SAN FRANCISCO — With skills that strike like lightning, at once electric and spectacular, his combination of size and strength and quickness are unlike anything ever seen in a league that has featured Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

Yet LeBron James demonstrates an easy competitive grace, making him a fantastic student, teammate and opponent.

Maybe a bit too fantastic to lead a team to an NBA championship.

James is blessed with the qualities of selflessness and politeness — two admirable characteristics that are, much to the detriment of God's green earth, in diminishing supply nowadays. Two characteristics appreciated within our sons and daughters and friends and neighbors.

Two characteristics that don't get rings.

Don't get me wrong. LeBron is highly competitive. He wants to win. He enjoys winning.

But there is no sign of obsession. At least not yet. At this stage of his life, three weeks past his 21st birthday, James has no desire to be defined by winning. Cleveland's 6-foot-8, 240 pound swingman has not been gripped by the absolute need to win it all.

James acknowledged Thursday, after practicing with his Cavaliers teammates at USF's Memorial Gym, that he does not buy into the theory that winning is necessary to validate greatness.

"Some of the great basketball players haven't won championships, and they're still considered greats," he said. "But that's what people judge you by, winning championships. Hopefully, I'll get better every day, and my teammates will get better every day, and we'll just do the best we can."

James, in his third season, has plenty of time to rethink his position on obtaining jewelry. But is it possible he lacks the mean streak essential to pushing, prodding and willing teams to the top?

Killer instinct, it was called once upon a time.

Jordan had it. Leaving a trail of dismissed coaches, weeping teammates and sobbing opponents, MJ was remorseless.

Magic Johnson had it. He sacked coaches, was hard on teammates and harder on opponents. Magic's mantra, "Winnin' Time," suggested anything less than winning it all was failure.

Tim Duncan and Chauncey Billups have it. They're quiet, as considerate as they come. They also are, especially in the postseason, bristling with intensity and bravado.

Whether Shaq has it is debatable. He didn't need it in Los Angeles, for he had Kobe Bryant as a teammate. Each provided what the other needed.

Kobe, the man to whom LeBron is most frequently compared, including in today's paper, has it to such excess he rarely displays sincere appreciation of his teammates.

LeBron, to the contrary, may display a bit too much.

"He's so unselfish — sometimes too unselfish," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said.

LeBron is not comfortable, not yet, with being selfish. He'd much rather underplay his impact than take charge.

"I've always been a pass-first type of player," he said. "But my teammates have come to me and told me to be more aggressive, be more selfish. That's kind of hard because that's not my game. But if my teammates ask me to so something like that, I have to take it and run with it."

The Cavs, having seen LeBron's prodigious talent, would like to see how badly he wants to win. He is their best hope, and they know it.

Which is why they follow, generally in vain, as they did Thursday when LeBron went unreal on them.

As Brown conducted a postpractice news conference, James and the rest the Cavs goofed off. James, of course, goofs off better than everyone else. He drained a one-handed 85-foot shot, as he does in the sports drink commercial, and walked off.

His teammates kept shooting. They're probably still shooting.

Because James is the answer to an ailing franchise's prayers, widely considered The Man Who Saved Cleveland.

Ever the diplomat, he accepts what has transpired this season. The Cavs, hit by injuries, are a relatively disappointing 20-16.

"You can't get aggravated. You can't lose focus," James said. "There's no way we can be a championship team without our full (roster). We're missing guys. We're missing Drew Gooden. We're missing Larry (Hughes). Z (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) is not 100 percent. We know we can't even compete for a championship without all of our guys back."

James is humble, genuine and handles himself with the wisdom of someone 10 years older. All that and incredible game.

He does not yet know the delight in making the playoffs or the ache that comes with being sent home. It will come, as his teammates improve.

And maybe it will awaken something within James, at which time a trophy will be waiting.

Monte Poole is a panelist on "The Last Honest Sports Show," Saturday at 6:30 and 10 p.m. on UPN 44 (cable Channel 12). He can be reached at (510) 208-6461 or by e-mail at mpoole@angnewspapers.com.