The debate whether LeBron James is the best player in NBA history often becomes almost as heated as the fallout and overreaction to LeBron leaving Cleveland. There is one thing we all must keep in mind, however, when choosing to participate in these exercises.
You know all those greats that he's compared against? They've finished playing. Every last one.
LeBron? He might just be getting started.
His fourth MVP over the last five years, was assured in dominating fashion, with only one voter -- obviously wearing orange and blue glasses -- casting a lonely vote toward Carmelo Anthony and thus preventing a unanimous result. Let there be no doubt, however, about the wonderful and smooth flow that LeBron is on right now. His game, his team, his mind and, finally, his character are all aligned perfectly.
This season was all about efficiency and consistency. LeBron never shot better, rebounded harder or had better vision looking for teammates than he did in 2012-13. His numbers don't lie: 56.5 percent shooting (amazing for a non-center), averaging 26.8 points, with eight rebounds, 7.3 assists and almost two steals per game.
Another reminder: He's not even close to being finished.
That's the most astonishing thing about LeBron and where he's at and what he's done. The future looks almost as golden, if not blindingly so. He's only 28. His body is almost bulletproof; LeBron has never had a serious injury. And his game is evolving, allowing him to remain effective in so many different ways and styles that will only help him when he ages.
And he's thirsty, not necessarily for more MVPs, but for another trophy, the kind that invites true greatness.
"My goal is to win multiple championships," he said. "The ultimate goal is for us to celebrate in a confetti rain."
The MVP is a backslap for a job well done in 2012-13, but the true essence of his latest body of work goes beyond that. After all, has anyone had a better 16-month stretch? In that time, LeBron won a pair of MVPs, a championship, a Finals MVP, an Olympic gold medal and 27-straight games. And this followed his embarrassing failure and collapse in the 2011 Finals.
If, as the saying goes, true character is revealed during the lowest moments, then it was certainly the case for LeBron. Losing that series to Dallas, and becoming a national punch line as a result, was his turning point. All players of his caliber respond to adversity by motivating themselves to work harder, just like Michael Jordan after failing to make varsity in high school. That long, hot summer in 2011 changed everything for LeBron. The best all-around player in the game suddenly felt the need to … improve. And this mentality has followed him ever since.
"A few years ago I didn't do a great job of capitalizing on mismatches and using my strength and quickness," he said. "So I spent the whole summer in the paint. This past off-season, I thought about what I could do to become more dynamic. So I put myself in the gym and shot the ball and worked on threes."
He challenged Ray Allen -- Ray Allen! -- to shooting contests and developed his range to the point where shooting from deep became reflexive. And so LeBron's three-point shooting soared to 40 percent this season, easily the best of his career.
"LeBron reinvented himself," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
That's what the greats do. They keep evolving. Wilt Chamberlain became a better passer. Magic Johnson a better outside shooter. Michael Jordan perfected a deadly turnaround jumper from 15 feet, to the point where it became so bread-and-butter, it carried him his last five years. Although they're rich and secure, the legendary players aren't content to coast. They create. They always want more.
"God gave him the ability to be a special, special player," Dwyane Wade said. "You never know how long you're going to have that, and he never takes it for granted."
And that's why this season was actually bittersweet for LeBron. He wanted the Defensive Player of the Year award almost as badly as the MVP.
"Coach had me guard every position," said LeBron, who was crushed when Marc Gasol, a center who's nailed to the paint, took top defensive honors. "We'll try again next year."
For the MVP ceremony on Sunday, LeBron flew down 10 kids from Akron, along with their parents, as part of his foundation work. Perhaps no other superstar has formed a tighter and more philanthropic bond with his hometown than LeBron has with Akron. That's also part of his personal evolution. Just days earlier, he donated $1 million to upgrade the gym at his old high school. Even folks from Cleveland, the city he left in a clumsy exit three summers ago, might find it harder to hate the best player in the NBA.
"I'm honored to be able to do what I can to help people, to share what I have," he said.
We all know he has a lot left to give. And learn. And improve upon. While there's already a tendency to look back on his body of work and the silverware that's starting to pile up, can you imagine what's in store in the coming years, assuming good health? Pretty scary, actually. Jordan didn't start collecting championships until right about the same time in his career as LeBron is now. Much will depend on the help surrounding him in the future and what he decides to do next summer as a free agent, but LeBron is poised to keep winning and collecting. He's already looking toward this summer and getting back into the lab.
Only when he's finished can we reasonably put him and his career in the proper context, although some people, goodness gracious, are just too impatient for that. Like Pat Riley, who has coached some once-in-a-lifetime stars and coached against them, as well.
"Over these 46 years, I've had the opportunity to see some great players. And all the ones I've observed, watched and seen, they've always gotten better," said the Heat president. "In my humble opinion, I believe the man right here is the best of them all."