I thought I could make it past my fifth column. Week after week, I have resisted the urge to weigh in on debates over LeBron James, despite their frequency. What a better world it would be if all of the sports debate shows could give even one segment to tennis or hockey.
Despite my desire to avoid the LeBron vacuum, I have been drawn in by the comments of Fox Sports 1’s Colin Cowherd. While Cowherd has not built permanent residency in the LeBron fan club like his colleagues Nick Wright and Shannon Sharpe, he has avoided the anti-LeBron ravings of Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock.
Last week on his talk show, The Herd, Cowherd proposed the hypothetical of trading James for star Duke University forward Zion Williamson. Although Williamson’s talent is undeniable, I think Cowherd is too caught up in his potential and is dismissing James’ greatness.
He compares the two star basketball players to stocks — James is declining, and Williamson is on the rise.
“The only reason you would not make this decision is fear,” Cowherd said.
Further, Cowherd cites the numerous basketball experts in professional and collegiate circles who have come to a consensus: Williamson is going to be great.
Cowherd is valuing a college basketball player greater than the best NBA player of all time or, even by the harshest standards, a top-10 NBA player. For comparison, Williamson is still in college and is 18 years old.
Let us continue with Cowherd’s stock analogy. You do not have to be in the MSB to know the importance of minimizing risk. Williamson has never played in the NBA. While no one can question his excellence at Duke this season, any thoughts about his professional career are mere speculation.
He certainly has a lot of potential. So did Sam Bowie, a star center at Kentucky in 1984, and Greg Oden, a standout big man at Ohio State in 2007. Both players who completely flopped in the NBA.
I am not here to argue that Williamson’s career will fail as theirs did, but the potential of collapse remains. On the other hand, James is not a guessing game. He has 16 years of NBA basketball as evidence for his success.
James has averaged 27 points per game to go along with seven assists and seven rebounds per game in his career. He has earned four MVP awards, most recently in 2013. In the process, he has led teams of relatively low quality to nine NBA Finals, winning three of them, including in 2016 against the Golden State Warriors, who that year held the best single season record in NBA history at 73-9.
All of that withstanding, the talk of the town is that he is declining. While it is true that the Lakers will miss the playoffs this year, some context is needed to fully understand their underachieving.
The Lakers also missed the playoffs the previous five seasons before James’ arrival. While this year may not have been his best, it certainly was not his worst. James averaged more points, rebounds and assists per game than his career averages, all while shooting a better percentage from the field.
By the ultimate measure of team success, his squad came up short. That being said, the decline of James has been greatly exaggerated.
While Williamson’s NBA prospect is risky, James’ is sure. In a time when players rest because they played the previous night or because of fatigue, James is the iron man of basketball. He has started at least 75 games in 12 different seasons, including all 82 just one year ago.
James is a risk-free asset that delivers the highest return — a rarity in the sports world today. For all the talk about how Williamson is going to be great, James already is — the argument need not go any further. Fortunately for the Lakers, Cowherd recognized the minimal probability that a trade like this would ever happen. Williamson has had difficulty in his own shoes this season. It is hard to imagine him trying to fill those of LeBron James.
Grant Zangwill is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. Did I Hear That Right? appears every other Friday.