The shorthand method of describing LeBron James to someone who has been living under a rock or recently arrived via time machine from 1994 is that the Heat star has the skills of Magic Johnson and the smile of Isiah Thomas in the body of Karl Malone.
There really is no simpler way to explain James’ dominance both on the court and in the endorsement world. His grin might be phony, as Thomas’ was, but no player in NBA history can match James’ combination of guard-like abilities and pure, raw power.
This will lead, ultimately, to James finishing his career as a power forward. That might seem unthinkable now, as James continues to utterly own every inch of the court, but it once seemed unthinkable that Cal Ripken Jr. would shift to third base or that Ken Griffey Jr. would hobble toward retirement as a designated hitter. One day, James will not be able to shift seamlessly between point guard, shooting guard, small forward and center all on one possession, and he will have to take his creaky knees and sore back down to the block permanently.
In case any prospective opponents are looking forward to those days with relief, James offered up evidence on Sunday that relegating him to full-time work in the post is no less terrifying than his current incarnation. He answered the challenge presented by Paul George in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals by taking the undersized and overmatched Pacers forward onto the nail in Game 3, helping the Heat control the paint as they have not done in this series — or ever before, for that matter, since James came together with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
With James softening up Indiana in the post, the Heat outscored the Pacers 52-36 in the paint and were able to contend with the physical Pacers on the glass. Through three quarters, before both teams essentially played out the string of a blowout, the Pacers only held a slim 30-28 rebounding edge. The Pacers cannot hold up against the Heat unless those margins are flipped strongly in their favor.
Scoring and rebounding are tidy statistics, but they only partly tell the story of James’ work in Game 3. The neatest aspect of the Malone comparison is that the Mailman was not just a big body and a nice finisher on pick and rolls. He was also among the greatest passing power forwards ever, particularly with his back to the basket. His dishes to a cutting John Stockton made Malone-to-Stockton just as reliable for the Jazz as Stockton-to-Malone. James, probably the best passing perimeter forward in the game, does not lose any of his playmaking creativity on the block.
Again, stats do not begin to describe how James’ presence down low changed the game on Sunday. Although he only finished with three assists, two of those came with his back to the basket, and he would have had at least three more if basketball counted “hockey assists,” which lead to the pass that directly leads to the basket. The Heat’s impeccable spacing was due predominantly to the Pacers’ panicky inability to contain James down low.
James is just 28 years old, with a good three to four years ahead of him to operate at his physical peak. Expect to see James handling the ball on the pick and roll plenty in the near future, be it in Miami, Cleveland or Los Angeles.
Someday, though, we will look up and realize James is the screen-setter in the pick-and-roll, not the ballhandler, and that he spends a lot more time receiving post-entry passes than he used to. His game will evolve in line with his physical capabilities. He will become less like Magic Johnson and more like Karl Malone, yet no less dominant than he is now. He may even sprinkle in a little Ben Wallace as his defensive game shifts closer to the hoop. The list of players James can be compared to is only going to grow, while the list of players who can be compared to James might eventually become nonexistent.