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Maybe we should let LeBron finish his career before we decide his legacy

Oct 19, 2011, 3:26 PM EDT

Not shown: hair on LeBron's forehead. AP

Magic Johnson made a lot of friends around the Internet when he smacked around LeBron James the other day. Charles Oakley joined in. Cracking on LeBron as not all he could be has become a national past time. Saying he is not clutch because he doesn’t have a ring has somehow become accepted truth for people, the heart of LeBron’s legacy.

Except, maybe we should wait until LeBron finishes playing until we decide what his legacy will be.

I will give you four reasons why.

1) LeBron is 26 years old. He has nearly a decade of basketball ahead of him (well, assuming the lockout ends in our lifetime). He is just entering his prime. While the whole “not five, not six…” thing was arrogant, it would be foolish to assume he will never have a ring or a few rings. And if you don’t think those are redemptive of a reputation, ask Dirk Nowitzki.

2) Magic Johnson was not seen as clutch or a winner for a while. This seems ridiculous on the surface — Magic had an NCAA title and an NBA ring by the time he was 25 — but as Rohan Cruyff reminds us at SBN in 1894 Magic was seen as a guy out for stats and flashy play who didn’t care about winning.

Make no mistake: until the Lakers’ 1985 breakthrough against Boston, Magic’s failures were no less extensively highlighted than LeBron’s. In ’84, the Los Angeles Times published a story entitled, “Earvin, What Happened to Magic?” The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, not to be outdone, referred to Johnson as the “tarnished superstar” and “the goat of the series.” Public opinion has swung as quickly and forcefully against the 26-year-old James, who like Magic in ’84, has a ways to go before his “legacy” or all-time standing can seriously be considered.

I grew up in Los Angeles, and this is spot on. We know now how off that perception of Magic was, but at the time it was accepted truth.

3) At age 26, Michael Jordan had no rings and was considered a failure. Up until his first ring, many people considered Jordan a selfish gunner who would never win, as Tom Haberstroh reminds us at ESPN. Again, that perception was off, but in our society you are not clutch until suddenly you are. It took time for Jordan to win rings and cement his legend as one of the greatest ever to lace up sneakers. If you defined MJ at age 26, you’d get a guy a lot like LeBron.

By the way, if you’re going to throw Kobe Bryant out there, let me ask you this — if LeBron came into the league on a team with Shaquille O’Neal in his prime and veterans like Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Glen Rice, Brian Shaw and many others on it, how many ring would LeBron have? If you just said zero, you’re wrong.

4) LeBron James is more clutch than he gets credit for. I am not going to argue about the last two games of the finals against Dallas in 2011. Or Game 5 against Boston in 2010. LeBron is not perfect in the clutch and has work to do. But that is only half of the story, as Zach Lowe broke down at Sports Illustrated.

But to label James as ”un-clutch” or fearful of big moments based on the second half of the 2011 Finals and Game 5 against Boston in 2010 conveniently ignores the rest of his résumé, including the two series that immediately preceded the last season’s Finals — series in which LeBron destroyed Boston and then Chicago in crunch time. It ignores the 2009 conference finals against Orlando, in which James averaged an insane 39-8-8 line and won Game 2 with a legendary buzzer-beater. It ignores his 25 consecutive points against the Pistons in 2007 and that in 2008 he almost single-handedly defeated the Celtics, the eventual champions, in a seven-game series the Cavaliers had no place winning.

The point is that things are not black and white with LeBron, they are shades of gray. He is not a disaster in the clutch, he has good and bad games. And at age 26 it is far too early to define his legacy. Rings are a magic balm in our society, they changes our perception of players. We don’t know how we’ll perceive LeBron in a decade.

That doesn’t sit well with those who hate LeBron, because it requires patience and nuance. But it is the truth. They key parts of LeBron’s legacy have yet to be written.

  1. blueintown - Oct 19, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    Heeeeeere we go…

  2. cosanostra71 - Oct 19, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    Michael Jordan had only played in the NBA for 5 years by the time he was 26. leBron has been in the league 8 years. You can’t compare. LeBron also won’t have the long career MJ had, his body will break down in his early 30s like all the other high schoolers. Maybe earlier, he shouldered a lot heavier load a lot earlier than say Kobe or KG

    • david8726 - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:35 PM

      First of all, it’s true that LeBron has been in the league for three years longer than Jordan. It’s also true that 2010-11 was the first season LeBron had another legitimate star on his flank. Prior to 2010-11, the best teammate LeBron ever had was probably Mo Williams.

      Jordan, on the other hand, got to play with Pippen very early in his career. That’s a huge advantage.

      Also, Kobe is 33, and he’s still considered to be a top 10 player. So, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll break down in your early 30s if you came out of high school.

    • cordae - Oct 19, 2011 at 5:04 PM

      Actually, you can compare. And this argument would go in neithers favor because Jordans basketball IQ was greatly increased during his time at North Carolina compared to LeBrons IQ that had to be Increased by those extra years he had. People underestimate what atleast one year of college ball can do for a persons game, not to mention he played for one of the all-time greats! DEAN! Anyone who’s seen these two play the first third of their careers know they were playing on pure talent. Hell Jordan didnt develop a SOLID jumper until he was 25. And to adress that whole “body deterioration” thing, you may have a point, but I dont think it’ll happen as fast now that he’s sharing the load. Had he stayed in Cleveland, I can see bone-to-bone knee problems at 29.

  3. BrownsTown - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:04 PM

    Kurt hearts LeBron.

  4. trueballs - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    here come the Kurt Heilin haters…

    I love how the former stars who rag on LeBron played on loaded teams… Cmon Magic…Kareem, Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis, etc… In the subject of talent-hoarding the Lakers and the Celtics were just like the present-day Lakers and Heat, but even more stacked.

    • david8726 - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:36 PM

      So true.

    • yournuts - Oct 19, 2011 at 5:48 PM

      How did the Heat get involved in this? It’s still the Heat and Celtic’s. It used to be the Heat and Knick’s? As far as I am concerned it still is.

    • damienthorne2012 - Oct 22, 2011 at 10:22 AM

      The showtime Lakers were not built via Free Agency and players deciding to take their talents to Roscoes Chicken and Waffles in Hollywood. They were built via the Draft which had 7 rounds and trades. Nice try though.

  5. 40thstreetblack - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    With all due respect to the writer of this article, Michael Jordan was “NEVER” considered a failure. Before he began winning titles he was widely regarded as the best player in the game by his own peers, ask Magic, Larry, or Isiah. Everyone knew it was simply a matter of time before he got his, and once he started winning he never stopped. The jury is still out on LeBron but he does not have that ruthless assassin mentality that both Jordan and Kobe possess. I believe this is a trait you are born with, it can’t be taught or developed.

    • genericcommenter - Oct 20, 2011 at 1:29 PM

      He wasn’t a failure, but a lot of people considered him more of a scorer than the best player. Larry Bird and others criticized him for shooting 40 times a game and favored guys like Magic, where the PERCEPTION was that he did more stuff well as far as getting teammates involved and winning.

      Winning in ’91 changed the perception for a lot of folks, but in reality Jordan was already that good. Yeah, he was putting up 25 shots per game, but he was making over 50% ( this was back when basketball players could actually shoot) and rebounding/passing, in addition to playing great defense.

  6. josh928 - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    @ BrownsTown….Kurt helin has posted stories where he takes shots at Lebron so no ur dumb comment is invalid. That being said….great points made its time someone said somethin about all these people raggin on Lebron for some stupid stuff

    • BrownsTown - Oct 19, 2011 at 4:45 PM

      “You are” ….four extra letters.

  7. blueintown - Oct 19, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    Kurt — While I agree with you in theory, I would say Magic was known as a “clutch..winner” after he started at center as a rookie and was named Finals MVP. That might do the trick.

  8. habibthomas - Oct 19, 2011 at 5:34 PM

    here’s the difference …when MJ finally made it to the Finals…he won and never lost a series. Lebron has already lost two. at some point Jordan has to be exempt from the Lebron comparisons …

    • david8726 - Oct 19, 2011 at 5:42 PM

      To be honest with you, I don’t even really count LeBron’s first finals loss to San Antonio. That wasn’t his fault. San Antonio was such an overwhelming favorite that series. Look at that cavaliers roster that LeBron carried on his back – It’s laughably awful. Boobie Gibson was the second best scorer on that team. That’s saying a lot.

      But I agree with you that LeBron will never be Jordan. He has a shot at reaching the level that Magic, Bird, and Kobe have reached. But he won’t get to Jordan’s level.

  9. fouldwimmerlaik - Oct 19, 2011 at 5:59 PM

    It is unfortunately true that LeBron will most likely win some championships. It may be 4 or 5 by the time he is through. Sadly, the Miami Heat are pretty loaded and it is really no fun to watch. And when he does so that, he will undoubtedly make some people who now dislike him think more favorably of him. Time will temper the current hatred of him and championships will do so even more.

    But, LeBron will always be a douche pie.

    • david8726 - Oct 19, 2011 at 6:48 PM

      Why do you think the Heat aren’t fun to watch? Do you think the old school Lakers and Celtics teams which were even more loaded than this one weren’t fun to watch?

      • fouldwimmerlaik - Oct 20, 2011 at 9:49 AM

        Those teams/players weren’t arrogant fuch-stains like the LeBron and the Heat

  10. josh928 - Oct 19, 2011 at 6:34 PM

    That’s cute :)

  11. danielcp0303 - Oct 19, 2011 at 6:46 PM

    “That doesn’t sit well with those who hate LeBron, because it requires patience and nuance.”

    And I’m sure the last 8 years doesn’t sit well with people who love Lebron, because it requires admitting that you’re wrong, and being ok with someone who has rarely been dominant during big moments. I don’t even think people are unrealistic when it comes to the future of Lebron. It’s that people like Kurt Helin who don’t put enough weight on how much failure he’s had, just because he might win a ring someday. We all know the talent is there, most of us don’t believe he actually knows how to use it to win the big one.

    • david8726 - Oct 19, 2011 at 6:49 PM

      People like you said the same thing about Dirk before he won.

      • danielcp0303 - Oct 20, 2011 at 7:32 PM

        Not true at all. I always told people Dirk could do what he did, he just needed a better team. I don’t think anyone would sit here and say Dirk and Lebron are comparable in terms of what they could’ve achieved during their careers and in the future. I think 1 or 2 championships for Dirk fully explains his legacy as a player. Lebron has the ability to be put in a special group when his career is over, but he has squandered every opportunity. We expect Lebron to win a ring, but we won’t be suprised if he doesn’t. Dirk was always willing to take the big shots by the way, and it took a lot of trial and error in the playoffs to be the perfect closer for his team. Give him Lebrons athletic ability and I bet he’d do a lot more with it.

  12. Chris Fiorentino - Oct 19, 2011 at 9:28 PM

    “Maybe we should let LeBron finish his career before we decide his legacy”

    Yes, Kurt. Maybe WE should. This includes LeBron fanboys like yourself.

  13. louxi - Oct 19, 2011 at 10:20 PM

    but just 8 points in the FINALS? ok, fine. He needs to mature. If its just about the age, then i can’t argue that but being in the NBA is to level up & step up, all the time.
    i wish LBJ will win a lot of championships i really do. That is why i too doesnt like comparing him to kobe or Mj, because he is not there yet & we keep raising this comparisons that its a cycle. unless he gets there soon…then the argument is somehow allowed.
    Mj was a failure before he won championships..the thing is LBJ should just be humble,admit he has weaknesses, just show that he feels sorry, weak at some point, because im scared that all he does, is to uphold his image, commercial image. he needs to let it go once on court and play like a beast!

    Nice read. Im not a fan of any time for a long time now, but i want the NBA to have real superstars, who really loves the game & let the people crown im names & not himself.

  14. louxi - Oct 19, 2011 at 10:23 PM

    but just 8 points in the FINALS? ok, fine. He needs to mature. If its just about the age, then i can’t argue that but being in the NBA is to level up & step up, all the time.
    i wish LBJ will win a lot of championships i really do. That is why i too doesnt like comparing him to kobe or Mj, because he is not there yet & we keep raising this comparisons that its a cycle. unless he gets there soon…then the argument is somehow allowed.
    Mj was a failure before he won championships..the thing is LBJ should just be humble,admit he has weaknesses, just show that he feels sorry, weak at some point, because im scared that all he does, is to uphold his image, commercial image. he needs to let it go once on court and play like a beast!

    Nice read. Im not a fan of any team for a long time now, but i want the NBA to have real superstars, who really loves the game & let the people crown im names & not himself.

  15. cosmicatomic - Oct 20, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    lol……EVERYBODY, LOOK! What’s that over the horizon! It’s Kurt Helin on a white horse! And he has an expensive linen which he is surely going to use to wash LeBron’s balls.

    Yep.

    MJ didn’t have as much help by age 26 as LeBron has had especially when you include the season with Wade/Bosh.

    MJ never lost a series when the Bulls were the higher seed and had home court advantage.

    MJ is 6-0 in the NBA Finals. LeBron is 0-2.

    LeBron had the #1 seeded team in the East twice in Cleveland and they failed to reach the NBA Finals.

    LeBron just averaged what…..18 ppg in the Finals? He was the 2nd best player on his team, if that. He was the 3rd best player on the court. You could NEVER say that about MJ in any playoff series in his career, let alone the NBA Finals.

    Reputations change (Kobe was a ballhog, Dirk wasn’t clutch, etc) but LeBron has already irreparably damaged his all-time stock at least in regards to being compared to MJ. Hell, I don’t even think you’ll ever be able to compare LeBron to Kobe. In fact, I’d say that Kobe is closer to MJ than LeBron is to Kobe.

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