MJ had his fadeaway.
Kareem had his skyhook.
Gervin had his finger roll.
Mikan had his overwhelming goofy whiteness.
Magic had his no-look passing.
Dirk had his one-leg step back.
Tim Duncan had his bank shot.
Hakeem had his Dream Shake.
MJ had his tongue-wagging dunks on Hall of Fame centers.
This list could stretch on for pages––if we had pages delineated on this site. The impact of great players extends farther beyond their generation when they have an identifiable and iconic move. These players weren’t just the posters on our walls or the YouTube clips we return to again and again. We became them. These are the moves that young players mimic in their driveways, in the park, and in their bedrooms on Nerf hoops.
For me, as a kid growing up in the 90s, it was Michael. I’d narrate the game situation as I dribbled. My center-parted bowl cut would be drenched in sweat. I’d turn and hit the game-winner. In my bedroom, on the aforementioned Nerf hoop, it would be the reverse lay-up. Or maybe the foul line dunk. To be fair, when I worked on my faceup post-game, I was David Robinson.
I took a casual poll of some of my colleagues about who those players were for them or their friends. I tried to get a wide range of ages. The answers I received were equally as diverse: Iverson, Kobe, Lisa Leslie, Vince Carter, Diana Taurasi, Ray Allen, Maya Moore, and even some Gilbert Arenas love (Hibachi!).
The current kings of this blacktop fantasy are clearly Steph Curry and Dame Lillard. I couldn’t get any data on this, but I have to assume Sabrina Ionescu would be on the list as well. This shouldn’t be that big of a shock to anyone who has monitored the changing tactics in the NBA and the game overall. Threes are the new dunks. These two men, with Steph being the true pioneer, have stretched the Silly-Putty-like boundaries of what would have once been considered ridiculous.
Shots that used to be jokes you jacked up in practice have become routine. Curry and Lillard have changed the geometry that defenses have to calculate and all of that adds up to something inspiring that everyone from children to grown-ass people want to emulate. Thus, we all now shoot from deep before performing a shimmy or pointing to our wrist. Even if the candy bar wrapper happens to miss the trash can by a mile.
I should also mention that some people pretend to be James Harden and dance into step-back threes, but they get called for travels.
I am roughly 450 words into this thing and there is one name I haven’t mentioned. Well, technically, there are lots of names I haven’t mentioned, but one name is conspicuously absent. Mr. LeBron Raymone James. Speaking of being conspicuously absent, you could have given me 30 guesses and I wouldn’t have come close to knowing LeBron’s middle name.
I developed a hypothesis: LeBron James is a monumental baller and an admired man, yet he is not a player that people want to model their game after.
James is widely––if not universally––regarded as a top-three player of all-time. Most have him top two. Many have him number one. He has the requisite game-winners we like to see in our superstars. I love watching him play, so this is not meant to be a slight. I just found it fascinating that his game is such that he does not seem to get what I call the Driveway Moment.
I want to be clearer than an iPhone screen only ever is for the first 47 seconds after it has been unboxed. LeBron’s resume speaks for itself and I am in the camp that has him ranked no lower than second all-time on my GOAT rankings. I will also reiterate that resume because I am a man and was in quarantine for a year and have no social graces left.
He’s third all-time in NBA scoring and could crack #1 if he stays healthy. He’s eighth in assists all-time already and he’s a 6’9” monster truck of a man. That being said, he’s not a 7-foot behemoth and yet he’s 42nd all-time in rebounding. Three-pointers are not a real building block of his game…but he’s 13th on that all-time list, too.
If you prefer advanced statistics, you might be a nerd and he’s third in win shares and second in plus/minus. He’s been to 17 all-star games, won four MVPs, been named to 23 All-NBA teams (including all-defense), and he’s won four titles with three different teams. And he’s not done yet! He was in the MVP race again before he got hurt! Holy shit.
My hypothesis may be incorrect. There may be children that practice bully ball against their smaller friends. There may have been young folks with receding hairlines in 2010 that looked to him as their patron saint of hiding it. I honestly might have just asked the wrong people. And yet I do not think that I am incorrect. I have my reasons.
LeBron’s game is so supremely skilled in every area that he might be the perfect basketball player. He’s a combination of all of the best traits from past players. His player comparison list is a Hall Of Fame Roster. The passing of Magic, the winning mentality of Jordan, the size of Karl Malone, the defense of Scottie Pippen, the basketball IQ of Larry Bird, and on and on and on. The difference between James and the other players on the opening list is that he’s not the unquestioned best at any one thing.
He can score in myriad, dynamic ways like his recent three to clinch the Play-In game against the Warriors, or his rim-crushing slam to ice the game against the Celtics in 2008, or his bank shot floater to beat the Raptors in 2018. But he doesn’t weaponize the three the way that Curry does. He is not the dunker that Vince Carter was. He doesn’t use the post as his personal torture chamber like Tim Duncan. I will say, however, that he is kind of getting there on that last point. Still, he does all of those things at an elite level, but not the top spot. Perhaps his greatest trait is his understanding and instincts for the game itself.
The most iconic play of his career is probably a defensive one; the chase-down block of Andre Iguodala in the 2016 Finals. Unfortunately, it is a very difficult type of play to replicate, especially due to the fact that you need another person, preferably, a smaller and weaker person. Most of these other offensive moves are solo affairs.
Now is probably the time where I should answer your nagging question, that being, “so what?” My point is that I do not think aspiring basketball players in the last 18 years have really embraced the practice of making the correct basketball play every single possession and then shouting out LeBron James after doing so. That is an extreme example, but symbolic in the way that LeBron’s game is nearly impossible to translate for us mere mortals. I can practice taking deeper and deeper threes akin to Curry’s work. Meanwhile, LBJ might lead his team to back-to-back finals in years 17 and 18 of his career. It’s not exciting to whisper “longevity” to my opponent as I lay the ball up in a pickup game the same way it is to perform a similar pantomime to Dame time after a clutch bomb.
LeBron’s combination of size, strength, speed, court vision, game awareness, and team understanding may be unparalleled in human history. I want to make sure that I am aware of how incredible that is even if I do not study his mechanics the same way that I studied Dirk’s footwork to determine how he would get that fadeaway off every time.
I look forward to King James continuing to define and refine his legacy. He does not need a signature move because his presence is the singular presence that matters if a team wants to win. I cannot emulate that, but I can remind myself of just how awe-inspiring that is.
I want to know who you pretended to be when you were growing up. Was it LeBron?? Engage with MMH on social media! Have a great day.
Bill Russell (my hero in all ways) had only one mannerism that I could possibly imitate and I did it regularly, even in competitive games. Both hands on hips with elbows pointing backward.
Never thought about this- but it rings true! He combines the physical and the smarts but it always looks strong , not so much pretty.