Thursday, June 8, 2017
Could LeBron Pass M.J. as Greatest Ever?
In sports, historical discussions about players and teams are unavoidable. Do they matter to the games and season at hand? No. But they're undoubtedly a great thing about being a sports fan, even if "G.O.A.T." and "best team ever" arguments have caused countless temporary frustrations between friends and family members.
For the sport of basketball, the greatest player of all-time argument has always felt the most accessible of any major sport. One, its professional league is by far the youngest of the four major sports, meaning that a much larger proportion of the population has seen most or all of the greatest names in the sport play in their primes.
Furthermore, the fact that the best players play the vast majority of the game in a five-a-side sport means that we have a better idea of how much a player shines above the rest in all facets of the game.
Of course, this doesn't mean there can't be a consensus about who the greatest basketball player in history is. Most people would obviously say it's Michael Jordan.
However, after LeBron James' stellar regular season and even more remarkable playoffs, it now seems that many are not reflexively calling Jordan the best ever anymore. And honestly, I can't blame these folks one bit. In fact, in some respects, I agree with those who now might think that LeBron, not M.J., is the greatest player ever. The former perhaps taking tips from the great Jordan.
What seems impossible to fathom is that we're at this point in 2017. It wasn't even 20 years ago that Jordan retired for the second time, completing the repeat three-peat with that immortal jump shot in Salt Lake City. It hasn't even been 15 years since Jordan played his last minutes with the Wizards.
Jordan's legacy was supposed to be so untouchable that it was going to take 100 years for someone to even approach the accomplishments that His Airness piled up. Instead, a player who began in the NBA the season immediately after Jordan's ultimate retirement is his nearest historical rival.
Yet, I just can't bring myself to say that LeBron is better than Jordan at the current time. Instead, I think the question we should be asking as basketball fans is, "Can LeBron pass Jordan before his career is over?"
To that, my answer is a definitive yes.
To me, a sizable part of Jordan's GOAT mystique comes from the fact he made six Finals, won all six in his final six full seasons before retiring the second time, never had to even suit up in a Finals Game 7, and won four championships with the pressure of being defending champion.
His playing style was so incredible, and his ability to score, defend and dominate without a great big man on his teams turned 45-plus years of traditional NBA wisdom on its head.
Obviously, LeBron doesn't have that untouchable record of winning on the grandest stage, which is why many of your cable TV hot-take artists who love to reduce everything down to championships will always consider James inferior.
However, James has now been to eight Finals, a number not seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired; and seven in a row, not seen since the Celtics of the 1960s (and, of course, teammate James Jones). Jordan also didn't make the Finals as a 22-year-old with someone like Zydrunas Ilgauskas as his best teammate.
And while Jordan was the dominant force on a team that won 72 games and went 15-3 in the playoffs that spring, he never scaled a mountaintop in the Finals like LeBron did last year in knocking off the 73-win Warriors. If LeBron can somehow beat a seemingly unstoppable Warriors team yet again in the Finals, which looks very unlikely at the time of writing after the Cavs went down 0-3 on Wednesday night, he gets that much closer to Jordan.
If I had to narrow this debate down, I would say that Jordan is the most ruthless winner and greatest competitor that basketball has ever seen, while LeBron is the most naturally and physically gifted player ever.
But the reason I have to still put Jordan ahead is because of the eras each played in.
It feels like I mention this every time I write an NBA article here, but today's league makes for such a friendly era for offense and putting up big numbers across all categories. Twenty years ago, the opposite was true.
In one of the more infamous games Jordan won, Utah scored 54 points for an entire NBA Finals game. Under today's rules, and I say this without any hyperbole or irony implied, I think a random power-conference NCAA team could put up 54 in 48 minutes against an NBA playoff team.
LeBron would almost certainly put up similar kinds of numbers in the '90s due to his wide frame and ability to get the rim, but it's impossible to think he'd get as many assists as he does now.
Meanwhile, Jordan would absolutely feast on the tight hand-checking rules today. Heck, Jordan averaged 37 ppg as a usage hog in 1987 when teams didn't try as hard on defense as they did in the '90s. In today's league, after Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for a whole season, Jordan would be putting up stats galore. In 1996, not even one of the Monstars from "Space Jam" would manage a triple-double.
Jordan, while shooting just 33 percent on threes for his whole career and shooting roughly one of every 14 shots from behind the arc, could nonetheless thrive in an era with greater floor spacing and more three-point attempts, as evidenced by his 40 percent mark during the three seasons in which the three-point line was moved in from 1995-97.
But for my money, LeBron could end up putting so many additional amazing seasons to come that he could conceivably pass Jordan by adding another couple rings and putting up the same type of season he's been putting up for a decade-plus for another five years or so.
Consider this: LeBron is 32 and just put up his third best offensive season ever. Sure, he's probably lost half a step on defense, but as these playoffs have shown, he's about as physically dominant as he's ever been with the ball in his hands. For Jordan, age 32 was around the time he had to adjust his skill set because he couldn't get to the rim as often.
We also know that LeBron is incredibly committed to taking care of his body with a variety of tools and techniques that NBA players didn't have access to in past generations or weren't using. Jordan, as great as he was and has hard as he trained, was also known for staying out and smoking cigars all night in Atlantic City.
To me, it is not crazy to think that LeBron could have at least three or four more seasons of averaging at least 25 points, 6 points and 6 assists every night. That could give him something like 17 or more consecutive seasons of a stat line that only 11 men have ever managed once. It would be hard to say that person stands second to anybody.
Even if LeBron falls in four games to the Warriors in these Finals, the fact that we're even able to legitimately bring up the Jordan comparisons is a huge testament to his greatness.