Josh Newman, SNYNets.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Since Michael Jordan retired from the NBA for good following the 2002-03 season, the basketball community at large has been searching for the guy who will fill the shoes of the man widely regarded as the greatest player ever.
To some, Kobe Bryant and his five NBA championships held the crown as the heir apparent, but as the Los Angeles Lakers guard continues forward into the twilight of his career, the notion that LeBron James is really the closest thing to Jordan has grown stronger, especially with James picking up his first NBA title with the Miami Heat last June.
Whether or not James is on Jordan’s level, there is little debate these days that James is the best there is right now. Already a three-time MVP, many of James’ numbers are up this season. He is averaging career-highs of 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists, while shooting a career-best 39.4 percent from 3-point range.
That stat might be the most telling of all. Early in his career, perimeter shooting was a knock on James. He is a 33.4 percent shooter for his career from deep and has never finished a season at better than 36.2 percent, which he accomplished during last season’s lockout-shortened, 66-game campaign.
With James and the Heat set to visit Barclays Center for the first time on Wednesday evening, the topic of James and how much better he has gotten this season was approached on Tuesday afternoon at practice. While many still hesitate to put James and Jordan in the same sentence, Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo did not.
“He is significantly better, which is hard to imagine,” Carlesimo said. “It reminds me of Michael as he progressed in his career. People forget, Michael was never a bad shooter, but he was probably a better shooter than LeBron where they both started at. The thing that gets lost in the shuffle sometimes is that people never appreciated how significantly Michael improved in different stages of his career. LeBron is doing that, maybe even at an earlier rate. It’s scary what LeBron has done.”
Carlesimo, a one-time assistant coach under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, was quick to tell the story of the 2007 NBA Finals when the Spurs took on the James-led Cavaliers.
In a four-game sweep by the Spurs for their fourth title since 1999, James averaged 22 points, seven rebounds and 6.8 assists. However, he shot just 35.6 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-point range. During the 2006-07 regular season, James averaged 27.3 points per game on 47.6 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from 3-point range.
It’s worth noting that before the sweep, James had shredded the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, highlighted by Game 5, where he scored his team’s final 25 points, including all 18 across two overtimes in an epic 109-107 victory at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Two nights later, then-rookie guard Daniel Gibson dropped a game-high 31 points and the Cavs blew out the Pistons at home to advance to their first NBA Finals.
“When we played them in the Finals with San Antonio, you knew you could never really guard him because he was so big and strong and quick,” Carlesimo said. We said, ‘let him shoot,’ because that’s the least of the evils. He was doing us a favor if he does that. Now, it’s to the point where, he’s what, 39 (percent) from 3? So , you put that on top of all the other things, that’s why he’s unguardable.”
In what has boiled down to a four-horse race for this season’s MVP between James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, James arguably has the best resume to this point, while leading a Heat team that is a prohibitive favorite to advance out of the Eastern Conference for a third straight season.
James has stayed very healthy throughout his career, never missing more than seven games during a full 82-game season. He has achieved more than most players could ever hope to in the NBA, having won a scoring title, three MVP awards and an NBA title. He was Rookie of the Year in 2004, he is a nine-time All-Star including this year’s nod, a six-time All-NBA first team selection and a four-time NBA All-Defensive first team selection.
The scary part is having accomplished all of that before his 29th birthday, James may not be done getting better.
“It’s made it very, very difficult and really, it’s really to his credit,” Carlesimo said. “People know and people are talking about it, when he won the championship and what a significant step that was and how it changed things. He’s improved incrementally almost every year. When you start where he started and you realize he’s still getting better, that’s the thing that I think was true of Kobe for an awful long time and it’s true of LeBron right now.”
Josh Newman is SNYNets.com’s Field Reporter. Follow him on Twitter for up to the minute news and banter on all things related to the Brooklyn Nets and the NBA