Heat

Re-Evaluating LeBron James' NBA Potential

| by The Sports Columnist

Hypothetical: LeBron James plays the next 11 years for the Miami Heat alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, winning four championships. Each team features a balanced scoring attack, and the big shots are split pretty evenly between James and Wade, with Bosh throwing in a few and even Mike Miller draining some huge Derek Fisher-esque 3-pointers.

James retires with the four rings, four MVP trophies and hundreds of millions in cash.

How does his legacy stack up?

Since James' ridiculous one-hour TV special a week ago, which, by the way, got spectacular ratings -- yeah, ESPN did all right -- there has been a huge backlash against James. Some of it, criticizing him for the way he made his decision, he deserved. And a lot of it, bashing him for his free-agency choice, was, of course, just silly. It's his choice; he has no obligation to stay in Cleveland.

What's also been said, however, and deserves more thinking about is this -- that James severely tarnished his potential legacy by signing with the Miami Heat and Wade, arguably the third best player in the Association, and 20-10 guy Bosh. In essence, that he called for "HELP!!" instead of digging down to try to lead his own team to a championship.

Some say that any title James wins in Miami won't mean as much, won't garner him as much respect in the history books as if he had carried the Cavaliers to a championship. Others say that's garbage, pointing to Magic Johnson winning four rings playing with Kareem and Bird gaining three with a loaded Celtics team.

Here's where I stand: James set expectations so high, anything he does in Miami likely won't exceed them. Sure, if the above hypothetical works out, he'll likely be mentioned in the same breath as Bird and Magic. But it was just this past season that everyone was comparing James -- not his style of play, mind you -- and his potential to carry a franchise to Michael Jordan.

In joining up with Wade, a player who will likely possess the ball just as much as The King and take as many last-minute shots, James distanced himself from a chance at ever reaching M.J. status. When asked this week who the best player in the league is, Jordan's response was quick and short: "Kobe." James is not his type of dude -- that's clear.

And not the similar player, either.

One argument that I just had to laugh at involved comparing James' and Jordan's teammates. It was mentioned, in contrasting Jordan's Bulls to Wade and company, that Scottie Pippen was a top-five player in the league when playing with Jordan. Arguable, but maybe true. Still, how often did Pippen have the ball in his hands in the final seconds of a close game?

Very rarely. It was almost always Jordan's rock. Pippen was a great player, but he was no Wade when it comes to being clutch and making big plays. That might have had as much to do with playing alongside Jordan as anything else, but it's the truth.

Bryant, of course, relied heavily on Shaquille O'Neal for his first three titles. But now he's furnishing his legacy by leading the Lakers, and taking almost all the big shots, to back-to-back titles -- and, I think, a third next season.

James, if he wins three or more titles, will go down as a great champion. There's no doubt about that. And who knows, really, how things will work with the Heat? Maybe Wade will play off the ball most of the time. Maybe he'll defer to James and be a Pippen-like spot-up shooter.

But until the Heat become "LeBron's team," it will be difficult for him to crack the pantheon of the top five players of all time. Every headline that reads "Wade and James lead Heat to NBA title" hurts, just a tad, James' legacy. Just a tad.

I love the fact that this trio made selfless moves to gang up and give themselves the best chance to win championships. It's rare that you see something like this, especially in the NBA. And I believe their heads are all in the right place and they all have the same priorities -- winning, winning, winning.

So who really cares if James doesn't go down as The Greatest of All Time or The Best Since Michael? It should be a joy to watch how this duo of superstars -- plus an All-Star -- works together, and we'll see how many titles they can ring up.

And about that legacy? Well, we've always said there will never be another Jordan.

More and more, that's looking like the truth. In fact, Bryant might be as close to the next M.J. as we'll ever see.