Pulling away from his peers, LeBron James' competition is becoming history
Give Charles Barkley credit. He's trying to make an argument when other candidates won't even bother.
LeBron James' brilliance has sucked the drama out of the NBA's MVP debate, and the only real race is to see who can be first to text him congratulations after he wins the award again.
Barkley favors San Antonio's Tony Parker for MVP if the Spurs finish with the league's best record, rejecting the notion that best player has to mean the most valuable one. Yet make no mistake, Barkley is no James hater.
In fact, give the Hall of Famer and TNT analyst props for something else: He's willing to make the Michael Jordan comparison that scares off so many others.
"They've got to get off saying it's not even close, because I think it is close," Barkley said.
And if James keeps this up, it's only going to get closer.
Pulling away from his peers, James' only competition will soon — if it's not already — be history. He's averaging 27.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists for a team that won its final 12 games in February, when he shot a ridiculous 64.1 percent from the field. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra used the term "video game numbers" after James had 40 points and 16 assists against Sacramento on Wednesday, but video games become boring once they're this easy.
Perhaps because of Jordan's popularity or his currently lopsided advantage in championships, many aren't willing to consider what Barkley believes.
"It's unfair to compare eras," is the common answer from those who won't touch the topic, such as Philadelphia coach Doug Collins, who coached Jordan twice and whose 76ers were just beaten by James' triple-double last week.
"I just think you can never compare a 1996 BMW to a 2013 BMW. Different technologies, they all look sleek and look fast, but it's just different," said Shaquille O'Neal, Barkley's TNT teammate.
Those who aren't ready to give James his due usually point to his lone title — six-time champion Jordan among them. Sometimes the argument is more laughable, such as the one from former Seattle guard Gary Payton, who argued that James wouldn't have been as effective during his era because players would have pushed him around more.
"You can't guard him now because it seems like you can't put your hands on him. You know what I'm saying?" Payton said during the All-Star break. "With LeBron, if somebody can hand check him and muscle him, I still think it could be the same. It's a lot different when somebody can hand-check you and control you and be stronger than you on the block or whatever and not let you go anywhere.
"It's a little bit different, as being free and being a freak of nature and his body that he has right now, nobody can guard him, you know what I'm saying? So right now, if he could come back in our era and we could hand check him and guard him and bigger guys get on him and when he gets to the bucket we hit him and knock him like (Bill) Laimbeer, like the Boston Celtic days, it'd be a little bit different. I guarantee you it would be. But he's still great, he's still a great basketball player and like I said he's playing in a great era because he can get to the bucket whenever he feels like it."
James is listed at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds — though he's called himself over 260. Who exactly are these people that were going to outmuscle him?
James is quicker than most guards and stronger than just about every big man. He can play or defend all five positions, and even the 6-6 Jordan couldn't match all James' physical tools.
"I don't think his physical advantages were as great as LeBron is," Barkley said.
Barkley even draws a comparison between James and Wilt Chamberlain, another player who athletically just blew away the competition. Nobody will ever put up the kind of stats the 7-1 Chamberlain did — he averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds one season — but Barkley sees a similarity.
"I never seen Wilt play in person, but he was somebody who was just so physically better than everybody else," Barkley said. "Wilt probably never got his credit because the Celtics had much better teams, but like, the guy averaged 50 points and 30 rebounds in a year. You're like ... that's crazy. LeBron is so much physically bigger and better than everyone else, like, Wilt's the only other person you would think is in that conversation."
Kevin Durant might win a fourth straight scoring title, but after the Heat have beaten Oklahoma City six straight times dating to the NBA Finals and have a better record, it would be awfully difficult to pick him over James as the league's MVP. Parker's team has had the best record for a while even while having to play so often without either Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili, but in typical Spurs fashion, he insists he's more interested in team success than individual recognition. Chris Paul, who has turned the Clippers from longtime laughingstock into a legitimate contender, seems more of a James cheerleader than MVP threat.
"What Bron is doing right now is unbelievable, I mean unbelievable," Paul said. "The way he's playing, the confidence that he's playing with, and the biggest thing about LeBron is he's doing it on both ends. Obviously I'm a little biased because that's like my best friend, but he's playing great basketball right now."
James arrived at last month's All-Star weekend after a stretch where he scored more than 30 points and shot better than 60 percent in six straight games, an NBA first. Yet the weekend still belonged just as much to Jordan, who turned 50 on the day of the game and who, to believe some players, could still play in the league now.
Jordan made news that weekend when he told NBA TV in a televised special that he would pick Kobe Bryant over James because of Bryant's five titles. James downplayed the remarks and Barkley practically dismissed them.
"I think that's Michael taking shots at him, because I think, listen, as great as Kobe has been, I've never thought he was as good as Michael Jordan," Barkley said. "But this guy, and everybody wants to talk — I don't know how many rings he's going to win, nobody knows that. If this guy can win five or six rings, I think that's a very legitimate contest.
"I mean this guy, man, think about it. He can guard anybody. A couple of years ago he took Derrick Rose, the MVP, out of a playoff series. I mean, that was amazing, and the guy gets 30 points, let's say 20ish a night, eight, nine rebounds. He's getting eight, nine assists, that's amazing."
James can't get around the rings argument, though, largely because his talent — and his bolting Cleveland to build a potential powerhouse in Miami — mandate him winning many. When Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen finally one won with Boston in 2008, or Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd finally got theirs by beating the Heat in 2011, it seemed that was all they needed to clinch what were already Hall of Fame resumes.
But for James, winning one last year only led to the questions about when he'd win another, the kind of expectations O'Neal faced once he finally broke through eight years into his career.
"It's very unfair but it was life and for me it was nothing but motivation," O'Neal said.
The Heat will surge into springtime with a great shot at another one, and after next season James can decide if he wants to keep chasing championships in Miami or go somewhere else to continue his quest.
Is he Jordan? No, not yet.
Maybe not ever.
But check back when his fingers are a little more filled up.
"If this guy can win five or six championships, I think it will squash all those rumors, all those gripes," Barkley said. "Because this guy, I've never seen anything like him."