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Bob Ryan

LeBron James now at basketball’s highest level

LeBron James is looking to add to his trophy case with more NBA championships to go along with the first one he earned last year.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LeBron James is looking to add to his trophy case with more NBA championships to go along with the first one he earned last year.

Once upon a time, the NBA played its All-Star Game somewhere near the middle of the season, not creeping up to the two-thirds juncture. Then again, it’s probably a good idea to get away from King Football.

Anyway, something very special is going on in the World’s Greatest Basketball League.

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The subject is King James.

Forget the foolish numbers. X games over 30, X games shooting over 60 percent. Remotely fascinating, those numbers, but utterly irrelevant.

Here’s what does matter.

LeBron James is playing basketball at a level seldom seen in the history of his sport.

Simply put, he has reached a point where it can accurately be said that he has mastered the art of team basketball. Only a select few have known what that feels like.

In fact, I can think of only four others. As always, centers are excluded from this discussion. Their job descriptions and requirements are very different.

The four are Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant.

Robertson is too often eliminated from these discussions, but if any discussion of greatest all-around players were posed circa 1970, his name would be the one most frequently cited.

Robertson was the game’s master technician. He was a walking, breathing textbook of How To. How To Dribble. How To Pass. How To Shoot. How To Rebound.

’Tis said he never took a shot he didn’t want to take. If he had a 20-footer, he wanted a 15-footer. If he had a 10-footer, he wanted a 5-footer. If he had a 5-footer, he wanted a layup. Dunk? Nah. Waste of energy.

Remember, the man did, in fact, average a triple-double for an entire season. Problem is, we didn’t employ that term. We just knew he was pretty good.

Why Bird and not Magic Johnson, his oft-cited on-court alter ego? Because Larry was a much more accomplished scorer. Magic improved dramatically during the course of his career, but scoring was not his thing. Passing, going to the basket, running fast breaks, and rebounding were more his thing than any kind of outside shooting.

Larry Bird knows exactly where LeBron’s mind is right now because he was there himself during that glorious 1985-86 season.

From February of 1986 to the concluding Game 6 of the Finals, Larry was often in complete control of the game. He was capable of bending the other nine on the floor to his will. He was the greatest passing forward of all-time at the peak of his game. I mean, a streak of 25 for 34? On threes? Larry knew when to shoot and when to pass, what shot to take and what shot not to take, whom to pass to and whom not to pass to, and he processed every decision instantaneously.

I am here to tell you that as well as LeBron is playing now, it is no better than the body of work Larry submitted in the entire Milwaukee playoff series, and I doubt very seriously if anybody during the past 25 years has had a game more complete (yes, defense, too) than the one Larry played against the Rockets in Game 6 of the 1986 Finals.

But if LeBron hasn’t been that good, he has been pretty darn close.

I’ll let someone from Chicago rhapsodize about Michael and someone from Los Angeles slobber over Kobe, each of whom knows what I’m talking about because he has been there. Truth is, I am more impressed than ever with Kobe’s constant reinventions of himself and his game this year. He seems determined to drag the Lakers into the playoffs all by himself. I wouldn’t bet against him, either.

Let’s get back to LeBron.

The goal of all basketball savants is calibration. The game is greater and tougher than any individual. The mere fact that someone possesses extraordinary physical talent does not guarantee mastery of the game itself.

There are four others on your team and five on the other one. They’re not standing in one place. Even the greatest virtuoso has to pay some homage to his mates while offering respect for his opponents. This becomes more self-evident the higher you rise on the competition food chain. I will concede that a truly great high school player, surrounded by four math majors, might be capable of taking his team to the state championship. That has never happened in college ball (Bird at Indiana State having the closest call, not that there were actually any math majors), and it sure as heck has never happened in the NBA, and never will.

Exhibit A is Jordan. Had he calibrated his game properly a bit sooner, the Bulls might have won an additional title or two (my opinion). And you’ll notice that once he figured it out, he sorta locked himself in.

There was a telltale sign last week that LeBron had reached the highest level. I saw him take a lefthanded shot he didn’t need to take. This is exactly what Larry started doing when he first ascended into the rarest level. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Larry would take those lefty shots because he was bored, but I would say he did it to amuse himself because everything else about the game had become so simple and logical. It is, of course, one thing to take ’em and another to make ’em. Larry did it then and LeBron is doing it now.

Larry’s transcendence was brief, because of injury. He was as good as he had been at the end of 1986 during the exhibition season and first half-dozen games of the following season. From then on, it was injury after injury and comeback after comeback, for six frustrating seasons before he had to give it up after the 1991-92 campaign. But thank God for videotape.

LeBron turned 28 on Dec. 30. He has no known warning-buzzer body part. He has reached that blissful point where he is physically mature and basketball-wise at a level known only to a select few.

This is his time, and anyone who professes to love the game of basketball has an opportunity for the next several years to see one of the most imposing physical beings the game has yet known put on a hoops Master Class night after night after night.

Just don’t worry about the stupid numbers. Numbers are not the point.

Artistry is.

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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