Underrated Geniuses: Lionel Messi, LeBron James, and the “Curse of Consistency”

Lionel Messi and LeBron James are the two greatest players of all time.

Yup, I said it.

But don’t worry — This isn’t an exploration into the ridiculously wonderful careers of these two legends and an explanation as to why I feel they’re the two greatest ever. Even though I could go down that path, too many are set in their beliefs and biases to ever be swayed, so why bother (although I did try once with Messi).

Instead, I’m going to be tackling something else. I’m going to have a look at some of the similarities between their respective careers with an emphasis on the same unique problem that has cursed these two for some time now — their consistency.

As someone who’s followed and admired both careers, I almost think it’s best to write about them when the media perceives them to be in a “low” rather than a “high,” and that’s where each supposedly are right now. LeBron just lost his 5th NBA finals and Messi’s arch rivals Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo just won back to back Champions League titles.

However, as is typical of the two, their supposed “lows” are better than nearly everyone else’s “highs” and that’s just one parallel between them. In addition to being the two best at their respective sports, they have experienced nearly identical careers and have had similar successes and, almost as crucially, similar failures.

Both were child prodigies. Both dominated their sports as teenagers. Both had the weight of an entire city (or country) on their shoulders. Both were labeled as saviors: Messi – “the Messiah,” LeBron – “the King.” Both are incredibly selfless and try to make their teammates better. Both have won numerous titles and countless individual awards. Both are the two most gifted and complete players in the history of their respective sports. Both have lost major finals. And both have absolutely ruled their sport for a decade.

Lionel Messi LeBron James

And now, we’re tired of their greatness.

Why? Because they have been so unbelievably good for such a long period of time.

This, in part, can be explained by the “Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility,” which states that the more you consume a good, the less satisfied you will be with each successive consumption.

So, as we’ve grown accustomed to their constant dominance, and watched (or “consumed”) them play stellar game after stellar game, it no longer “satisfies” us as much as it used to and we start to want more. It’s why we’ve started to hold them to higher and higher standards until they are judged by (arguably) the most ridiculously lofty standards any players have ever experienced. We expect excellence and nothing less. And in recent years it’s been these absurdly high expectations that have led to the unfair criticism of both players and shown that, if anything, we now under appreciate just how incredible they truly are.

LeBron James
Despite an historic season, LeBron James finished 4th in the MVP race this season.

I’ll start with a look at LeBron.

This past season, LeBron James had one of the most impressive and efficient seasons in NBA history, becoming the first player to average at least 25 points per game, 8 rebounds per game, and 8 assists per game while shooting more than 54% from the field.

Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson are the only two that ever came close to these numbers.

And yet, LeBron James wasn’t a finalist for the MVP. Somehow voters deemed he was not one of the three “most valuable” players in basketball this season despite the fact that he averaged 26.4 ppg (54.8 FG%), 8.6 rpg, 8.7 apg, his team lost all 8 games he didn’t play this season, and his team was 15.1 points better (net) when he was on the court compared to when he was off the court. If that isn’t “value” then I don’t know what is.

LeBron James Lionel Messi
Although statistics don’t tell the whole story, this clearly shows LBJ’s value. (Credit: Fox Sports)

So, let’s have a look at the three players that finished above him.

Russell Westbrook – 31.6 ppg (42.5 FG%), 10.7 rpg, and 10.4 apg

James Harden – 29.1 ppg (44 FG%), 8.1 rpg, and 11.2 apg

Kawhi Leonard – 25.5 ppg (48.5 FG%), 5.8 rpg, and 3.5 apg

Although these are undoubtedly superb statistics and Westbrook and Harden had two of the best seasons of all time, it still could be argued that LeBron had a better season than both of them (which Fox Sports’ Nick Wright does here). But there is no way one can argue that Kawhi had a better season than LeBron other than the simple fact that we’ve grown tired of his greatness and we’ve come to view his ridiculous achievements as the norm. And in a way, they have become the norm as LeBron became the first player to average 25+ points per game in 13 seasons and surpassed Oscar Robertson as the player with the most “25-7-7” seasons ever. But this has become LeBron’s norm, not the rest of the league’s.

I mean just look at what LeBron was doing in 2007 when he was 22 years old…

En route to leading one of the worst teams in NBA playoff history to the finals, LeBron rattled off this performance in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against a superb Detroit team. He had 48 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists, shooting 54.5% from the field and incredibly scoring the Cavs’ final 25 points (and 29 of the team’s last 30) to completely will the Cavs to an improbable victory.

“At this age (23) LeBron is better than anybody I’ve ever seen in 37 years in this business, including Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady. I’m willing to bet my company’s millions that he will meet those high expectations.” – Adidas recruiter Sonny Vaccaro

And nearly a decade later, LeBron put in a similarly jaw-dropping performance against the best team in NBA history.

Down 3-1 to the Warriors, LeBron and the Cavs found a way to win game 5 and needed to do it again in game 6, which they did. Thanks to a certain LeBron James.

LeBron scored 41 points, had 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks and unbelievably shot 59.3% from the field. Complete domination.

Another outrageous performance against another incredibly good team nearly 10 years after the first. And during those 10 years, LeBron put on these types of performances over and over again.

So, these superhuman feats no longer feel as superhuman to us because he’s done it for so long and with such an astounding consistency that it simply seems routine. But that’s the thing. It is not routine. It is ridiculous. Look at those statistics I mentioned above. No player in the history of the game has done that, and yet because he’s put up these insane numbers for so many years we don’t think anything of them anymore. Seeing LeBron go off for 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists is his standard, so it no longer excites us.

I mean seriously — LeBron just became the first player to ever average a triple double during the finals, but you hear more about how he let his team down and couldn’t “lead” them to victory despite playing historically well throughout the series.

And he’s criticized for making the correct basketball play and finding one of the best 3 point shooters in NBA history wide open. He can’t win.

Q: Obviously, you’re no stranger to criticism, right? There are some people that feel that with 50 seconds left in the game, you guys up two, they would like to see you kind of force more in those moments to try to score that basket yourself as opposed to dishing it away. So, If you could have the play over again, would you still make that same pass?

A: If I could have the play over again, I would come off a three-screen situation. Draymond (Green) would switch on me with five fouls. I would get him leaning. I would drive left. I would see KD step up. I would see Stephen Curry drop on Kevin (Love). And I would see Kyle Korver in the corner, one of the greatest 3-point shooters in this league’s history, and give him an opportunity in the short corner. I would do the same exact thing. – LeBron

Source: (ESPN)

*Messi did the same thing in the 2014 World Cup, but his teammate delivered.*

LeBron approved. Showing another one of their similarities.

We, the fans and the media, hold LeBron to a higher standard than any other player in the league… and rightly so. But, when it comes down to it we can’t convince ourselves that averaging 25-8-8 isn’t special simply because he’s nearly done that for 13 years in a row and pretend that other players that put up worse numbers are “better” or “more valuable” than LeBron just because he’s LeBron.

And if all of this doesn’t show you how the “curse of consistency” has impacted LeBron, just look at this statistic that shows how in a season where LeBron wasn’t even a finalist for the MVP, he was considerably better than these two previous MVP seasons from Steph Curry and Derrick Rose.

Talk about having high expectations…

And now a look at Messi.

Like LeBron, Lionel Messi has been at his best for a decade.

So, Leo faces the exact same problems that LeBron does and this is evident when no one bats an eye at all the incredible things Messi does on a football pitch week in week out because it has become normal for him.

Messi, along with his rival Cristiano Ronaldo, has redefined what it means to be an elite goalscorer, as the two of them have scored roughly 50-60 goals per season for about 8 consecutive seasons and Messi has scored more than 38 goals 9 seasons in a row. To put that in perspective, Thierry Henry, one of football’s best ever strikers, scored 39 goals in his most prolific season.

And, as if these remarkably consistent goalscoring exploits weren’t impressive enough, Messi has also been breaking all sorts of records along the way. Most goals in a single season (73), most goals in a single calendar year (91), and most goals in El Clasico (23). All records that stood for about 40 years before Lionel came along…

Also, Messi has unbelievably finished in the top 3 of the Ballon d’Or (the prize given to the world’s best player) every year since 2007 when he was just 20 years old.

Not even his rival Cristiano Ronaldo can match that record.

He was playing alongside established superstars like Ronaldinho, Eto’o, and Deco, and was playing against established superstars like Raul, Thierry Henry, and Didier Drogba, but by the tender age of 20 he had already surpassed them.

This performance showed that despite playing alongside Ronaldinho, who was crowned the world’s best in 2005, Messi had already become Barcelona’s main man.

And to his credit, Ronaldinho recognized and embraced Messi’s talent, helping him become the best he could be. Here’s what he told Kobe Bryant back in 2004.

“A long time ago, Ronaldinho and Barcelona came to Los Angeles and he told me ‘Kobe, I’m going to introduce you to the player who will be the greatest of all time.’

I said, what? You are the best.

And he told me, ‘No, no. This kid right here will be the best ever.’

And that guy was Lionel Messi, who was only 17.” – Kobe Bryant (Source: Mirror)

So, Messi has been doing this since 2007, which makes judging him fairly and accurately nearly impossible. We expect absolute perfection and nothing less; if he doesn’t give us that then the media will unfairly criticize him for holding him to those ludicrous standards.

A notable example of this is the immense criticism he received following Barcelona’s 3-0 defeat to Juventus in the quarter finals of the Champions League. Messi was comfortably his team’s best player and set up his team with two gilt-edged chances that were not converted. So, Barcelona lost 3-0 and the main story line was how the MSN front line (Messi, Suarez, and Neymar) was terrible.

“The attacking duo (Messi and Neymar) were expected to make the difference for Luis Enrique’s injury-ravaged side, but were disappointing in Turin” – The Sun

But, Messi wasn’t terrible. Messi was actually quite good (by anyone’s standards other than his own).

And this is why his incredible consistency augments our perspective of him. Because he’s been so brilliant for so long, we expect jaw-dropping performances every time he steps on the field, so when he delivers just a good performance we’re disappointed because we want more.

This is evident when we evaluate his entire seasons as well. In 2013-2014, everyone criticized him for a “bad season” despite scoring 41 goals in 46 games that year and most staggeringly of all, he didn’t make the UEFA Team of the Season in 2013.

Lionel Messi
Messi was excluded by fans in 2013 despite leading Barcelona to the La Liga title and scoring 46 league goals in 32 matches.

While Cristiano Ronaldo undoubtedly deserved his place that year, scoring more goals than anyone in 2013, there is no way that Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus, Franck Ribery, or Gareth Bale deserved to be in the team ahead of Lionel Messi. And like LeBron not finishing in the top 3 for the MVP this past season, the only explanation for Messi not making this list is that we grew tired of Messi’s constant success and he was a victim of his own astonishing consistency.

In a year riddled with injury, Messi scored 45 goals in 46 games in 2013, which was only less than Cristiano (69) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (47), who both played more matches than Messi. He also led his team to the La Liga title, scoring an obscene 46 goals in 32 matches while becoming the first player in history to score in 21 consecutive league fixtures. For 21 straight games, Lionel Messi scored at least 1 goal. A record that’ll likely never be broken.

Along the way, Messi wowed us with fantastic performance after fantastic performance, leaving us stunned with every dribble, pass, and goal. Of course, we’d grown accustomed to his magic by this point, but that shouldn’t make it any less impressive and that shouldn’t be the reason he didn’t make the UEFA Team of the Year.

Lionel Messi LeBron James
Messi won the European Golden Boot in 2013 as Europe’s top goalscorer, but still didn’t make the TOTY…

Ozil, Reus, and Bale all had phenomenal seasons in their own right, but none of them scored more goals than Messi, broke more records than Messi, or won more trophies than Messi. And while Ribery helped Bayern win the Champions League and the Bundesliga, this is an award for being a great player, not for necessarily being a part of the best team.

But in the end, a year in which Messi scored 45 goals in 46 games wasn’t enough and Messi, like LeBron, was cursed by his consistency.

2009: 41 goals, 64 games (0.64 goals/game)

2010: 60 goals, 64 games (0.94 goals/game)

2011: 59 goals, 60 games (0.98 goals/game)

2012: 91 goals, 69 games (1.32 goals/game)

2013: 45 goals, 46 games (0.98 goals/game)

Funnily enough, Messi made the team of the year in every year but 2013 and you can see why that was the case. After 91 goals in 2012, scoring 45 no longer seemed impressive and scoring basically a goal every game was no longer enough. Voters felt he had a “down” year, but as you can tell, Messi’s “down” years are basically better than everyone else’s “best” years, and it’s unfair to compare Messi to Messi when voting on these types of awards.

Otherwise you would almost never vote for him because it’s so hard for him to match his incredibly high standards year in, year out, and yet people still do that. In 2016, Duncan Castles, a football journalist, voted for Manuel Neuer over Lionel Messi despite the fact that Messi won La Liga and tallied 59 goals and 31 assists in 62 games.

Again, talk about high expectations…

Instead of appreciating the talents of Leo Messi and LeBron James, we nitpick and try to find excuses to convince ourselves that they aren’t actually that dominant. By holding them to impossibly high standards or by constantly comparing them to the greatest moments of Michael Jordan’s or Pelé’s careers or by arguing they “have it easy,” we try to lessen their achievements. Think of how many times you hear the argument that Messi and LeBron are only this good because of “how the game has changed in their favor” and that they wouldn’t be able to do this in another era because they wouldn’t be able to handle it physically. We try to find excuse after excuse because it doesn’t make sense to us how two athletes who aren’t named Pelé or Michael Jordan can be this good.

“However, while Messi’s exploits deserve to be celebrated and cherished, it must also be recognized that he has capitalized on a number of changes in the modern game.” – Carlo Garganese (Goal.com)

Why do we have this mindset? I’m not entirely sure, but maybe it stems from the fact that we like to cling to the past. Messi and LeBron are the first legitimate threats to Pelé and Michael Jordan, the “unanimous” best players of all time, and it seems we don’t want to believe that someone actually could be better.

Messi and LeBron get criticized for things that MJ and Pelé never got criticized for and we glorify their specific moments instead of glorifying Messi and LeBron’s moments.

This is explained by Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd.

I once read a quote about Messi that read, “Messi’s magical moments don’t get appreciated as much because there are so many.” And that’s exactly where his consistency hurts him yet again. With Zinedine Zidane you remember 1998 and 2002. With Maradona you remember 1986.

But for Messi there are too many to count.

What’re his defining moments? His goal vs. Getafe? His hat trick vs. Real Madrid at 19? His goal vs. Real Madrid in the CL semi final? His goals in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals? His 4 goal performance vs. Arsenal? His 5 goal performance vs. Bayer Leverkusen? His goal vs. Bayern in the CL semi final where he made Boateng fall? His incredible solo goal vs. Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Cup Final? His last minute winner and iconic celebration against Real Madrid?

And the list goes on and on. You probably didn’t even have the time to watch all of these, which kind of says it all.

It’s the same idea with LeBron James too. He constantly puts up ridiculous, historic numbers and has put together 3 of the greatest finals series performances in 3 consecutive years against arguably the greatest team in NBA history and has been to the finals 8 times. So, how do you really pick his most iconic moments when he’s constantly producing more?

And even when he’s performing at his absolute best and delivering iconic moments, people try to downplay the accomplishments. In the 2015 Finals, he led both teams in every statistical category and yet he was criticized for another finals defeat. In the 2016 Finals, he rallied his team back from a 3-1 deficit with superhuman performances in games 5, 6, and 7 and yet people argued it only happened because Draymond Green got suspended. And in the 2017 Finals, he became the first player ever to average a triple double in the finals, and no one batted an eye. Seeing a pattern?

In the end, my conclusion from all of this is that Lionel Messi and LeBron James are unquestionably underrated. Of course, they are generally considered the best players in the world and win countless awards, but neither are valued as much as they should be and I find that to be absolutely ludicrous.

I hope this has changed your perspective slightly and will allow you to view these two in a different light for the rest of their careers. They’re both on the wrong side of 30 now, so stop nitpicking and start appreciating the greatness they display each and every game. Appreciation is what greatness deserves, and no one is greater than Lionel Messi and LeBron James.

I don’t believe we’ll ever see two geniuses like the King or the Messiah ever again. So, if you don’t take a step back and realize how privileged we are to witness these two play, then you’re just missing out.