HOUSTON -- LeBron James is in the midst of a titanic run where he's causing people to lose their breath and for some, their minds as well.
He's scoring points at a rapid and efficient rate, bulldozing through defenses, hitting shots from three area codes away, rebounding and finding the open man and generally crushing the competition. This demolition shows no sign of slippage or slowing down anytime soon. It's so mesmerizing that it's causing a severe case of historical-itis where folks feel the need to apply some context.
Charles Barkley said LeBron is on the level of Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan said he'd choose Kobe Bryant over LeBron because "five beats one," meaning championships.
Is it possible in a microwaved society, where the urge to make snap judgments runs deep, to take a step back and allow a phenomenon to run its course before reaching a conclusion? Or course not. That would be asking too much. We'd rather toss around blanket statements and watch them catch fire and start a discussion, however faulty and incomplete it might be. And so we get dual reactions to what Lebron is doing and not doing. We get one Hall of Famer saying he's too good, another saying he's not good enough.
One question to anyone wanting to dive in either conversation: When did LeBron's career end? Oh, you mean it's still ongoing? You mean he can keep a good thing going for another seven, eight years? Or suffer a mishap -- not that anyone's wishing that on him -- and see the good times end prematurely?
For comparison's sake, it's probably wise to remember when Tiger Woods was ripping through tournaments, collecting trophies and pushing people to declare -- before he turned 30 -- that he was already greater than Jack Nicklaus. Wasn't the process of catching Jack's career record for majors a mere formality? Has any of that changed at all since Woods ran into a fire hydrant?
Why not enjoy what LeBron is doing and watch it play out first before assigning him a historical marker, one way or another?
Here at All-Star Weekend, Jordan's take caused a mini-stir. That's mainly because Jordan, The Greatest Athlete Ever, said it. Remember, he won six championships so he must know talent when he sees it, right? Also remember, he runs the Bobcats and traded Tyson Chandler for a bag of chips and drafted Kwame Brown, Adam Morrison and Bismack Biyombo, so he must know talent when he sees it, right?
LeBron, ever so politely, said he didn't give a damn what Jordan thinks.
"He took Kobe over me because last time he checked, five was better than one," LeBron said. "Rings don't always define someone's career. If that were the case I would take Russell over Jordan. But I wouldn't. Russell has 11 rings and Jordan six. If that were the case I would take Robert Horry over Kobe. Patrick Ewing is one of the greatest of all time. Reggie Miller is one of the greatest of all time. They didn't win any. Sometimes it's the situation that you're in. It's all about timing. I don't try to play the game for others to define me."
Translated: Check back in a few years, Mike. I'm not done.
How would Jordan feel if, when he was 28, someone he respected said Magic Johnson was better, Isiah Thomas was better, Bob Cousy was better? Because when Jordan was LeBron's age, he had the same number of championships: one. Not until Scottie Pippen became an All-Star did Jordan collect rings. At least LeBron took Cleveland to the NBA Finals before help arrived (his "Pippen" was Mo Williams). Jordan never did that with the Bulls.
Kobe had Shaquille O'Neal. What would a younger LeBron James have done on a team with Shaq in his prime?
"Oh, man," LeBron replied. "I don't even want to think about that."
Actually, he would. And probably does.
Saying that Kobe would be preferred over LeBron for championship reasons makes as much sense as putting LeBron and Jordan in the same class. Here's some news for Barkley: We have Jordan's complete body of work to examine. LeBron isn't there yet, based on three admittedly Jordanesque weeks, which happened to follow an epic 2012. Yes, it's been quite a convincing last 16 months.
What LeBron is doing is historical, we can all agree on that. After finally learning how to use his body to score in the post, LeBron is shooting 69 percent and averaging 30.1 points this month, along with 6.6 rebounds, six assists and 1.6 steals. At one point he made 49 of 65 shots. Yes, a weird thing happened on Kevin Durant's road to the MVP trophy. LeBron happened.
And yet, even Carmelo Anthony said, regarding that race: "It's early."
Plus, Jordan had many runs that were just as impressive in their own right, if not more. Late in the 1988-89 season Jordan moved to point guard. In his first game he had 15 assists. For the rest of the season, 24 games in a new position, he averaged 29.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 10.6 assists and 2.4 steals. That's almost as many points as LeBron is getting during this run, more rebounds, far more assists and almost double the steals. Nearly a triple double.
And if it's all about numbers, then what about Oscar Robertson, who like LeBron was oversized for his position, averaging a triple double for an entire season? Of course, that was before ESPN so it never really happened or doesn't count, right?
"LeBron is doing things that we've never seen before from someone like him," said Barkley, meaning someone LeBron's size. While that's true, it doesn't automatically put LeBron's body of work among the all-time greats. That's not fair to them, and because LeBron's resume may eventually overwhelm everyone else's when he's done, not fair to LeBron.
He must stay healthy, must keep a healthy and productive team around him and must keep winning. And must stay at or near the level he's playing right now. Those are the obstacles between LeBron and whatever legacy he'll wind up with.
"Winning takes precedent over everything," said Kobe. "LeBron knows that and that's his motivation, to win as many championships as possible."
Well, winning plus talent plus longevity is the proper equation for measuring greatness. You must have all three. Can we enjoy and respect what we're seeing without reaching for a way to gush uncontrollably or short-change the guy? Can we allow LeBron the chance to prove, once and for all, where he fits?
Can we all just take a deep breath?