Will LeBron James be the one to dethrone Michael Jordan?
LeBron James used to care what others thought.
Only a few years ago, he craved Michael Jordan's approval. Only a few years ago, he would have been bothered, maybe even deeply hurt, by Jordan's recent declaration that Kobe Bryant, not James, is the best player in the NBA. Only a few years ago, it would have been a comment that haunted him, a perception he likely would have thought he desperately needed to erase.
At age 28, however, James can shrug off with one pithy tweet -- "I'm not M.J., I'm L.J." -- the comments made by the player he grew up idolizing. He can casually dismiss Jordan's words as an annoying one-day distraction, something as important as the current controversy about whether he should dunk during his pregame routine.
James -- whose Heat team will bring a 13-game winning streak into Sunday's game against the Knicks at the Garden -- no longer gets sidetracked by what others think. And that, according to those who know him well, might have a lot to do with the dominating season he is having.
"I think the difference between LeBron now and LeBron of a few years ago is that he's at peace with who he is," teammate Shane Battier said. "It's something that just comes with maturity. He's 28, 29 years old. He's been in the league a while. He's comfortable with who he is."
Comfortable? How could he not be? With the numbers he is putting up and the impact he is having, the real question isn't whether James is the best player in the NBA, but where he ranks among the best players in the history of the game.
Some may want to throw the Spurs' Tony Parker or the Thunder's Kevin Durant into the conversation, but it's hard to imagine James failing to win his fourth MVP this season. He has been the NBA's player of the month every month this season. And he has just completed the best month of his career, if not one of the best months in the history of the game.
The Heat opened February with a loss to the Pacers before rattling off 12 straight victories to conclude the month. In that span, James averaged 29.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists, and he did it while shooting a mind-boggling 64.1 percent from the floor.
The last player with more than 200 attempts to shoot more than 64 percent in any calendar month was the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in March 1983. And Abdul-Jabbar, you can bet, wasn't knocking down deep twos and three-pointers the way James did.
Want more? James never shot below 50 percent in any of his 13 games. His worst shooting performance was 52.9 percent last Sunday against Cleveland.
Early in February, he set an NBA record by putting together a string of six straight games in which he scored at least 30 points and shot at least 60 percent. Later in the streak, he notched the 35th triple-double of his career against the 76ers, putting him in seventh place on the career triple-double list in only 10 years of playing.
"Video game numbers" is how Heat coach Erik Spoelstra described James' performance after a recent game. "Just LeBron being LeBron" is how teammate Chris Bosh puts it, adding that the Heat has come to expect greatness from James on any given night.
So have NBA fans, who have been looking for their next Jordan for nearly two decades.
Even in retirement, Jordan has been the one NBA player who continues to transcend the game. Good, even great, players have failed to dethrone him. Bryant has come the closest with five rings, but -- for various reasons, including the sexual assault investigation in 2003 after which Bryant admitted no guilt but publicly apologized to his accusor -- never really captured the affection and respect of the non-sporting public the way Jordan did.
James, who has a good decade to add championship rings to the one he earned last season, conceivably could pass Jordan's six titles. This might go a long way toward explaining why Jordan seems so reluctant to give James his props, why he continues to insist that Bryant, a player who never actually threatened his stature, is the best player in the NBA.
"I think that's just Michael taking shots at him," Charles Barkley, Hall of Famer and TNT sports analyst, recently told The Associated Press. "Because, I think, listen, as great as Kobe has been, I've never thought he was as good as Michael Jordan . . . If this guy can win five or six rings, I think that's a very legitimate contest."
76ers coach Doug Collins, who coached Jordan twice and whose 76ers were crushed by James' triple-double last week, said he doesn't want to be drawn into the Jordan-James debate. Still, he said it's hard not to draw comparisons between great players.
"They bring such a talent and a will to win every night that they distort the game," he said. "Just them being out on the floor changes the whole fiber of the game because they bring so much attention. It's almost like having a sixth player out there."
James' teammates believe that future players will be making comparisons to him.
Said Battier: "Right now, he's just being who he is. He's not the next anyone. He's just LeBron being LeBron. He's just LeBron doing what LeBron does. And it's pretty amazing."