The 4 Hall of Fame careers of LeBron James
A new approach to quantifying LeBron James' greatness.
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As someone who covered LeBron James for four seasons in Miami, I understand how easy it can be to become numb to his greatness. At 38 years old, LeBron has been a constant for 20 years, and remains one of the best players in the game.
If you’ve seen the same thing for two decades, can you meaningfully grasp how rare it is?
Consider the following:
He’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer
He’s the NBA’s all-time leader in win shares (playoffs included)
He has played in 282 of a possible 282 playoff games. That’s three full 82-game seasons worth of playoff basketball without missing a game. And then some.
And yet, I don’t think any of that stuff has fully resonated.
Like standing at the base of a skyscraper, the sheer scale of LeBron’s career may be difficult to fathom. But there are ways to solve that problem. Back in 2021, my friend Luke Knox at ESPN beautifully illustrated how Tom Brady has put together three Hall of Fame careers. Which is astounding! Three Hall of Fame careers in one?
Well, here’s the thing about that guy on the Lakers:
LeBron James has stacked four Hall of Fame careers on top of each other.
And I can prove it.
The Hall of Fame probability toy
My pals at Basketball-Reference have a handy tool called Hall of Fame probability that attempts to quantify an NBA player’s career accomplishments through the lens of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Thanks to the magic of logistic regressions, bball-ref crunched the numbers on what matters and what doesn’t when it comes to making it into the Hall.
When it comes to NBA careers, it determined that there were five significant factors:
All-Star Game Selections
NBA Top 10 NBA Leaderboard appearances in the following categories:
NBA Peak Win Shares
Height (apparently, the shorter you are, the better chances you have!)
From there, bball-ref can tell you, with pretty good confidence, whether a professional player who has spent most of his career in the NBA is Hall of Fame material. I should point out here that the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA is not the NBA Hall of Fame or the American Basketball Hall of Fame but rather an institution dedicated to honoring basketball greatness across the world. Hence, why Dino Radja, he of four unspectacular NBA seasons, is in the Hall.
For this exercise, I want to use the bball-ref tool and apply it to LeBron James’ NBA career. As you might have guessed, he registers a 100 percent Hall of Fame probability. Duh.
But here’s my question: How many LeBrons could make the Hall? As in, could we break LeBron’s career into sections and have each component be worthy of Hall of Fame induction?
Let’s find out.
Deconstructing LeBron’s Career
My first thought was to divide his career into four neat and clean stints:
Cleveland Cavaliers 1st stint (7 seasons; 2003-04 to 2009-10)
Miami Heat (4 seasons; 2010-11 to 2013-14)
Cleveland 2nd stint (4 seasons; 2014-15 to 2017-18)
Los Angeles Lakers (5.5 seasons; 2018-19 to 2023-24)
Do all four of these team stints register a 50+% Hall of Fame probability?
When I deconstruct his career this way and plug the numbers into the formula, James’ Lakers’ stint from 2018-19 to 2023-24 falls short. It generates a Hall of Fame probability of “only” 21.3 percent.
Even if we make the safe assumption that LeBron makes the All-Star team this season, it would only bump his Lakers’ stint to 42.9 percent. Still not there.
Let’s tweak the segments a little bit.
Let’s make it lighter on the front end and fatten it up on the back end, but maintain at least four seasons in each stint.
First five years in CLE. Ending age-23 season.
Next four seasons. Age-24 to Age-27 seasons.
Next four seasons. Age-28 to Age-31 seasons.
Next eight seasons. Basically his 30s.
What does the HOF calculator say about that breakdown?
Holy shit, LeBron does have four Hall of Fame careers in one.
Lest you think the notion of LeBron having four Hall of Fame careers is unreasonable in the abstract, I would argue that James’ career is unreasonable in the abstract. The guy has been an MVP candidate for about two decades straight.
(I could successfully break it into 5 Hall of Fame “careers” but it would require having chunks that lasted two and three seasons. I’m ambitious, but even I couldn’t back that).
Breaking his career into four separate parts, in some ways, makes his story more plausible. Whether you love him or hate him, the plot points of James’ story already contain some archetypal elements – the hometown hero; the Miami villain; the Hollywood mogul, etc. James’ 21-year career is almost like a Hollywood studio took a four-part TV series and smashed it into one movie because the budget dried up.
But what if we breathed a little life into these career sections?
As it is, James’ narrative arc offers some pretty tantalizing parallel universes. Let’s make these Hall of Fame scenarios a little more real. For this exercise, I’m taking LeBron’s actual, real-life Hall-worthy career segments and weaving a narrative that makes it feel whole.
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The Four LeBron HOF Careers
1. The Greatest “What if” Ever
The source material: LeBron’s first five seasons 2003-04 to 2007-08
It’s admittedly difficult to consider a world in which LeBron James wasn’t an indestructible force. But let’s imagine a scenario where LeBron’s career follows the same exact beats for the first five seasons.
LeBron Raymone James, the hometown hero from Akron drafted No. 1 overall by the nearby Cleveland Cavaliers, immediately delivers on his promise and The Chosen One makes Northeast Ohio a national basketball powerhouse. As a 22-year-old, James carries a 50-win team to the NBA Finals. The following season, James wins his first scoring title and extends the top-seeded Boston Celtics all the way to a contentious Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. He joins the Redeem Team that summer in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
That summer, however, the story of LeBron James takes a tragic turn. In the gold-medal game, James’ leg buckles in the closing seconds and the team holds on for victory. During an emotional medal ceremony, James receives the gold pendant on crutches and his teammates dedicate the victory to James.
Let’s imagine that James was never the same after that. Instead of 21 seasons of dominance, he goes down as a local legend who became the biggest What If story in sports. After a few seasons of laboring on the floor, he decides to hang it up as his body can no longer withstand the rigors of the NBA. His finishing career accolades: four All-star appearances, a scoring title, Olympic gold and an NBA Finals appearance. Does he still get inducted in the Hall of Fame? You betcha.
2. The College Hero
The source material: LeBron’s next seasons 2008-09 to 2011-12
In this parallel universe, James doesn’t go straight to the league out of high school because Cleveland doesn’t win the 2003 draft lottery. Instead, he decides to live out his collegiate dreams in Columbus at his beloved Ohio State. He waits for the right moment to jump to the NBA. He convinces the Buckeyes to hire John Calipari, the charismatic Memphis coach who is as plugged into the NBA power structure as any collegiate coach.
James spends the next four years at Ohio State, restoring prominence to the Buckeyes basketball program that hadn’t won a championship in almost 50 years. In his senior year, he is joined by Mike Conley and Greg Oden and gleefully cuts down the net in the national championship. The greatest college player who ever lived decides to sit out one season after Cleveland’s luck strikes out again on draft lottery night. He spends the year training at various college campuses and commits to play for the Redeem Team in the Olympics a la Christian Laettner in 1992. And then, in 2008, the ping-pong ball comes up “Cleveland,” James announces The Decision on ESPN: He’s going to the NBA.
The story merges here in 2008. Following gold in Beijing, LeBron wins the 2008-09 MVP as a rookie, averaging 28.4 points, 7.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds and a baffling 20.3 win-share total for the 66-16 Cavaliers. In the playoffs, James sends a message and destroys the Detroit Pistons, the team that won the 2003 draft lottery and instead took Euro star Darko Milicic No. 1 overall. After two seasons in Cleveland, James decides to go to Miami without a TV spectacle (remember, he has already made The Decision in 2008) and wins a title in 2011. With four magnificent seasons atop the NBA, he pulls back from the NBA grind and decides to spend more time with to pursue his entrepreneurial ambitions.
Crowned at all three levels – high school, college and NBA – LeBron retires with a bonafide Hall of Fame career including a regular-season MVP, a Finals MVP and four All-Star seasons at the NBA level. With James perched in a Shark Tank chair, the OKC Thunder launches a dynasty following the 2012 heartbreak in the NBA Finals.
3. The Football Star
The source material: LeBron’s four seasons 2012-13 to 2015-16
After being a two-time All-State wide receiver at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, James decides to shun the basketball route and instead opts to chase football stardom. Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, James becomes the greatest tight end to ever play the game.
But James feels unfulfilled. Although James is considered the superior tight end to Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates on the gridiron, Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith fuel the flames and proclaim that Gonzalez and Gates were better basketball players. An annoyed James decides to prove once and for all that he could dominate two sports.
Leaving the NFL, James joins the Miami Heat to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Right away, James asserts himself as basketball’s most transcendent player, reminding the world that he was the basketball prince that was promised. He wins the NBA title against the San Antonio Spurs but loses next season’s rematch. He goes back home to Cleveland and beats the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the Finals to bring the championship home to Northeast Ohio. On stage accepting the trophy from the commissioner, James announces his retirement from the game in storybook fashion. He finishes his football career suiting up for the Cleveland Browns back home.
There has never been an NBA career like James’: four seasons, two titles in two different cities and four All-Star appearances. King James goes down as the greatest American athlete ever, establishing a throne atop two of America’s favorite sports.
4. The Euro Pioneer
The source material: LeBron’s last 8 seasons
The story of LeBron James diverges even earlier. In this version, a 16-year-old LeBron meets a Spanish foreign-exchange student named Carlos “Conejito" Rodriguez on the blacktop courts on the St. Vincent-St. Mary’s campus. The two hit it off while playing pickup hoops and a conversation at the water fountain changes everything. Rodriguez tells James that back home in Madrid, James can become a pro as a 16-year-old and play for Real Madrid’s club team.
On ESPN, James announces his decision to follow Rodriguez back home to Spain and becomes the first-ever American prodigy to play in Europe as the nation’s top prospect. Blazing his own path, James becomes a global phenomenon and earns a nine-figure salary before he turns 18 years old.
After dominating the European hoops scene with four EuroLeague titles, five Spanish Cups and six EuroLeague MVPs, James returns to the NBA as a 31-year-old business mogul to play for the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Two superb seasons later, he decides to chase a title in Hollywood playing for the Lakers. A pandemic hits and James wins the NBA championship in the Bubble as the world looks on from quarantined homes. With a championship to his name and eight brilliant seasons of basketball in his 30s, James polishes off his Hall of Fame career with five All-Star appearances in the NBA and a multinational business empire.
In this version, James convinces the NBA to build a transcontinental division with Real Madrid playing the Lakers two times a season. In one final game, Real Madrid’s Conejito Rodriguez and LeBron James announce their retirement together, holding each other’s jerseys one last time.