The NBA’s 30 best go-to players (#4: LeBron James)

By: 10.23.09  •  75 Comments

LeBron James

Who do you want your offense to run through with everything on the line? Counting down 30th to 1st (one per team), I’ve ranked the League’s go-to guys…

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#4: LEBRON JAMES, Cavaliers

Under a different set of circumstances and a different kind of criteria, I could easily argue that LeBron is the all-around, pound-for-pound best player in basketball. In fact, save for the existence of one Usain Bolt, I could argue for ‘Bron as the top active athlete in any sport today.

So what is LeBron doing holding any spot other than #1 or #1A on this list?

Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. As bad as that loss may look on the surface — LBJ’s top-seeded, 66-win team mishandling a series against a team whose best player can’t operate 10 feet away from the basket — I’ve already gone over why Cleveland’s failure to advance to the ’09 NBA Finals was no fault of their King.

In the Orlando series, LeBron answered questions of whether he could hit a big three-pointer when needed (Game 2), of whether he could knock down clutch free throws (Game 4), and of whether he could simply take over and will his team to a win while facing elimination (Game 5). And those were only the most recent displays of LeBron’s underrated abilities in the clutch: According to, dating back to the beginning of his rookie year, James has more game-winning shots than anybody in the NBA. Last season he ranked second to Kobe in “clutch time” scoring (55.9 points per 48 minutes) and first in assists (12.6 dimes per 48), while also leading the League in fourth-quarter scoring.

There are a few lonely stats that don’t work out in LeBron’s favor — his 4.8 turnovers per 48 minutes of clutch time was among the highest in the League — but the reasons why he doesn’t make this year’s medal stand of go-to players have more to do with experience and simple preference.

Personally, I don’t trust LeBron taking a jumper in the fourth quarter as much as I would trust the three men who will rank ahead of him. I trust him just a little less to step to the line and hit those ice-veined free throws. And I look at LeBron’s hands and see he doesn’t have that certain blinding piece of jewelry the top three have. Also, while it’s hard to blame one of the most powerful athletes in the League for using bull-rush tactics when he needs to create a shot as often as he does, that approach sometimes results in critical turnovers and creates scenarios where LeBron needs to rely on a referee bailing him out.

Really, though, at the stage in the game it’s hard to have a wrong answer. You take any of the top five or 10 players on this list as your franchise guy, and you’re going to win a lot of games and contend for championships.

At this stage it’s about what style do you want to watch. For me, I can appreciate the calculated moves of a Floyd Mayweather-type over the overwhelming onslaught of a Ricky Hatton. There’s not much wrong with the Hatton way if you know how to work it — and LeBron does — but over time he’ll come to know that having tools in your box other than a gigantic sledgehammer can make you that much more dangerous.

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5. Tim Duncan
6. Dirk Nowitzki
7. Brandon Roy
8. Carmelo Anthony
9. Chris Paul
10. Deron Williams
11. Vince Carter
12. Joe Johnson
13. Danny Granger
14. Steve Nash
15. Kevin Durant
16. Gilbert Arenas
17. Derrick Rose
18. Chris Bosh
19. Andre Iguodala
20. Tracy McGrady
21. Baron Davis
22. Michael Redd
23. Devin Harris
24. Kevin Martin
25. Al Jefferson
26. O.J. Mayo
27. Stephen Jackson
28. Nate Robinson
29. Boris Diaw
30. Rip Hamilton

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