About a week ago, the Cavaliers and the Hawks played. It was a regular game without much of anything of consequence happening, until it became extremely the opposite of that. What happened was: With about three and a half minutes left in the second quarter, Taurean Prince received a pass out near the right side of the 3-point line. He caught the ball, looked over the floor, saw that it was him and LeBron James in a one-on-one, and decided to give it a shot.
He jab-stepped once to his right to see what LeBron would do. LeBron didn’t bite. Prince jab-stepped again to the right, and this time LeBron hopped over to cut him off. Prince, spotting the opening, accelerated past LeBron in the other direction. And, honestly, it looked for a moment like it would work; he got his shoulder past LeBron, gathered the ball, and rose up for a layup. And that’s when catastrophe struck.
Turned out, LeBron had set a trap. He intended to funnel Prince in exactly that direction for exactly one reason: to thunderstrike him in the forehead with a battering ram made of titanium. Prince jumped for the layup, thinking it was safe as he let the ball go, and then, like one of those clips where they show the giant great white shark exploding out of the water into the air as he eats a seal, LeBron appeared. He reached his arm up alongside Prince’s, put his hand up into the sky, and then legitimately and actually and literally volleyball-spiked the basketball back down to the floor. It was phenomenal, really. So much so, in fact, that the Atlanta crowd (they were playing in Atlanta) OOOOOOHHHHHHHHHH-ed loudly for several seconds in response. Look:
Later in that same game, LeBron, because he probably still had the taste of blood in his mouth, blocked a Dennis Schröder layup by pinning it against the backboard to clinch the game for the Cavs. And it was right around that time when a friend of mine (David Oksman) asked me a question that I have not stopped thinking about: If you were to take all of LeBron’s dunks and put them on a mixtape, and then take all of LeBron’s blocks and put them on a different mixtape, which of those mixtapes would be better? Meaning: What’s better, the whole of LeBron’s dunks or the whole of LeBron’s blocks?
It feels like the answer has to be dunks, right? Because how could it not be? Dunks are fantastic and LeBron does them a lot. Here’s a fun fact: LeBron has nearly twice as many dunks in his career (1,651) as he does blocks (844). Here’s another fun fact: LeBron has been in the NBA for 15 seasons. Guess what season it was when he had the most dunks. LAST SEASON, if you can even believe that shit. He was 32 years old and had 145 dunks. For comparison, he had 91 dunks as a fresh-legged 19-year-old rookie. For an even better comparison, Kobe, against whom James is often measured, had 38 dunks when he was 32 years old. They played nearly the same amount of minutes in those seasons (LeBron played 2,794 minutes and Kobe played 2,779 minutes) and LeBron had nearly 400 percent more dunks than Kobe. That’s nuts. And to get back to the original point: That’s just you and me talking only about the number of dunks LeBron has had. We haven’t even gotten into the quality of dunks LeBron has had.
Because, I mean, remember the time he literally jumped over John Lucas III for a dunk? Or the time he dunked on Damon Jones so extremely and brutally that he broke character? (LeBron dunked on Jones on a fast break, then tried to do that Stone Face thing he likes to do, except he was so overcome by his own athletic brilliance that the TV cameras caught him smiling at himself as he walked away from the wreckage.) Or the time he put a stake through Jason Terry’s heart or his knee through Delonte West’s chest? What about the time he atom-bombed the Celtics? Or what about the time he did that ridiculous double-clutch dunk against the Grizzlies or the time he did that ludicrous triple-clutch dunk against the Mavericks? And let us not ignore his tornado dunk on Rasheed Wallace or the time he desecrated a religious monument in San Antonio, same as we should not ignore any of his alley-oops, be they from Boobie Gibson or Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving or J.R. Smith or anyone else, because they are always works of art. There are so, so, so many truly special dunks.
But here’s the thing of it: The actual correct answer to the question is that the whole of LeBron’s blocks is better than the whole of LeBron’s dunks. And you can successfully arrive there through three different roads.
You can argue it from a “signature move” angle. Each and every one of the top-level, all-time-greatest, instant Hall of Fame players have had a signature move. Kareem, for example, had the skyhook. Timmy had the bank shot. Hakeem had the Dream Shake. Iverson had the crossover. Dirk has the one-legged fadeaway. On and on and on. LeBron has one, too. Except it’s not an offensive move. Because it’s the chase-down block. You don’t even have to type his name into the Google search when you’re looking for information about chase-down blocks. All you have to do is write “chase-down block” and then click “Enter” and it’s page after page of LeBron. (My favorite thing: When Fox Sports put together its list of the 25 most disrespectful chase-down blocks in NBA history, LeBron had three out of the top four spots, four out of the top six spots, five out of the top nine spots, and six out of the top 11 spots.) A signature move is earned over years and years of re-creating incredible things through the same motions. For LeBron, it’s the chase-down block. That’s a big card to be able to play.
You can argue it from an aesthetic angle. Same as with his dunks, LeBron has several different kinds of blocks. He has the blocks where he’s trying to prove a point. (Those are the ones where the play ends with the ball swatted out into the fourth row.) He has the blocks where he’s trying to embarrass someone into submission. (Those are the ones where he barks something at the person he just blocked. My preferred example of this variety is the one where he blocked a dunk attempt by Evan Turner and then got up and shouted “You tried!” at him, because that’s just really funny.) He has the blocks where he’s trying to remind someone that he’s royalty and how fucking dare you. (Those are the ones where he adds an extra amount of disdain. He rarely does it, but when he does it is 100 percent electric. The all-time-best example is when he blocked Steph Curry during the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the 2016 Finals and then basically called him The B Word in front of everyone.)
He has the blocks where he’s trying to let you know that there is nothing you can do to win. (Those are the ones that feel entirely medical and purposeful. There’s no posturing or showboating. The block is just a thing that has to be done, same as how a butcher has to kill a pig.) (They are the most terrifying ones to me.) He has the blocks where he’s trying to pay respect to history while also being incredibly disrespectful to his contemporaries. (Regarding the Schröder block I mentioned earlier when I was talking about the Cavs-Hawks game, LeBron wagged his finger after he did it, just like Hawks legend Dikembe Mutombo used to do it after he’d blocked someone.) He has the blocks where he’s trying to let everyone know that he is the gatekeeper to heaven. (Those are the ones when he slaps a shot attempt and then stands under the rim while everyone else runs off. I watched him do this in the 2013 Finals against my beloved Spurs when he decided that Tiago Splitter was unworthy of ever playing basketball again.) And he has the blocks where he jumps so high to stop the ball that he nearly crashes his shoulders into the backboard. (Those are the ones he used to do when he was younger. They’re so kinetic and frenetic that, for real, I don’t know how he made it through that part of his career without his legs exploding.)
And perhaps most powerfully, you can argue it from a legacy angle. Answer this question: What is the defining play of LeBron’s career? I’ll tell you what it’s not: a dunk. Because what it is is a block. And I’m of course talking about his block on Andre Iguodala during the final two minutes of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. It’s the play of his that will live on the longest and be replayed the most in every big montage of great basketball moments, because it was an absolutely incredible feat (per ESPN Sport Science, he covered the first 60 feet of his sprint in 2.67 seconds; he had a top speed of over 20 mph; he jumped with so much strength that his blocking hand reached the ball 11.5 feet off the ground; and he had a “window of opportunity” to block the ball that lasted just 0.2 seconds) and it was performed under the most dire and stressful of circumstances.
LeBron’s blocks are better and more substantial and more important than LeBron’s dunks. He’s in the top seven all time in regular-season scoring and no. 1 all time in playoff scoring. And still, his blocks beat out his dunks.