Now that LeBron James has his first championship, we can start to talk seriously about his place among the game's all-time greats. While it's premature to include him among the top 10 players of all time, his third MVP and first Finals MVP have him vaulting up the list of small forwards. We ranked LeBron fifth a year ago. Where is he now?
Honorable mentions: Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant, Alex English, Bobby Jones, Bernard King, Chris Mullin.
Paul Pierce (1998-present)
Only Larry Bird and John Havlicek — spoiler alert: Look for those two later — have scored more points as Boston Celtics than Pierce, a nine-time All-Star who has averaged more than 22 points per game in his career. Unlike those Boston greats, Pierce seemed destined to be remembered as a great player on mediocre teams. Then Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen showed up, and Pierce proved he could be a great player on a great team, earning Finals MVP as Boston won the 2008 title.
Dominique Wilkins (1982-99)
He'll always be known as one of the greatest dunkers in NBA history, and for good reason. After all, how many people can say they beat Michael Jordan in a dunk contest, as 'Nique did in 1985? (MJ got him back three years later.) But "The Human Highlight Film" could score in a variety of ways. A poor 3-point shooter, he slashed to the basket and shot over 81 percent from the line, which helped him average more than 25 points for 10 straight seasons. Though he never came close to a championship, thanks mainly to the Celtics, he was the only reason to watch the Hawks for more than a decade.
Rick Barry (1965-80)
If kids today know Rick Barry at all, they probably think of him as the guy who shot dorky underhanded free throws. What they may not know is he made 90 percent of those foul shots, a career mark surpassed only by Mark Price and Steve Nash. They probably have no idea he was an explosive scorer who averaged 35.6 points in his second NBA season and, after a stint in the ABA, led the Warriors to the NBA title in 1975. A slick passer and ball handler, Barry was a mighty offensive force. The kids snickering at his form would do well to emulate him.
James Worthy (1982-94)
His career averages of 17.6 points and 5.1 rebounds are nothing special, nor is his status as the third-best player on the Lakers teams of the 1980s. What makes Worthy an all-time great was his elevated play when the stakes were highest. "Big Game James" averaged 21.1 points in playoff games, including 21.5, 23.7 and 22.0 in LA's three title runs (1985, '87 and '88). In Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals, he had 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists — one of the best big-game performances in league history.
Scottie Pippen (1987-2008)
Because all his greatest successes came with Michael Jordan, there is a tendency to either overrate or underrate Pippen. Everyone can agree he was a remarkably versatile player, an outstanding defender and a key member of six championship teams. But was he a superstar in his own right? He did finish third in MVP voting the season Jordan played baseball, but his skills and temperament seemed more suited for a Robin than a Batman. Still, if it's fair to say that Jordan brought out the best in Pippen, the reverse is also true.
Elgin Baylor (1958-71)
Baylor put up incredible numbers (career averages of 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists) but never won a title, thanks mostly to the Boston Celtics dynasty. While the 6-foot-5 Baylor wasn't an imposing figure on the court, he had an unstoppable running bank shot that helped him average more than 34 points for three straight seasons and make 10 All-NBA first teams. A knee injury hampered Baylor in the second half of his career and forced him to retire just before the Lakers stormed to the title in 1972.
John Havlicek (1962-78)
If Bill Russell was the anchor of the Celtics dynasty and Bob Cousy was the motor, then Havlicek was "the guts of the team," as Boston coach Red Auerbach called him. Tenacious and tireless on both ends of the court, "Hondo" made 11 All-NBA first or second teams and averaged 20.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists for his career. An eight-time champion, he's still best known for his play that sealed the Eastern Conference title in 1965: "Havlicek stole the ball!"
Julius Erving (1971-87)
Dr. J gets a slight nod over Baylor and Havlicek because of the way he revolutionized the game. With his spectacular athleticism and creativity, he ushered in the modern era of basketball. A three-time ABA MVP, he also made a huge impact on the NBA after the leagues merged, winning an MVP in 1981 and a title in 1983. Just as importantly, he served as an ambassador for the sport with class and dignity, an area where modern superstars often fall short.
LeBron James (2003-present)
At the age of 27, LeBron's resume doesn't have the long list of accomplishments boasted by Baylor, Havlicek and Erving. But with his career likely at the midway point, he's already set himself apart with his three MVPs and his sheer dominance in so many phases of the game. LeBron's sublime 2012 season puts him in elite company; few players have ruled the league like he does today. Only one other small forward has done it better for longer, so LeBron still needs several more monster seasons to reach No. 1 on this list.
Larry Bird (1979-92)
He might be the worst athlete on this list, but the Hick from French Lick is arguably the best shooter, most ruthless competitor and smartest basketball player ever to man the position — or any position. It's well documented how Bird and Magic Johnson rejuvenated the NBA with their rivalry in the 1980s, with Bird claiming three titles and three straight MVP awards. His trash talking is also legendary, but unlike many of today's yappers, Bird almost always backed it up.