Although no sane basketball fans still argue that Miami Heat ubermensch LeBron James is not the best player in the NBA, the four-time MVP and two-time defending champion remains a divisive figure in the sport. By many views, LeBron remains unfit to be mentioned in the same breath as the game’s all-time greats: he hasn’t won enough titles, doesn’t take over games at the offensive end with the same regularity as Michael Jordan and others, and generally lacks the ability to snuff out an opponent’s will. These criticisms are minor, in the grand scheme of things, but when it comes to debating the relative merits of the game’s all-time greats these issues matter.
James knows that these impressions exist, but he also realizes that they are beyond his control. In a new interview with Chris Broussard for ESPN the Magazine, LeBron opens up about a number of issues, including his perceived lack of killer instinct. The issue, according to the Heat star, is that the mentality takes many forms:
When people think about the killer instinct, they always think of MJ and Kobe. Do people underestimate your killer instinct? People say you have it but not like those two. Do you think you have it like they do?
Ahh. I’ll just put it this way, man. There are different ways to hunt. I watch the Discovery Channel all the time, and you look at all these animals in the wild. And they all hunt a different way to feed their families. They all kill a different way. Lions do it strategically — two females will lead, and then everybody else will come in. Hyenas will just go for it. There are different ways to kill, and I don’t think people understand that. Everybody wants everybody to kill the same way. Everybody wants everybody to kill like MJ or kill like Kobe. Magic didn’t kill the way they killed. Does that mean he didn’t have a killer instinct? Kareem didn’t either. But does that mean Kareem didn’t have a killer instinct? The same with Bird. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a killer instinct. Tim Duncan don’t kill like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but I’ve played against Tim Duncan twice in the Finals and I know for sure he’s got a killer instinct. So there are different ways to kill. MJ had a killer instinct for sure. But if people really think that MJ didn’t talk to nobody and didn’t smile on the court, they’re crazy. They’re crazy. I’ve seen him. I was watching a clip the other day of him blocking Charles Barkley, and they’re laughing about the play — on the floor. Right now, if I block Kevin Durant on the floor, or I block Carmelo Anthony and we laugh about it? Ahh, I’m going to get killed [laughing]. I’m telling you. But there are different ways of killing.
Do you think you’ll change people’s minds about that?
I hope. I hope. I hope people will see that there are different ways of winning. And I win by … I don’t want to say doing it my way. I am doing it my way but not in a selfish way. I want to win by having fun and having a brotherhood around me where we all have the same goals — and that’s just going out and winning, man. When I’m having fun, I’m loving the game, and that’s what brings joy to me.[Leans back and smiles] Every now and then my look comes out, though — like Game 6 in Boston . People say, Why don’t he do that all the time? [laughs] Man, I don’t even … first of all, I have no idea why that look even happened. Somebody took a great photo. The camera was right on time, and he happened to get me when I was a little bit tired and I looked up. Bam! Now, it’s The Look[laughs]. It’s the LeBron Look. The LeBron Face [laughs]. It’s cool, though. It’s cool. Don’t think for one second, though, that I’m not zeroed in on what I need to get done to kill my prey.
LeBron’s point is a fairly sophisticated one about perception and the ways in which history becomes increasingly simplified over time. As he notes, many players praised for their winning ways also don’t exhibit a Jordanesque killer instinct. Tim Duncan, for instance, tends to go about his business and take scoring opportunities as they come to him, influencing the game in whichever ways present themselves over the natural course of the game. Yet Duncan is still considered one of the greatest winners of his era, in part because he has influenced huge games in big moments but also just because he’s won a lot. To a certain extent, a player is said to have a killer instinct simply because he accrues enough accomplishments that such a mentality seems like a given. It’s a self-fulfilling designation.
Enough so, in fact, that historical considerations of these players can sometimes cloud out the reality of their careers. Jordan, for instance, sometimes missed potential game-winning shots or deferred in crunch time, often earning plaudits for his decisions to trust his teammates. In time, it’s possible (even likely) that LeBron will receive the same positive attention for these untraditionally dominant moments after his career ends, so long as he amasses enough championships.
After all, history is not a direct catalogue of events, but a narrative we tell ourselves to make sense of the past. If LeBron appears to exist outside of the tradition of the NBA’s all-time greats, then it may only be because we’ve defined that kind of player too narrowly. A player’s career never plays out quite so smoothly in real time.