MIAMI – As LeBron James enters his 10th NBA season, title in hand, the pressure is off – for the most part. The Miami Heat forward is no longer a choker, a fraud, a slacker. Now, he’s The Man.
That frees him up to cement his legacy and chase legends such as Michael Jordan (six titles), Magic Johnson (five titles) and, yes, even Kobe Bryant (five titles).
His battle isn’t with himself, it’s with all-time greatness. He plans to run the race at full speed.
“I’m not satisfied with my career, what I’ve done so far,” James said Friday at the Heat’s media day. “I’ve accomplished a lot of things and a lot of goals. But I’m not satisfied with that.”
To hear Heat coach Erik Spoelstra talk, James will never be satisfied.
It’s a large part of what makes him great.
“You saw the summer, right?” Spoelstra asked about James’ performance at the London Olympics. “That’s who he is. He is an ultimate competitor, and the ultimate competitors, the great ones, the historic ones, get greedy and they want more.”
James, perhaps more than any other current player, studies the NBA’s past. He knows what he has to do — win multiple championships — to be considered among the best, if not The Best. He knows what would elevate him above Jordan, Magic, Kobe, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, and maybe a couple of others. You know the list.
James claims that’s not on his mind right now.
“I don’t think about what the other greats have done,” he said. “I know the history of the game, I know what’s been accomplished in this league throughout the years. But I’m my own man and I have to make my own mark.”
Those who know James understand there’s never been any shame in his game.
And it’s that way every minute of his existence.
Ask the league’s most versatile player whether his exploits of this year – NBA title, NBA MVP, NBA Finals MVP, and Olympic gold medalist – validate him as the best player on the planet, he’ll look you dead in the eye and relate his reality.
“I’ve thought that for a long time, (that) I’m the best player,” he said. “That’s the way I approach the game, though.”
We all remember when there were major doubts about James’ game. Heck, it was just a year ago. People wondered whether he had what it takes to lead a team to a title, whether he’s clutch. His overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by San Antonio in the 2007 NBA Finals. And the next few years brought even more disappointment and heartache.
But those doubts raged to a new level after his relatively embarrassing performance against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. Those doubts are long gone now.
“What it’s done for now is it’s taken a little pressure off him,” teammate Dwyane Wade said of the title. “But not too much. He’s expected to do amazing things. I’m glad I don’t have the pressure he does.”
James has never run away from the pressure. Haters, which includes some of the game’s all-time best (Jordan and Bird, in particular) basically contended James’ chickened out by joining Wade and Chris Bosh and forming the Heat’s Big Three in the summer of 2010. They considered it taking the easy way out.
James fought through the very public criticism and now he’s a champion, and he’s looking for more rings. But he says that’s more about the team’s legacy, the legacy of the Big Three and Miami Heat franchise more than his own selfish interest. Still, he’s well aware he has a chance to be considered among the all-time greats.
“I’m on the right path as far as my career,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of ups, I’ve had some downs, but this game has given me a lot and I owe it back, I owe everything to this game. So we’ll see. I think only time can tell.
“You can’t predict the future. You just have to kind of live every day like it’s your last and I’m prepared for that.”
Considering James is just 27 years old, he’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to chase the greats. Realistically, he could play at his current level for another six or seven years. After that he could still play a few more years at an All-Star level.
If he does that, and wins a few more titles, he’d have to be considered among the all-time best. And he might even rise to earn the title of The Best.
But the is a discussion for the distant future.
“As far as legacy though, I don’t think about that at this point,” he said. “I’ve still got a lot of basketball to play.”