As everyone with an internet connection already knows, LeBron James opted out of his contract with Cleveland and accepted a four year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. I believe that this move was a mistake. Of course I mean this in the only way a sports fan who has never met the Jameses can mean this, in the debate about his legacy. I realize that he might have had completely different reasons for the deal, and they’re probably really good reasons. But in terms of what this does to his standing as an all time great, it only hurts him.
There are really two ways of talking about the greatest of all time. One can be thought of as pure basketball skill. If you take LeBron in his prime and put him one on one with any other player in their prime, who wins? The correct answer is LeBron. In that sense there’s very little doubt that he is the greatest. The other way of looking at it is more context dependent. You have to compare great players to their league at the time and decide which player was the most dominant in their time. This is where things like number of championships and strength of competition come into play and the correct answer is not so clear.
The problem with the first way of defining greatness is that it is the same as saying someone is the greatest player right now. The whole league is continually getting better. The eighth or ninth player on any team right now is probably as skilled at basketball as Dr. J in his prime. What good is a greatest of all time debate if the answer has no possibility of lasting. LeBron is the greatest right now, but in a decade, I’m sure there will be a new greatest by this measure.
By going to L.A., I think LeBron has lost any chance of being the greatest in the second sense. His detractors already have his time in Miami to use against him. This is sort of the same. L.A. doesn’t have the kind of superteam that Miami had yet, but that’s clearly the goal. The fact that LeBron now has a pattern of going to new teams where he doesn’t have to be the face of the franchise makes it hard to put him in the same category as Jordan or Magic or Russell. To me, it keeps him firmly in the category of Shaq or Malone. Great players, to be sure, but they lack a certain something in this debate.