Season 3 of HBO’s popular show “The Game of Thrones (GOT)” came to a close a few weeks ago and it made me think of the NBA’s ongoing struggle sort out player supremacy. After the Miami Heat won their second title in a row (by the skin of their teeth), the talk nationally shifted to the greatness and legacy of the current throne holder, LeBron James. Most of the commentary was complementary of James, but if Ray Allen hadn’t hit a miracle shot in game 6, James’ public perception would have been damaged, and his legacy might have been permanently ruined.
It’s not enough to merely be great, you must win a title(s) and also be the consensus best player on the planet. That’s the throne; the real title; the real mountaintop. In the NBA, we, (fans, media, pundits, casual observers) for the most part, decide who has this throne. As time has passed, we have become increasingly skeptical about who we give this title too, and why. The disapproval of James has been (especially over the past few seasons) unfair; commentators and fans have been shameless in their unacquainted critique of James and how he stacks up in the pantheon of the NBA.
I know, I know, he brought it on himself, right? He shouldn’t have done “The Decision”… he shouldn’t have said “not four, not five, not six, not seven (titles)…;” he shouldn’t have taken fate into his own hands and left the city of Cleveland without a savior. Give me a break! He’s the best in the world, and he didn’t break any laws or do anything morally reprehensible. He did what CEOs do; what lawyers do; what Doc Rivers did: Looked out for his best interests. The decision apparently was the right one.
He’s been in the NBA finals three years in a row, has two titles, and rules as the best player in the world. However, if one shot doesn’t fall the right way, his team’s 27-game winning streak, and best record in the league (66-16) all of a sudden means nothing. Ascension to that NBA throne doesn’t involve coordinating an army and “fighting it out” like on GOT but the psychology is the same: Cutthroat and short-sided.
In GOT, the fight for the throne takes place between several people (at various times) who all think they have some claim to the “Seven Kingdoms.”
Although exceptional, great players like Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone and Allen Iverson have never actually laid claim to this fictional throne. Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double for an entire season, yet never stood on the mountaintop. Isaiah Thomas and his Pistons won back-to-back titles; still he never really ascended to the top. Steve Nash won back-to-back regular season Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards and never sniffed the crown. Only a select few have ever been king; it’s a club more exclusive than Augusta National.
I believe that before James, only 11 other men can say they ever held this elusive designation. George Mikan was the first to lay claim to the title, Bill Russell followed closely after. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West (still “the logo”) and Dr. J (ABA counts too) had it briefly. During the 80s Magic Johnson and Larry Bird took turns at the helm before ultimately turning power over to Michael Jordan, who subsequently had the greatest reign in the NBA’s history. Jordan tried to conquer Baseball’s realm for a short period, and while he was away, Hakeem Olajuwon took over for two years before handing it back to Jordan for three more seasons.
After Jordan’s second retirement, Shaquille O’Neal became the NBA’s dominant force before he allowed Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant to perform their millennium rendition of Magic and Bird. With Bryant and Duncan in the twilight of their careers, the self-proclaimed “King James,” has finally accumulated accolades befitting the title. He’s a four-time regular season MVP, and a two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP. The crown is his, and at the tender age of 28, it seems as if he won’t be handing it over anytime soon. In fact, James is now pursuing Michael Jordan for title of “best of all time.”
In GOT, people want the current throne, but really want to be known as the Greatest King of All-time; the one written about in all of the history books like Aegon V Targaryen, or maybe Robert Baratheon (the greatest king in GOT is a highly selective and polarizing topic).
Years later it’s easy to believe MJ never missed any shots, lost games he shouldn’t have, or was selfish in any way. The game seems to be rigged against James. He’s chasing ghosts with no Proton pack. My point is this: James is in rare air and we need to stop nit-picking and just enjoy the ride. That doesn’t mean root for him, it just means we (as appreciative fans) should stop lying to ourselves and just do as they do on GOT – bend a knee to our one true king… LeBron James.