Thursday, May 28, 2015

Debate: Is LeBron the Best Playoff Player Ever?

When Kevin Love went down injured in Game 7 of the first round series against Boston, many thought the Cavaliers season was DOA, with several slotting the Chicago Bulls in to finally reach a final again post-Jordan. But something funny happened on the way to more disappointment for the city of Cleveland, LeBron’s took his game to another level, the supporting cast played their part, Chicago found a way to blow it yet again and then Atlanta’s starless team continued the trend of starless teams ultimately failing in the playoffs. In the process, LeBron continued to build on a legacy that is growing every year.

LeBron is now 102-43 (.703) in the Eastern Conference playoffs and into his fifth NBA Final in a row. He is only the ninth player ever to accomplish this feat, and all the others were part of the dominant Celtics teams of the 60s. On the other hand, LeBron is only 2 and 3 in the Finals and could make it 2 for 6 if they lose to the clearly more talented Warriors. His playoff stats are pretty impressive nonetheless, with 27.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 6.6 apg and 1.7 steals. He is shooting .477 from the field, .319 from behind the arc and .755 from the free throw line. After being considered a choker earlier in his career he has become quite the opposite, a player that can change the outcome of a game, a series and the championship itself. If he does lead Cleveland over Golden State, will he have moved above Jordan, having pulled off an epic upset? It is one of those unanswerably subjective sports debates that will never be settled, but why not continue the debate?
Other contenders obviously include the greatest player in the history of the sport (Michael Jordan, who went 6 for 6 in Finals), one of our most versatile (Magic Johnson, who went 5 for 9), Kobe Bryant (5 of 7) and Tim Duncan (5 of 6). One could go further back and consider some of the greats of the earlier epoch, but most will agree the increase in talent and parity since then undermines their claim to the title. It is hard to argue against Michael Jordan’s record and his individual contribution to each of those six finals. The argument for Bryant and Duncan is made more difficult by the talent that surrounded them. And Johnson, who won one as a center, lost four of nine and was also surrounded by an impressive array of talent. Moving beyond the finals is the impressive way LeBron almost single-handedly got two Cleveland teams to the Finals, while leading an aging Miami Heat to their second crown two years ago. On the other hand, he was lucky to win that year, only the beneficiary of some terrible time management by the Spurs at the end of Game 6, and was absolutely crushed, along with the rest of the Heat, last year. 

In considering the crown of best playoff player ever, how much weight should the Finals have on the title? Should we gauge the talent that surrounded each of the contenders? Should stats or wins have more weight and what about advanced stats? For now, I think Michael Jordan holds the crown and it will be difficult to dethrone him. But LeBron is clearly the player with the most potential to accomplish that daunting and unlikely task. 

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