LeBron James and The Perfect Storm of Criticism

COUNT THA RINGZZZZ. There, glad we got that out of the way.

The “count the rings” argument is one of the most divisive in all of sports. Whether we like it or not, championship rings are an important measuring stick of individual greatness for superstar players. There exists a subset of the NBA community that will use it as an end-all/be-all tiebreaker in every “is Player X better than Player Y?” or “did Player A have a better career than Player B?” argument. Some even dismiss the accomplishments of certain players by saying, “Yeah, but he never won a ring.”

And that’s fine. It’s not the way I’d break a tie between two players, or how I’d judge a player’s career, but I can’t exactly begrudge anyone for doing so. After all, you play to win the game. Basketball’s a team sport, and every team’s goal is to win the NBA Championship, or at least in should be. But I’m not concerned with whether or not this is a valid way to differentiate between players yet. Rather I’m concerned with what the threshold for players to be subjected to that argument and rationale is.

Why are Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and LeBron James constantly derided for not having rings while Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Reggie Miller and Dominique Wilkins mostly escape that same criticism? If Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett were the subjects of constant derision from fans and media alike prior to winning their titles, why aren’t people up in arms that Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard haven’t won a ring yet?

The way I see it, there are three criteria that are used as a threshold for who gets subjected to the, “Yeah, but he never/hasn’t won a ring,” line of criticism. If a player hits one of them, they’ll likely be subject to a small amount of scrutiny. If they hit two, the criticism will be much louder. But a guy who hits on all three? That’s when the criticism hits a fever pitch, and near as I can tell, only one guy really qualifies: LeBron James.

1. The player was a number one draft pick that came with the promise of championships

These are your guys who were supposed to change the fortunes of their teams forever. Patrick Ewing entered the league as “the next Bill Russell.” He was expected to be truly dominant on both ends of the floor. Before the 1985 lottery, Pat O’Brien quoted an unnamed NBA Scouting Director as having said, “”We’ve had the Mikan era, the Russell era, the Kareem era … now we’ll have the Ewing era.” Clearly, there were high expectations. Despite his myriad accomplishments, he never wound up delivering on that promise; and that’s what’s most disappointing about his career, even if he wasn’t the one that made it.

Dwight Howard was the first pick in his draft, but he didn’t come with the championship seal. There were plenty of people that thought Emeka Okafor was the best player in that draft, and it was a little bit of a surprise that Howard became this good. This is also the only box Howard checks, so he mostly gets a free pass right now.

Allen Iverson was also a number one overall selection, but there was no “guaranteed championship” hype surrounding him at the time. He was always seen as a sort of scrappy underdog because of his diminutive stature and cocky, almost threatening demeanor on the court. AI also gets a pass from NBA fans because he was so damn fun to watch. He threw his body around and got knocked on his back all the time, but he always got up and went right back to attacking everybody.

2. The player has an MVP Award and/or is in the conversation for best player in the league

Ewing was never in the “best player in the league” discussion because throughout his career there were usually one or two centers that were better than him, whether it was Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson or Hakeem and Shaquille O’Neal

Steve Nash won two MVPs, but with all due respect, those were more due to narrative and circumstance than his being the best player in the NBA at the time. You can make convincing arguments that he shouldn’t have won either of those two trophies, and that they should have gone to Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. Nash also gets somewhat of a free pass because, like Iverson, his game has a certain flair. The hair, the passing, the floaters and the off-balance-ness of his entire game is pretty to watch, so we excuse a little bit the fact that he hasn’t won a ring.

Dirk and KG qualified for this category before they won their titles, as they were both yearly MVP candidates and “in the conversation” as well. This is largely why guys like Amar’e and Carmelo don’t really get the criticism as much. They’re All-Star caliber players, but they don’t have MVP’s and no one, even the most biased Knicks fan, thinks either one is the league’s best player.

This is a category where hindsight definitely comes into play, and it may not always be 20/20. People love to look back on who won awards and determine whether or not they may have “deserved” them, and those opinions are almost always colored by what came after. Dirk and Garnett’s MVP’s awards aren’t loudly challenged anymore, but there was a time when they were (“Dirk’s too soft!” or “If Garnett were really an MVP, he’d take Minnesota to the playoffs! Now Tim Duncan, THAT’s an MVP!”). If Nash had gone on to win a title in Phoenix, it may have validated those MVP trophies in the minds of the public, and maybe there wouldn’t be as much grumbling that he shouldn’t have gotten them. We’ll never know.

Hindsight certainly enters the picture when talking about Barkley and Malone, who each took home MVPs in the 1990’s; Barkley got his in 1993 and Malone won in 1997 and 1999. Barkley was in the top six in MVP voting every year from 1985-1991 and Malone had 14 consecutive top eight finishes from 1987-2001.

Criticism of Barkley has somewhat dissipated since he’s come into his own in his second career on TNT, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Malone is still the subject of much more criticism than his Utah Jazz counterpart John Stockton, mostly because he was an MVP-caliber player that wound up second on the all-time scoring list, but also because he checks off the next box as well.

3. The player has had a string of personal failures in the playoffs

Ewing and Malone qualify here. Obviously.

Patrick could never get past Michael Jordan, and in the two year window in which Jordan’s Bulls didn’t win, Ewing’s Knicks fell to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets in the Finals and then Ewing himself missed a finger roll which would have sent Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to overtime but instead sent the Pacers to the next round. It didn’t help that in the last lockout-shortened season, Ewing’s team went on a run to the Finals again after Patrick broke his wrist.

All you really need to know about Karl Malone’s playoff failures is that a Google search for “Karl Malone playoff chokes” yields 360,000 results. Malone’s Jazz lost in the Finals to Michael Jordan’s Bulls twice, each time with Malone struggling down the stretch in pivotal games.

This brings us back, finally, to LeBron. In the perfect storm of criticism, LeBron nails all three criteria. As the number one pick in the 2003 draft, LeBron may well have been the most hyped prospect in NBA history. He was hailed as an evolutionary player. Magic crossed with Michael, in Karl Malone’s body. The Chosen One. King James. Anything short of shattering records on his way to a decade-long dynasty honestly may have been viewed as a bit of a disappointment. Expectations really could not have been higher.

And then he met them. LeBron is a dream basketball player. There isn’t anything he can’t do on the court, and every coach, player, executive and writer around the league knows it. He can score as easily as anyone else in the game, has otherworldly court vision, rebounds extremely well for his position, can play on the perimeter or, as we’ve seen this season, on the block and is as good of a wing defender as there is in the league. He’s never finished lower than ninth (in his rookie year) in MVP voting, has been in the top five for each of the last five years and won it twice in a row in 2009 and 2010. It’s (almost) undisputed that he’s the best player in the league.

Of course, he’s also got some massively high profile playoff failures. Everyone remembers the 2010 Eastern Conference semis against the Boston Celtics. It looked like both LeBron and the Cavaliers sleep-walked through the last two games of the series, and the Celtics shocked nearly everyone in NBA circles by sending LeBron home early in the lead-up to his Decision and free agency. It was stunning to watch the best player in basketball be so passive and reactive instead of aggressive and impactful.

Just when we thought LeBron couldn’t possibly fail on a bigger stage, just when we thought he would finally get that elusive championship, last year’s Finals happened. The Heat folded against the Dallas Mavericks in epic fashion, and LeBron was again at the center of it all. Gone was the virtuoso who dazzled and amazed us in a total destruction of the league’s best defense in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Chicago Bulls and back was the seemingly scared, passive and out-of-it non-star we had seen a year earlier. The Heat blew it, and LeBron’s disappearance was a huge reason why.

LeBron ending his career ringless would surely be a personal disappointment for him as a competitor, and in the eyes of many he would be seen as a failure. But would it really make him any less of an incredible and transcendent basketball player? LeBron does things on the court that even most NBA players could never dream of doing, and he does them with relative ease. He was the youngest NBA player ever to reach every thousand-point milestone from 1,000 to 17,000, and he’ll likely be the youngest to hit the next few thousand marks too.

It’s entirely feasible that he can end his career with over 35,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 10,000 assists, a feat no other player has ever accomplished. He’s currently at just less than 18,000 career points and he’ll be within striking distance of both 5,000 rebounds and assists by the end of this season, which would put him just about halfway there. He’s likely got at least four or five years of “best player in the league” level play left in him, a few more high-level All-Star years and then even a few more after that if he wants. He’s in good enough shape to play until whenever he feels like stopping.

His numbers are already so incredible that he could probably retire tomorrow and still make the Hall of Fame – his player similarity scores on Basketball-Reference are a who’s who of Hall of Fame and future Hall of Fame players – and he’s really just entering his athletic prime at 27 years old. But those are all just numbers, and LeBron can’t really be captured in just numbers. At his best, he’s the single most dominant player of my lifetime. Maybe he’s not consistently better than an in-his-prime Michael Jordan on a night-to-night basis; but on those nights when he really has it going, when he’s playing to his ceiling, when he’s appointment television for anyone who really follows the NBA, he is. And that’s what should matter when we look back on him as a player.

We should remember the times that were good. We should remember the 48-Special and his first playoff game-winner against the Wizards. We should remember the full-court alley-oop from Dwyane Wade and the buzzer beater against Orlando in the playoffs. We should remember that at some point, we were all Witnesses. We shouldn’t forget the breakdown against Boston or dismiss the meltdown in Miami, but we shouldn’t let them overshadow everything else.

Jared Dubin

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He is the co-editor in chief of Hardwood Paroxysm and the HPBasketball Network.