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Titles will be James’s best shot to stack up

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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CLEVELAND — The greatest basketball player of all time?

Sorry, I know this is sacrilegious, but I’ll always be a Wilt Chamberlain guy. The man averaged 50 points and more than 48 minutes per game over an entire season. His dominance forced multiple rule changes, including widening the lane.

You can’t go wrong with Bill Russell, of course. He won 11 championships in 13 NBA seasons. Russell never lost an NCAA Tournament game, an Olympic game, or a Game 7. Including Game 5’s (in best-of-five series), Russell went 21-0 in those contests.

Michael Jordan was pretty good. He won six championships and was voted the top athlete of the 20th century by ESPN. Better than Babe Ruth, they claimed.

Now we have LeBron James, the new best ever.

James will be part of our frenetic Hub sports world for the next couple of weeks. The Celtics are playing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which means they’ll have to get past the best player on the planet if they are to advance.

James today will officially be named the league’s Most Valuable Player for the second straight season, making him one of 10 players to win back-to-back MVPs. The others are Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Chamberlain, Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

James is only 25, but it’s already easy to make an argument that he’s one of the 10 best to ever play the game. By the time he’s done, he’ll certainly be in the discussion as “best ever’’ along with Jordan, Russell, and Chamberlain.

But first he’s going to have to win a few championships. This is LeBron’s seventh season and he’s still looking for his first ring.

Not all of the great ones win right away. Jordan didn’t win his first championship until his seventh season. Chamberlain crushed everyone for eight seasons before he finally broke through with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 (Russell had a lot to do with Wilt’s drought).

A lot of folks think this is the year LeBron finally wins a championship. Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry brought Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison into an already-talented locker room. The Cavs will have home court throughout the playoffs. They are convinced this is their year. So is everyone in Cleveland.

But that’s what they said last season when they went 39-2 at home, only to be stunned in six games in the conference finals by Orlando. Something tells me they will be stopped again this time.

It’s impossible to watch LeBron against the Celtics in the playoffs without thinking of the epic seven-game series these teams played in 2008. It was the Celtics’ most difficult series en route to banner No. 17. The Game 7 mano-a-mano between LeBron (45 points) and Paul Pierce (41) was an instant classic that reminded everyone of Larry Bird’s Game 7 shootout with Dominique Wilkins at the Old Garden in 1988.

James is a more accomplished player now than he was then. Next year he’ll probably join Bird, Russell, and Chamberlain as the only players to win MVP three years in a row.

Celtic lore is peppered with playoff series in which the Green came up against the best player on the planet. Russell regularly served Wilt his lunch in the playoffs and Dave Cowens was able to neutralize a young Abdul-Jabbar when the Celtics beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1974 Finals. The indomitable 1985-86 Celtics were able to push past the Chicago Bulls at the very moment Jordan was emerging as the game’s best.

James averaged 36.5 points in four games against the Celtics this season. In the 2008 playoffs, he averaged 26.7 against Boston, but shot only 35 percent. There was considerable angst in Cleveland regarding his right elbow leading up to this series (James took a lefty free throw at the end of the Bulls series because his right elbow was hurting), but nobody in Green was buying. The Celtics know what they are up against.

The locals think LeBron will re-up with the Cavs this offseason. They claim that covering LeBron is like covering a corporation. James is revered and respected, but nobody gets too close.

James has always been a good teammate. He applies himself at the defensive end. He goes to the basket with the force of Wilt. But he won’t be the best ever unless he improves his outside shot and learns to involve his teammates at the end of games.

That’ll help him get a couple of rings. And only then can we put him in the pantheon with the best of the best.

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