LeBron James used to be compared to Wilt Chamberlain for all the wrong reasons, a historic pairing of utterly dominant physical specimens who were too frequently denied the ultimate team success.
We’ll have to see how that eventually plays out. Though everyone figures that LeBron has officially broken the ice in his career and will be completely unstoppable hereafter, the simple truth is that he needs another NBA title just to match Wilt’s total of two. Miami hasn’t even gotten Indiana out of the way in the Eastern Conference finals yet.
Think of the magnitude of this measurement, though, of what it means to be stacked up against a 7-foot-1, 275-pound colossus whose talents so overmatched the rest of the league that he once scored 100 points in a game and averaged 50.4 points in a season. Wilt was a wonder to behold, controlling the post so effortlessly that he led the NBA in scoring seven times despite being one of history’s most abysmal free-throw shooters.
Yet twice in recent months LeBron, with no seasonal average higher than 31.3 points per game, has been placed in the same orbit as Wilt by people who ought to know.
“What I think about him (LeBron) is what I used to think about Wilt,” Bill Russell told USA Today earlier this month, “and like I told Wilt one time, ‘I think I’m the only guy on the planet who really knows how good you are because I’ve seen you up close.’ ”
Denver Nuggets coach George Karl made a similar reference in April when talking about Chamberlain’s ability to adjust his game according to his whims. In the 1967-68 season, for instance, Wilt, the perennial rebounding king, led the league in assists just to prove that he could.
“Isn’t LeBron Wilt-like?” Karl asked in a Denver Post interview. “If he said, ‘OK, I’m going to win the rebound title, you know? He’s Wilt-like. People said he couldn’t do this or that. LeBron, if he turned the heat up in any statistical evaluation, he might win it.”
The greatest players can morph themselves into different forms like that, and LeBron is big enough and strong enough to define greatness in any way that he likes. It’s well known that he can defend any of the five positions. Earlier in his career, he even excelled at what amounted to 1-on-5 offense, taking the seriously undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers all the way to the 2007 NBA finals.
Back, though, to Wilt, and right on time.
Going into tonight’s Game 5 against the Pacers, LeBron needed five points to pass Chamberlain for No. 14 on the league’s all-time playoff scoring list with 3,608.
Consider that Wilt was still playing postseason games at the age of 36, and that he played 160 in all. LeBron is 28 and has played in 128.
That’s just the first of several amazing names King James is prepared to pass in the next month. Going into tonight’s game, LeBron was just 21 points short of passing Elgin Baylor on the all-time playoff scoring list and 40 short of Scottie Pippen. Next up on the ladder after those all-timers is Magic Johnson at No. 11.
The youngest that any of those superstars were at the time of their final postseason game was 35. LeBron is still seven years shy of that, and with his amazing ability to avoid injury, he could go even longer.
Whenever the end comes, there is little question that the LeBron vs. Michael Jordan debate will be settled. I’m still not convinced that James will ever completely clear that bar, but the LeBron vs. Wilt comparison remains.
It’s not a matter of who was better, but who else, in their time, could match their overwhelming force. We’re not just talking All-NBA, but All-PSI (pounds per square inch).