Would Lebron James Have Survived in the 80’s-90’s?

Co-Written by Kenneth Wilson

The other day in our company group chat, TJ decided to be the devil’s advocate and post “LeBron James would have sucked in the 90’s,” knowing he would get a response. That response came, and Kenneth brought the thunder. This exchange fostered (you guessed it,) A DEBATE.

To Kenneth and TJ, there are three main points of debate; LeBron’s flops, his mental toughness, and how he would fare if he had to avoid the paint. Here are their takes.


Kenneth’s Take: LeBron James has come to be known by some as “LeFlop”, and I honestly can’t say that I disagree with it. However, there are other players who put on the same type of “SAG” worthy performances and are lauded and applauded. These players include the likes of Draymond Green, who not only finds himself flailing along the floor like a fish out of water, but often finds himself on the other end of most of these physical situations as the aggressor. Let’s travel down to Houston where the “flop” master resides in James Harden, who flops every time he drives the lane. There’s the head jerking, that if were real would have severed his spine already. Last example here, Russell Westbrook, who in fact is playing out of his mind, but flops like it is going out of style. Ironically enough here is a brilliant example from his last game against Golden State:

The point here isn’t exactly to say that he does it because everybody else does it, or even to say that because everybody else does it, that makes it alright, but that is actually my point. LeBron is as cerebral as they come, and he has adapted to the league. As the league, his role, and his teams have continued to evolve over the course of his career, so has he and his approach. A great example is if you think back to early in his career when he faced the Pistons in the playoffs as a Cavalier, he took a “licking and kept on ticking”. When he became a member of the Miami Heat, he continued to bulk up to prepare for the beating he would take as he transitioned into more of a power-guard, point-forward type of role. This role saw him take a beating, but it seems he began to realize the types of calls he would, could, and could not get, as the flopping behavior began to develop as well. He then cut the bulk when he came back to Cleveland as he knew it would be a wide open game with he and Kyrie doing the heavy lifting. His “floppy” attitude was in full swing as he was a little lighter and less bulkier looking, combined with the fact that he would be playing in a faster, more wide-open, and high impact offense. So if you say he is a flopper, true, but he isn’t doing anything outside of the realms of the game. He is playing the game, as he is the game. Hunter Hearst LeBron, if you will.

TJ’s Take: I’ll admit, I’m not a basketball guy. I’m actually a hockey guy, so that may have something to do with why I’m unforgiving of Lebron’s tantrums, flops, and his refusal to face the music when things don’t go his way. But this debate isn’t about what he’s able to do on the court. This is about his personality, his paper skin and the fact that he has the maturity level of a 12-year-old girl.


He pulls that against the nutcracker Draymond Green and you’re gonna tell me he’d challenge Charles Oakley? He cries to the refs any time he gets touched, and they cater to him because he’s the face of the league. That didn’t fly back in the day. His 3-step walks would be whistles every time. And when he complained about it, Anthony Mason would have murmured such a personal and graphic insult to him that he may have been on suicide watch. If Lebron brought his drives to the paint against the ’88 Pistons, Bill Laimbeer would have flattened him just to make a point. Back in this era of basketball, the players were actually bad dudes, not these pretenders we see today.

Mental Toughness

Kenneth’s Take: When thinking about the mental toughness of LeBron, this isn’t really something that can be quantified or proved with numbers. You can use a few pieces of qualitative data however to not necessarily put a number on the “amount” of his mental toughness, but confirm he has it. Before you can go to those instances, you must however address certain instances when he showed how mentally weak he could have been.

If you think back to his last game in Cleveland on the first stint, and the way he exited the floor while simultaneously removing his jersey, that showed a real fragility that really frightened those who followed LeBron and the NBA closely. That was a real moment of mental weakness for “ the chosen one” and it was on display for the world to see. The next huge moment would be after his Miami Heat team lost in the finals to Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. The way LeBron acted was really bratty, and it was apparent as well.

That was also an apparent turning point in Lebron’s career though as he would come back to lead the Heat to a championship and his first title. Doing this in the fashion in which they did showed a real mental toughness. The most vivid example of his mental toughness is a two fold example all in itself, and this was the championship that he led his team to last season. Not only did the Cavaliers beat the team that had beat them the prior year in the finals, but they did so in a rare fashion by coming back from 3–1 down on the road at “Roaracle Arena”. Considering LeBron is the undisputed leader of his team, and best player on the planet, the expectation he shouldered alone shows how mentally tough the guy is.

TJ’s Take: When the game is on the line, you always want the ball in the hands of your best player right? Not if your best player is LeBron James. From the ‘06-’07 season to the ‘15-’16 season he shot 10.6% on shots that would have tied/won the game. Being unable to maintain your composure at the most crucial points of the game isn’t exactly a good look when you’re talking about mental toughness. Here’s a compilation:

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Also here’s one of my favorite LeBron Tantrums. Everything’s always about him, he draws all this attention to himself then expects privacy when things don’t go his way.

How He Would Operate If Forced To Avoid Paint

LeBron is a man that lives in the paint, not by force however but by choice. When you have the skillset that he does, you can get anywhere you want to on the court in the first place, but simply starting inside the paint makes everything that much easier.

When thinking about “operation” inside the paint, that would be sitting, posting, or doing the majority of your work in the paint. I would consider this to be a fair estimation, but it is a very abstract concept when considering the fact that even though sometimes the finish may occur in the paint, the “work” or “operation” does not occur there. Some of the most vivid examples of this come in the form of some already familiar names in Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They are great examples because even though they finish a lot in the paint and attack the basket on a regular basis, “the Beard” could start “cookin” anywhere from the three point line to the low block. “Brodie” prefers to snatch it off the offensive glass and take it the whole way himself, probably because it allows him to build momentum. The thing to remember though is that the majority of their “work” takes place before they even touch the paint.

With all that in mind, LeBron would be totally fine if he were forced to “avoid” the paint. Where avoidance in this situation is more like no direct “post ups” and less “slashes”, LeBron would still get his. There would be less power finishes, and more pivots or “up and unders”. There would be less highlight dunks, but more hook shots, “runners” and “tear drops”. Along with the fact that he is so good that he could do all those above mentioned things and be just as effective, his outside shot has visibly improved this season, which is only an indication of improvement in his shot and touch overall. This is heavily indicated in his 3 point field goal percentage this year, near 38 percent, almost 4 points higher than his 34 percent career average. As his jump shot is clearly improving, which it has every year if you actually watch him shoot it, even if you take “putting the ball in the basket” out of the equation he is still very effective. As mentioned, he is as cerebral and a skilled player as they come, and with his playmaking, defensive, and all around other abilities, he would thrive no matter the situation.

TJ’s Take: LeBron’s three-point shooting percentage isn’t bad at all, at a career .341. As Kenneth mentioned, he’s shooting the three-ball at nearly 38% this season, but the sample size is small. Over his career, LeBron only attempts 4.0 3-pt FG’s per game and only makes 1.4. He’s not a bad shooter, but it’s tough to say he’d be able to make a living exclusively outside the paint.


Parting Takes

Kenneth: All in all, there are questionable aspects to every player’s game or the way they go about playing the game, except for LeBron James. You may question his motivations and even his methods, but there are a few things that can never be questioned, and they are his basketball IQ and his will to win. These are the main reasons why you cannot really question LeBron when it comes to his application of the “flop”. He uses a rule to his advantage that every other player in the league uses, he just so happens to be the best player alive, which is why it gets the most attention. This is also the case when talking about his mental toughness. Essentially, he is a fixture in the news and public eye on a daily basis and is criticized for anything that he does, but he continues to be the best player on the face of the earth. If he weens a little the world moves, but he always keeps his composure and remains the picture of calm when ever he is faced with anything. Lastly, and when thinking about LeBron and how he would fare avoiding the paint, he would be fine. This is easily explained by looking at previously made points, his basketball IQ and mental toughness to be exact. Although he would not “live” there, he would still find a way to get off a high quantity of high quality shots from a good high percentage area, because he is that smart and determined to do so.

TJ: LeBron loves to be the bad guy, but it’s pretty hard to act hood and play the tough guy villain when you turn around and make your whole team do a mannequin challenge with Michelle Obama or drink O’Douls on a banana boat with players from other teams in the offseason.

Lebron James very well could have dropped a triple double every game in the 90’s. I recognize the fact that he is possibly the most spectacular athletic specimen ever to walk the planet, but the sad fact is that he would have crumbled under the verbal and physical abuse he would have taken in the 80’s and 90’s NBA. “King James,” as he nicknamed himself, is a pretend bad guy half the time and spends the other half of his time hiding from the media because something didn’t go his way. His first look is to the officials after every play. Not only does he flop often, but he’s not even good at it. This guy’s will to play the game would have broken his rookie season, had he been born 20 years sooner (and I wish he were so no one would have any idea who Brian Windhorst is.) Ain’t no such things as halfway crooks, Bron Bron.

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