Welcome to Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! This is a feature where we look back on yesteryear, dig into the archives, indulge in some nostalgia, and in some cases, wonder just what we were thinking. Check in every Wednesday for features and retrospectives on old basketball video games, old NLSC editorials published as-is with added commentary, and other flashback content.
Today, LeBron James turns 31. I don’t feel comfortable calling him one of the league’s elder statesmen just yet, mostly because I’m only a couple of months older than the King, and I’d like to avoid any “elder” labels for as long as I can. Nevertheless, at this point LeBron James is well-established as one of the league’s marquee players, biggest attractions, and all-time greats. He’s been one of the top players in basketball – and a candidate for being the top player in basketball – for over a decade now.
At times, it feels like the last decade or so has flown by very quickly. All of a sudden, here we are watching an NBA where LeBron James is in his thirteenth season. Like the great players that came before him, he’s become an institution. As such, if you’re a younger fan, it might be difficult to imagine him as an up-and-coming rising star, The Next Big Thing. Of course, when LeBron made his NBA (and NBA video game) debut back in the 2004 season, he was exactly that. With it being Wayback Wednesday, and also his birthday, I wanted to take a look back at early virtual LeBron, specifically his presence in NBA Live 2004.
Let’s take a look back…way back…
In his first official appearance in the NBA Live series, LeBron James was, to say the least, severely underrated. Because NBA Live 2004 was the first game in the series to use the 0-99 ratings scale in-game – previous games used a 50-99 scale in-game, corresponding to a 0-99 scale in the database – quite a few players appeared to be a bit underrated. Still, 69 overall feels unusually low for one of the most highly touted prospects in years. Granted, sitting here in 2015 we have the benefit of hindsight at our disposal, but it was still a low rating given the hype.
Of course, “hype” is a keyword here. Having made unofficial roster updates for many years, I can empathise with the folks at EA Sports (and 2K Sports) who have been responsible for the official rosters and ratings. Rookies in particular are extremely tough to rate, because they’re unproven at the NBA level. There’s a certain amount of guesswork involved and predictions don’t always pan out, so you do usually err on the side of caution. A mistake’s a mistake, but if you’re going to get it wrong, it’s probably better to have players be underrated and a little underpowered, rather than overrated and grossly overpowered.
So, who was better than LeBron James in 2003/2004, according to NBA Live 2004’s ratings out of the box? Antoine Walker (76), Corey Maggette (73), Kenyon Martin (74), a past-his-prime Alonzo Mourning (72), Jason Richardson (71), Juwan Howard (70), and Jalen Rose (76) were all rated better than LeBron. Teammate Ricky Davis appeared to be the Cleveland Cavaliers’ star player with a rating of 74. Cuttino Mobley, Nick Van Exel, and Andrei Kirilenko were on par with LeBron at 69. Even Kwame Brown was only a few points behind him, at 66 overall.
Yikes. Of course, the superstars he would eventually join forces with on the Heat – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – actually fared much worse. Wade was just 60 overall, while Bosh was rated a very underwhelming 59 overall. “Big Three”? Yeah, not with those ratings! For the record, friendly rival and NBA Live 2005 cover player Carmelo Anthony was rated 67 overall as a rookie in NBA Live 2004. Darko Milicic meanwhile was rated 62 overall, ahead of Wade, Bosh, and even Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, who for some reason was rated 61 overall. Ouch.
Seeing how it was a widespread problem, it’s fair to say that the change to the ratings scale did play a role in players like LeBron James being at least a little underrated in NBA Live 2004. In subsequent games, overall ratings have tended to be calculated a lot better and fairer across the board. By that point, LeBron had also proven himself with an impressive rookie season, followed by further campaigns that firmly established him as one of the league’s best players. Obviously, when his ratings were being devised in NBA Live 2004, those points of reference did not yet exist.
However, there are a couple of LeBron’s ratings that you can point to as being a little wide of the mark, or at least, erring too much on the side of caution. His field goal and three-point ratings of 63 and 55 aren’t too bad, as he was not a strong jump shooter or outside threat in his rookie season. His free throw rating of 60 is short of the 75% clip he shot from the line, but it was considered to be a weak area of his game coming into the league. His dunking and jumping ratings of 92 and 90 are on point, but his athleticism is otherwise underrated, with ratings of 62 for strength, 57 for quickness, and 72 for speed. 59 for passing, 32 for stealing, 68 for offensive awareness, just 44 for defensive awareness…even at the time, those were low ratings for King James.
Once again though, it’s easy to make these criticisms in hindsight. While a lot of people did expect great things of LeBron James, there was also scepticism that a player straight out of high school would be that good, at least immediately. With some of the overrated players in NBA Live 2003 – Darius Miles was an 87 overall out of the box – it’s understandable that the developer in charge of NBA Live 2004’s rosters would be hesitant to immediately give LeBron and his Class of 2003 alumni star-level ratings right out of the gate. And of course, the issues with the way overall ratings were calculated wouldn’t have helped, either.
Since then, LeBron James has seldom been underrated in NBA video games. The very next year in NBA Live 2005, he was an 84 overall in the default rosters. For years now, he’s been rated in the mid to high 90s, even maxing out at 99 in some of the official roster updates for NBA 2K. The ratings of virtual LeBron have mirrored his real life excellence, which has seen him win two championships, make five straight NBA Finals appearances, and rack up several triple doubles and other statistical feats. The story of his career has taken some interesting twists and turns along the way, from his early days of superstardom in Cleveland, to his controversial departure to the Miami Heat with The Decision, subsequently finding success in South Beach, and most recently his surprising reconciliation and return to Cleveland in 2014.
As for LeBron’s default ratings in NBA Live 2004…well, they are what they are. Fortunately, it was easy enough to edit them ourselves as his rookie season progressed, so he didn’t have to stay underrated for long. In fact, just for fun, I thought I’d post his default ratings from NBA Live 2004, and take another shot at assigning him some more appropriate ratings based on his rookie season and current performance.
LeBron James – Default Ratings in NBA Live 2004
LeBron James – Updated Rookie Ratings in NBA Live 2004
LeBron James – Current Season Ratings in NBA Live 2004
Note that these adjustments have been made according to NBA Live 2004’s ratings standards; there’d be some differences in NBA Live 2005-08, and of course, the more recent NBA Live and NBA 2K games which have a wider array of ratings. With that said, feel free to let me know what you think, and what ratings you’d give LeBron James in NBA Live 2004, then and now.