LeBron James: Sporting News NBA Athlete of the Decade

Sporting News

Plenty of bold statements have been made about LeBron James over the past decade. He can spark discussion unlike any figure in recent NBA history, whether it's coaches, teammates, rivals or blathering TV analysts doing the talking.

But the most pertinent statement as it relates to this particular exercise comes from Amy Schumer, who wrote James into her 2015 comedy "Trainwreck." James plays a (very cheap) version of himself alongside "Saturday Night Live" alum Bill Hader, and he steals the scene just about every time he's on screen.

"I wrote LeBron's name into the script because he was the only basketball player I knew," Schumer said.

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Whether for his off-court exploits or on-court accomplishments, LeBron James is known everywhere, and he had the single biggest impact on his sport of any athlete during the 2010s. There was only one option for Sporting News' NBA Athlete of the Decade.

After infamously announcing during 2010's much-maligned "The Decision" special that he would be taking his talents to South Beach, James captured two championships over four seasons with the Heat, beginning a run of eight consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. That streak, a perfectly balanced four and four with Miami and Cleveland, put him in a category that had been reserved for Celtics players from the 1950s and '60s, including Hall of Famer Bill Russell.

His finest moment, however, occurred on the other side of the country in Oakland, Calif., when LeBron's Cavaliers clawed their way back from a 3-1 deficit against the mighty Warriors and won the 2016 NBA title. Game 7 of that series will always be remembered for James' iconic block of Andre Iguodala, a highlight difficult to comprehend years later.

And yet, despite all his basketball accomplishments, James may have changed the business of the NBA more than anything. That ill-fated "Decision" helped turn the league into a year-round spectacle and opened the door for athletes to control their images and how to disperse the messages they wished to send to the public. His use of specific contract lengths in free agency offered him maximum flexibility and pressured front offices to continue improving the roster around him. He didn't wait to team up with other stars and chase a ring in his final seasons like those before him — James left Cleveland for Miami, then Miami for Cleveland, then Cleveland for Los Angeles while still in his prime.

The irony in all of that? Others utilized his strategy to stop him. Kevin Durant joined the Warriors and bested James' Cavs two years in a row. Kyrie Irving demanded his way out of Cleveland and James' shadow. Kawhi Leonard left Toronto after winning a championship and Finals MVP to form a juggernaut with Paul George in LA and fight with James for Staples Center supremacy.

LeBron created the blueprint to reach the peak of hoops existence, and others followed it and pushed him back down the mountain.

James isn't done just yet, though. In Year 17 with Anthony Davis by his side — the result of a trade request announced by James' agent and longtime friend Rich Paul — James is playing at an MVP-level and defying the typical aging curve. He is breaking new ground with the Lakers, on pace to lead the league in assists for the first time in his career. He has a real shot to capture a fourth title, and maybe more.

But even if he never wears another Finals patch on his jersey, James' legacy is secure, a legacy that he largely built in the 2010s. This league is an incredibly tangled web, but start at any key point, and it's not hard to trace your way back to one man.

If you didn't know anything else about basketball this past decade, you knew LeBron.

By the numbers

  • 3 NBA championships

  • 3 NBA Finals MVP awards

  • 4 NBA MVP awards

  • 15 All-NBA selections

  • 15 All-Star selections

  • 6 All-Defensive selections

  • 33,000-plus career points (fourth all time)*

  • 6,911 career playoff points (most all time)

  • 8,900-plus career assists (10th all time)*

  • 87 career triple-doubles (fifth all time)*

  • 27.6 player efficiency rating (second all time)*

*As of publish date

What they're saying:

"LeBron is one of the best players now and his intelligent combination of team leadership, brawny layups, dominating rebounding and surgical passing is elevating the game to its next level. Just as Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and others did." — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

"It's just beautiful to watch him play. It's just fun how he rallies everybody. He's like a magnet and everybody, it's just beautiful to see him think three or four plays ahead. ... When you play with someone great every day, that makes you better." — Magic Johnson

"No one has ever before seen a player quite like LeBron. He's a five-tool player, fundamentally sound and able to do practically anything on the court. As the NBA continues to evolve, I think he is the model other players ought to emulate. ... I also admire him for continuing to improve his command of the game and his basketball IQ, year after year, instead of coasting on his athleticism." — Oscar Robertson

"He's been able to dominate this era. ... In my lifetime, I've never seen this. And I've played against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played against Michael Jordan. I don't think any of us have ever seen anything like what we're witnessing." — Isiah Thomas

"He's one of the all-time greats. If he doesn't slow down, like I said before, he's going to end up one or two [on the all-time scoring list]." — Dirk Nowitzki

"[LeBron] has already put himself on that Mount Rushmore. He's proven to be the greatest player of this generation. I don't like getting into comparisons and who's the GOAT and who's the best. I think it's stupid. I think it's impossible to do. I just know that he's doing some amazing things." — Grant Hill

The next decade belongs to: Luka Doncic, guard, Mavericks

"You're a bad motherf—er."

Those were James' words to Doncic after the Lakers defeated the Mavericks in one of the most entertaining games of the 2019-20 NBA season. There isn't a bigger stamp of approval than that.

At just 20 years old, Doncic has already worked his way into the MVP conversation by nearly averaging a triple-double and regularly posting lines only Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson can match. The Slovenian wunderkind hits deep 3-pointers off the dribble like James Harden and passes with flair like "Pistol" Pete Maravich.

Most importantly, he isn't filling the box score with empty stats — he is helping the Mavericks win. Dallas should earn a postseason berth in 2020 following a three-year playoff drought, and with the right team around Doncic, the Mavs could quickly become an annual contender.

There is something poetic about James eventually passing the baton to a kid who idolized him growing up. It speaks to both James' impressive longevity and Doncic's unrivaled ability for a player of his age.

"You never know who you can inspire along your path," James told ESPN's Doris Burke after that victory over the Mavs. "And you hope that you can inspire the next generation. And for me, by me playing the game the right way, always getting my teammates involved and playing for the purity of the game, I was able to inspire a kid that wasn't even in America. And that's pretty special.

"Obviously we see what he is capable of doing. His ability to make plays, not only for himself, for his teammates, the rebounding, just play for the pure love of the game. It's a beautiful thing to watch."

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