Where will LeBron James land on the NBA's all-time list when he retires? We know how he feels about the question: "I'm going to be one of the top four that's ever played this game, for sure. And if they don't want me to have one of those top four spots, they'd better find another spot on that mountain. Somebody's gotta get bumped."
Do our 5-on-5 writers agree?
1. Who gets the first spot on your current NBA Mount Rushmore?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Michael Jordan. MJ is a six-time champion and the NBA's career leader in win shares per 48 minutes and PER. In an era when the NBA was broadcasting Finals games on tape delay and in danger of slipping behind the NHL, he propelled the league forward. No disrespect to Joe DiMaggio and Mr. Coffee or Joe Namath and Hanes underwear, but Jordan was also the first pro athlete to fully realize the market potential of the individual team sport athlete.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Michael Jordan. He was a transcendent talent at shooting guard, redefining our perception of the position and pushing the league into the marketing machine it is today. In an era of unprecedented talent throughout the league, Jordan dominated in every way imaginable and is perhaps the strongest influence in the playing style of today's players.
Curtis Harris, Hardwood Paroxysm: Bill Russell. Thanks to superior speed, great leaping ability and impeccable timing, Russell revolutionized defense and controlled the game with his blocks and rebounds. The Celtics center remains an underrated passer (4.3 APG) and was money in big games. As a rookie in Game 7 of the 1957 Finals, Russell had 19 points and 32 rebounds. In Game 7 of the 1962 Finals he had a mammoth 30 points and 40 rebounds. That's how you get 11 titles in 13 seasons.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Bill Russell. The NBA's ultimate champion and ultimate statesman. I know Michael Jordan is bound be the popular pick here, but let's not forget Mr. Russell -- small-time as the league might have seemed in his heyday -- had to go head-to-head with Wilt Chamberlain to achieve all that success. Keeping Wilt off this mythical mountain gets you serious bonus points.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Michael Jordan. He transcended the sport, exceeding the popularity of every player before and after his reign. There are easy statistical cases to be made on behalf of Jordan's preeminence (four seasons with a PER exceeding 31), but that's merely a thin reflection of how Jordan made people feel, the world over. Nobody had seen a man dominate a game so thoroughly and so gracefully. I often doubt we'll see it again.
2. Who gets the second spot on your current NBA Mount Rushmore?
Arnovitz: Wilt Chamberlain. We need a big man on our Mount Rushmore and it's a very tough call as to whose likeness we sculpt into the rock. Bill Russell could easily go here, and the data suggests he was the superior defender. But Wilt holding up that slip of paper with "100" scribbled on it might be the most iconic photo in NBA history. If you gave truth serum to today's NBA players and asked them if they'd rather win a title or break Wilt's record, I suspect the majority would choose the latter.
Elhassan: Bill Russell. Another transcendent talent who changed the way the game is played and influenced future styles in the league, Russell was the original indomitable competitor, winning more championships than any other person in NBA history. He was the first superstar to make his impact primarily on the defensive end.
Harris: Wilt Chamberlain. The Big Dipper lived for the gargantuan and scored 100 points in a game. He also had a game of 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists, the only 20-20-20 game in NBA history. For all his noted individualism, though, it's important to remember that Wilt twice set the record for team wins in a season. His 1967 champion 76ers won 68 games. His 1972 champion Lakers won 69 games. Not bad for the four-time MVP.
Stein: Michael Jordan. I've always said that, as a child of the '70s and '80s, I'm more of a Magic-and-Bird devotee than a member of MJ's congregation. But I can't ignore the way most of the world feels about Michael and what he did to take this sport to levels of popularity they never would have dared to dream of in the Russell era. My biggest challenge in judging Jordan's place in history is the fact he didn't get the head-to-head push from a standout rival or team as Russell did with Wilt, as Magic and the Lakers did with Bird and the Celtics or even as LeBron is getting now from Kevin Durant. But even a stubborn nag like me concedes that MJ's greatness is one of the main reasons no one in the '90s could reach his airspace.
Strauss: Bill Russell is the greatest defensive player of all time, and defense is (at least) half the game. Much is made of how Russell won 11 titles, but it should also be noted that his Celtics finished first on defense in 11 consecutive seasons, mostly because Russell pioneered a whole new way of playing it. It also doesn't hurt Russell's case that he was a brilliant, fascinating, principled person.
3. Who gets the third spot on your current NBA Mount Rushmore?
Arnovitz: Oscar Robertson. If Robertson had been drafted a Knick or a Laker or won more than a single NBA championship, he'd be more than just a historical curiosity to most fans. The Big O was the prototypical modern NBA point guard, a 6-foot-5 master of the court with vision, dexterity and strength. But the most enduring element of his legacy was as president of the players' association in the early-'70s, when he led the charge to modernize the rules that governed player movement and instituted free agency.
Elhassan: Magic Johnson. ANOTHER transcendent talent who changed the way the game is played! Magic defined for us what a point guard should be, and he is the standard with which we compare all point guards as far as vision, passing accuracy, and best of all, ability to maximize the talents of teammates and keep everyone happy.
Harris: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The prolonged peak of his career is astounding and still not matched. As a rookie in 1969-70 he averaged 28.8 points. As a 38-year-old, 17-year veteran in 1986 he was still dropping 23.5 points a game. His skyhook was so unstoppable it made his greatness too routine and boringly automatic. Just a ho-hum six titles and six MVPs for the Lakers and Bucks great.
Stein: Magic Johnson. He revolutionized my favorite position and did it all with flair and charisma that, to this day, is pretty much peerless. The Big O, like Wilt, is on this mountain's waiting list because Earvin Johnson came along and, alongside Bird, changed the course of the game's history.
Strauss: LeBron James. Too early? While the story isn't over yet, few stories have been better through 10 seasons. He went from exceeding an almost mythic hype to prompting a public rage, to finding redemption in victory. Jordan was perhaps more famous, but no player was so scrutinized from so early an age. James posted advanced stats comparable to Jordan's, but the greatest testament to LeBron's legacy just might be how awful the Cavs are without him.
4. Who gets the fourth spot on your current NBA Mount Rushmore?
Arnovitz: Magic Johnson. We could place any number of players here -- Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Jerry West, Bill Russell, David Robinson (yeah, that's right), but Magic took Robertson's sketch of the modern NBA point guard and ran with it. Had he not contracted HIV, the five-time champion would've padded his sensational career numbers -- but he wouldn't have educated a nation about a condition that, prior to his announcement, existed only in the shadows.
Elhassan: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He's OK ... I'm kidding! Transcendent, of course. Kareem was the original LeBron, dealing with massive expectations out of high school and college and meeting those expectations seamlessly. Owner of the most devastating and unstoppable weapon in NBA history (the sky hook!), Kareem also showed players that they need not be defined by the game alone, and has distinguished himself with his varied interests, as a historian, author, actor, social activist and intellectual.
Harris: George Mikan. He played pro basketball for eight seasons and won seven titles. Prior to him, intelligent basketball observers viewed 6-foot-10 centers as sideshow freaks. Mikan emphatically tore down that notion, averaging an unheard of 28 points per game for the Minneapolis Lakers. Basically the George Washington of the NBA, Mikan's dominance attracted casual fans and media attention, thus keeping the struggling league alive.
Stein: Larry Bird ... by the slimmest of margins. Did LeBron really say in that interview that this was an "easy" call? That Michael, Magic and Larry were "no-brainer" choices? My brain hurts after trying to reconcile the fact that I'm going to be hitting send on these answers without including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in my top four. I ultimately decided that I can't separate Magic and Bird here, because they had to save the league first before Jordan could take it another level. But leaving Kareem off feels very wrong.
Strauss: Magic Johnson, who remains the best passer in NBA history. His credentials are well known, so I'll just use this paragraph to beg something of you: Please, please, go on Youtube and watch his highlights. They hold up better than any player's from that era. Magic didn't just play basketball; he puppeteered time and space with a smile on his face.
5. Will LeBron go down as one of the top four players of all time?
Arnovitz: Without question. If LeBron never played another game, he'd still have a compelling case. He's already in the top 20 in overall career win shares and second to Jordan in PER. But stats and on-court contribution aside, James will go down as the athlete who ushered sports into the social media era. Simply put, LeBron was the world's first viral athlete.
Elhassan: Narrowing down the pantheon of NBA greats is hard enough, and I felt bad leaving players such as The Dream, Larry Legend, The Big Dipper, The Big O, Sir Charles, The Mailman and The Diesel off of my top four. LeBron is already one of the top four players of all time, but the order (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder.
Harris: Perhaps. You can mix-and-match a combination of 12 players, in my opinion, for the four greatest ever. But LeBron's never going on an NBA Mount Rushmore. Don't forget the real Mount Rushmore is frozen in time. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt may not be the top four presidents ever. However, no one's removing Teddy's face to make room for Lyndon Baines Johnson. I'm not removing Mikan's to make room for the other LBJ either.
Stein: Love his confidence. Love his ambition. Love how he just raised the bar on himself when he's already trying to get to a fourth straight Finals. But I can't see him bumping any of the aforementioned four. Let's not forget that he also has to fully leapfrog Kareem, Wilt, The Big O -- and that likewise assumes his résumé will automatically eclipse a few fairly recent successes named Shaq, Kobe and Duncan -- to get us all scurrying for chisels.
Strauss: I believe he's there already, and he'll be there for awhile. The threat comes not from the past, but from the present and future. Kevin Durant is young enough to eventually usurp LeBron in the minds of many. Also, there are a bunch of superstars who will play in future generations. They'll be pretty good, I think.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz and Marc Stein write for ESPN.com. Amin Elhassan writes for ESPN Insider. Curtis Harris and Ethan Sherwood Strauss write for the TrueHoop Network.
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