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Saturday, February 16, 2013
Updated: February 17, 6:33 PM ET
King James' ultimate goal

By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- To LeBron James, this isn't about Kobe or Michael.

And James has little time for critics who count championship rings or wonder if his dominance would transcend eras alongside other NBA legends.

Presumably at the peak of his prime -- age 28 -- James insists he isn't playing for anyone's recognition or any particular distinction other than his own. So at a time when the NBA world is comparing him to Jordan, James' sights are higher.

He's thinking more like Ali.

"I want to maximize my potential. I want to maximize the gifts I've been given and showcase it to the world every night I step on that floor," James said of his ultimate NBA mission. "If I do that each and every night, I'm going to put myself in position where I can be the greatest of all time."

The G-O-A-T.

That's the title James longs to embrace when his career is done. It's a goal many of the best NBA players share. But few have ever been on a consistent pace to get there.

LeBron James
LeBron's ready to take off in Houston.

James is on his way. He takes the next methodical step toward that destination when he anchors the Eastern Conference team in Sunday night's All-Star Game at the Toyota Center. The last time the league's midseason showcase was played in Houston in 2006, James departed as the game's MVP as a 21-year-old rising superstar.

The following year, James guided the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in his fourth season, where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. James returns to Houston for his ninth All-Star appearance and will be starting at point guard -- his third different starting assignment.

Perhaps no one is more qualified to objectively evaluate James' game -- and his potential to emerge as the best individual talent to ever lace up sneakers -- than Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has witnessed the evolution.

Popovich, who will coach the West team on Sunday, didn't hesitate Saturday to distinguish between James from the 2007 Finals and the current iteration -- the three-time league MVP who finally broke through for his first title with the Heat last season.

"Let's just say he's a grown-a-- man now," Popovich said of James' development. "I'm thankful as hell that we caught him at the right time [in 2007]. That's called serendipity. But he's a grown man now. Different story."

The historic run James has been on the past two weeks has served as a microcosm of his season, Popovich said.

The Heat own the best record in the East and entered the All-Star break having won seven consecutive games. During that stretch, James became the first player in NBA history to score at least 30 points and shoot at least 60 percent from the field for six straight games.

James said he remembers being in a similar zone one other time in his career when injuries forced him to take over point guard duties full time in Cleveland in 2010 and he averaged a triple-double during an undefeated two-week run.

"I do remember that stretch when the point guard went down in Cleveland -- I had the assignment where I had to do a little bit of everything," James said Saturday. "I'm still trying to do a little bit of everything now, too, but it's different. I think I'm shooting the ball at a higher clip from all over the floor. I think the best thing about the way I'm playing is that it's resulting in us getting team wins."

Therein lies the difference with James these days.

"No. 1, he's improved his skills," Popovich said. "He shoots the ball much better. You can't just back off LeBron now. But the second thing about him is peace of mind. He's learned how to tune out all the people out there who give him advice and don't have a clue what they're saying."

Popovich isn't certain where James will end up in the greatest-of-all-time debate, but insists he's already in good company with plenty of time to build on that legacy.

"He's one of the smartest, most instinctive players there's ever been," Popovich said. "He's like Michael. He's like Kobe. He's like Larry. Tim Duncan is like that. They just have a feel for the game, and they know what should be done. He doesn't need anybody to tell him that. I think for a while, he probably listened to all of that stuff, because when you're young, you're a little sensitive. But now, he trusts his teammates more. But more than anything, he trusts himself to make the right decisions, and he doesn't worry about all the junk out there going on around him."

James' ability to better cope with much of the national chatter -- be it praise or harsh criticism -- is understated.

"I'm not going to worry about where I'm ranked by the experts or the non-experts that we so-called have in sports," James said. "But to me, what makes me happy, and what makes me feel like I can be the greatest of all time is if I can continue to be on the path that I'm on."

It's difficult for some to see James stumbling off track anytime soon. His shooting percentage from the field has improved each of the past seven seasons. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he's on pace to become the first player to average at least 25 points a game and shoot at least 55 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range.

And that's already with three league MVP awards in tow.

But in terms of championships, Bryant (five) and Duncan (four) are the only active players who have led teams to more success than James. Bryant said James is not unlike many other greats who have played the game, whether he admits it or not. They all measure their success by rings.

Bryant said he believes LeBron understands the larger point Jordan made when he recently told NBA TV that Bryant is the better of the two based ultimately on his titles.

"I think the message is [that] winning is above everything else," Bryant said of James. "That's what drives him. Same thing that drives him now: Win as many as you can. And it's really that simple. He's hitting one of those patches where the hard work and talent are all coming together."

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said James has handled the comparisons and the media crush this week about as well as he's conducted his business on the court this season.

Spoelstra also said there's only one way to end the debate about legacies and determine the game's best player.

"It probably gets old for LeBron," Spoelstra said. "First of all, if you're getting compared to the greatest of all time, it's a compliment. Secondly, it's never a fair comparison. It's impossible to compare players from different generations. I think what we'd all love to have is a time machine, so they could go back and play against each other in their primes. That would be pretty cool. I know our guys would love the opportunity to play against those Bulls from the 1990s."

For now, James will focus on continuing his stellar play on the biggest stage the NBA can offer, short of the Finals.

James knows that to be the best, there are still a number of legends he has to chase. Whether it's Jordan, Bryant, Jerry West or Magic Johnson, who remain ahead of James on his own personal list of all-time greats, we'll never know.

James simply refuses to say.

"It's a couple of names -- let's just say that," James said. "I don't do it to say I'm better than this guy or that guy. I do it for my own inspiration. There will never be another Jordan. I'm just trying to make my mark where there will never be another me."