LeBron James is often labeled the greatest player to ever touch the hardwood. Not only has he dominated the game for 19 going on 20 years, James’ impact on the game of basketball is arguably second to none. From his days as a youngster making Cleveland fun again, to a four-year trip to South Beach, then returning to Cleveland to bring his hometown a title and traveling to Los Angeles to give them their 17th title, James has been a winner at every pit-stop.
As stated before, for a hefty 19 years, James has dominated year in, and year out. He has by far and away the best longevity in league history, and it’s unfathomable how he has built four separate primes for himself. Combining his undeniable longevity with his four different pit-stops, it begs the question. Which prime was the best? Which was the worst? Which falls right in the middle? Let’s do a start, bench, cut with Miami Heat James, second stint Cleveland Cavaliers James, and Los Angeles Lakers James.
Before diving into the question, let’s dissect James’ three peaks. After his first stint in Cleveland, James took his talents to Miami in pursuit of his first NBA championship. In this four-year run on the Heat, James easily had his defensive peak. He was in his best physical form, and his athleticism was off the charts. Miami James was arguably a top 10 wing defender ever at his peak, this combined with his all-time great offense makes for one of the league’s best four-year stretches of all time.
James won two championships in South Beach, but then took his talents back to Cleveland to finally bring them a championship. This was James’ most memorable individual run, and it’s what truly solidified his spot among the best of all time. From coming back from down 3-1 in the finals, to the carry job that was the 2018 postseason, James had a ton of different storylines that helped cement his legacy. This also happened to be his most dominant offensive stretch, averaging 31 points per contest in four playoff runs. Peak floor raising James came in his second Cleveland stint, and it got to a point where you can put him on the floor with four bench warmers, and he’d still manage to drag that team to the finals.
Once the Cavaliers’ organization began to crumble, James migrated to the city of Los Angeles. Frankly, three of his four seasons as a Laker have been disappointing for the organization. However, he’s still managed to produce at an All-NBA First Team rate year after year, while being able to bring the team their record 17th championship. With the addition of Anthony Davis in 2019-2020, James resorted to more of a play making role. He still scored the rock at a high rate, as his averages never dropped below 25 points per game. However, the system was to let Davis cook through the first three quarters while James set everyone up for good looks, and come the fourth quarter, James had full room to close on his own. One may argue that 2019-2020 was his best all-around offensive season, and with that, the Lakers snagged the bubble championship.
All three of James’ peaks have something unique to it. In Miami, his defense stuck out above the rest. During his second stint in Cleveland, his overall dominance stuck out. In Los Angeles, his complete offensive package stuck out. Now, let’s answer the question.
The overall answer is quite simple, yet complex to understand. Miami James gets the start, Los Angeles James comes off the bench, and Cleveland James gets cut. Many have James’ second stint in Cleveland labeled as the greatest peak of all time, and quite frankly, no other individual playoff run in history compares to his 2018 showing. However, when really thinking of it, this purely comes down to the situation at hand. Insert any of James’ primes into that situation, and he would be able to dominate the same way and drag a team to the finals at will. This was the biggest tear of his entire career; however, it is purely situation-based.
Los Angeles James gets the seat on the bench simply due to his undeniable offensive impact. After the fluke of the 2018-2019 season for the Lakers, many went as far as taking James out of their top five players list. At the time, it seemed like the inevitable decline was coming. However, with a bolstered supporting cast the very next season, James made it his job to purely play as a point guard. He’d get guys into spots for them to succeed through the first 75% of the game, and in the fourth, he’d take over on his own to put the nail in the coffin. One may argue this is the most impactful offensive season of his career, and rightfully so.
Finally, Miami James gets the start. This was James’ best two-way stretch due to his peak athleticism, and his defense on every level was on all-time levels. He was also still a historically good offensive player as well, dominating as a scorer and facilitator.