearly the man here, and we all know how well the Big O rebounded from the guard position. (That's what James is doing now because most of his rebounds, it seems, come about when he swoops in from the backcourt.) But even though Robertson averaged double figures in rebounding in each of his first three seasons, he didn't end up with that many more per game (7.5 to 7.2) than Magic.

Perimeter Quarterbacking

Magic -- 12 Robertson -- 12 LeBron -- 11 Kidd -- 10 Jordan -- 10 West -- 9 Kobe -- 8 Pippen -- 8 Drexler -- 7 Pierce -- 7 Bird -- 6 Havlicek -- 5

This is about orchestration, and in that case you have to hand the baton to Magic and Robertson, those masters of control. But James is not too far behind them. Jordan, of course, could play on the ball whenever he wanted to, which was often.

Interior Control

Bird -- 12 LeBron -- 11 Robertson -- 11 Jordan -- 11 Kobe -- 9 Magic -- 8 Havlicek -- 8 Pippen -- 7 Kidd -- 7 West -- 7 Drexler -- 7 Pierce -- 7

This isn't purely about posting up, but that's what comes principally to mind. How well do you control the game with your back to the basket? Are you a triple threat -- i.e., can you attack the basket with different moves, can you turn, face up and score and can you find teammates when double-teamed? LeBron seems most comfortable on the outside, but he's devastating when he goes on the blocks, too.


Jordan -- 12 Pippen -- 12 West -- 11 Kobe -- 11 Kidd -- 10 Robertson -- 10 LeBron -- 10 Havlicek -- 9 Pierce -- 8 Drexler -- 8 Magic -- 7 Bird -- 7

So how do you gauge this? By glancing at the All-Defensive teams? (Jordan was first team nine times, Pippen eight.) By recalling interviews that focused on a certain player's defense? (Magic and Bird played the passing lanes but weren't exactly lockdown guys.) By gazing into the distant past to try to remember how well Robertson and West played it since all-league defensive teams weren't around until midway through their careers? (Still, West made four first-team All-Defensive squads and Robertson never made any. Granted, that could've been because West was much more popular than the Big O.)

The number that surprised me the most here? Kobe has been on the All-Defensive first team eight times. And we know that wasn't all a popularity vote.

LeBron keeps getting better and could be a "12" before his career his over.


Magic -- 12 Jordan -- 10 Bird -- 10 Robertson -- 10 West -- 10 LeBron -- 9 Havlicek -- 9 Kidd -- 8 Kobe -- 8 Pierce -- 8 Drexler -- 7 Pippen -- 4

A really tough one. Do you take points away from Jordan, Robertson and Bryant because they were known (accurately) for being so rough on their teammates? Is Pippen being punished because, with Jordan as a teammate, he never had to be a leader? There are all kinds of leaders -- quiet-lead-by-example needlers like Bird, grouchy perfectionists like Robertson, I'll-show-the-way Type A's like Jordan.

One thing is for sure: Magic stands alone at the top of this category.


Havlicek -- 12 Jordan -- 12 Pippen -- 11 Magic -- 11 Kobe -- 11 Bird -- 10 Pierce -- 8 LeBron -- 7 Drexler -- 7 Kidd -- 5 West -- 5 Robertson -- 5

This can't be based purely on championships. Pippen won the same number as Jordan (six) but failed to get it done when His Airness wasn't there. LeBron has only one title, compared to Havlicek's eight and the Bulls' pair's six, but he still has a decade left to collect others. And though he failed often in the clutch early in his career, James nevertheless dragged a mediocre Cavs team to the Finals in his fourth season. Still, this is his 10th season and he has only one championship. I thought a "7" was fair, and, who knows, in five years he may be a "12."

The anomaly here is Robertson-West. Each won only once. Sure, there were extenuating circumstances, namely the presence of the steamrolling Boston Celtics, who in a few of those years had Havlicek on their roster. But West and the Big O have to be penalized.

Wow Factor

Jordan -- 4 LeBron -- 4 Drexler -- 3 Kobe -- 3 Magic -- 3 Pippen -- 2 Robertson -- 2 West -- 2 Pierce -- 1 Bird -- 1 Havlicek -- 1 Kidd -- 0

Remember that there aren't as many points to be handed out here. But anyone who thinks an opponent doesn't get discouraged after watching LeBron hammer down a dunk is kidding himself. It was the same way years ago when Jordan would twist his way to a score or when Magic led a Showtime break. The fact that Kidd collected his "Wows" in more quiet fashion is a credit to his game.

[Magic offers $1 million to winner if LeBron enters dunk contest]

Point Totals

I trust you'll believe me when I tell you that these are the numbers I came up with on the first draft. I took a long time pondering the point distribution and did not go back and change anything after seeing the results.

I figured Jordan would come out on top, with LeBron, Magic and Robertson in the neighborhood. So I'm delighted, and surprised, that it came out close to that. If you don't agree -- and you probably don't -- then feel free to play around with the numbers. And we'll revisit it in five years, by which time LeBron might be on top and Durant will certainly be in the conversation.

Jordan -- 89 points LeBron -- 84 Magic -- 83 Robertson -- 82 Bird -- 76 Kobe -- 75 West -- 72 Pippen -- 67 Havlicek -- 66 Drexler -- 62 Kidd -- 62 Pierce -- 60

UPDATE: The writer revisits the subject and addressesyour comments.

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