The other night, LeBron James and the LA Lakers won the NBA title, defeating the Miami Heat in 6 games. The Lakers fans had not yet gathered at the Staples Center to celebrate the first Lakers title in 10 years when some sportswriters and commentators started the discussion on whether LeBron is the greatest ever. And everyone knows who LeBron is compared to, Mr. Jordan.
Some in the media quickly said that this is not a legitimate championship as King James had an easier time earning his 4th title. In other words, LeBron and company did not have to play Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks and Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers – arguably among the best teams in the league this year. Unfortunately, to a basketball fan who wanted to see the best 4 teams remaining in the playoffs, the Bucks lost in the 2nd round as did the Clippers. I believe the Lakers were expected to play both teams on the way to a championship but strange things happen in the NBA, especially being in the Orlando bubble for nearly 100 days. Perhaps he’s had a little good fortune during the path to a championship but you only get to play which team is next on your playoff schedule.
There are fans and media folks alike that say that the only way LeBron and the Lakers could win a championship was to trade for all-star Anthony Davis or AD for short. What's wrong with trying to get another superstar on your team? Isn't it about winning a championship, especially for LeBron and the Lakers? Find me another NBA champion over the last 25 years that didn't have at least two all-stars or great players. Coaching and scouting are important but in this game of basketball, with only 5 players on the hardcourt, it ultimately rests on these players to succeed. To clarify about the need to have at least two superstars on a given team, Michael Jordan didn’t win anything until Scottie Pippen arrived at the Chicago Bulls (ranked in the top 20 of all-time players). Larry Bird had Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and a strong bench. Golden State won two championships with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson (not even including defensive star Dramond Green).
Moving on to MJ, some fans and commentators claim that Michael Jordan never missed a game-winning shot (not accurate) or the fact he didn't give up a shot in crunch time and pass the basketball. Not true, if you review some of the pivotal games of the Bulls during their championship runs, you'll notice that Steve Kerr, John Paxton, Scottie Pippen, and BJ Armstrong took critical shots as Jordan may have given up the shot or wasn’t directly involved in the offensive play.
I'm amused when I don't hear that perspective from diehard Bulls and Jordan fans during their 6 championship runs. Look, I will be the first to say that Michael had a much better mid-range shot and was a better shooter overall but there's more to the picture than some realize. Indeed, LeBron's first inclination is to pass, especially early in the game. For his latest run, 'Bron knew his best chance of success was getting the role players involved early, to get their confidence going which may be needed late in the game. That meant he was reading the game to see if he could rely on his supporting cast and if not, he would adapt and go on the attack mode. He’s a coach on the court, trying to do what it takes to get his team to win. Sometimes that means he has to play intense defense to help the team earn easier fast breakpoints, or look to pass when his teammates were feeling it and sometimes it meant he had to put his head down and attack the basket. Again, whatever it takes to win.
There are some sports analysts and commentators that claim LeBron will not ever be the GOAT because Jordan won 6 championships. That’s such a shallow and lazy argument to just look at titles and not understand the full context of each season. Getting back to championships, if that’s the only criterion, and then shouldn’t Bill Russell (with 11 rings), Sam Jones (10), Tom Heinsohn (8), Frank Ramsey (7), and Jim Loscutoff (7) be considered the greatest all-time players? Does anyone know what position Jim Loscutoff played during his career? Championships are indeed critical to one's legacy but additional context and perspective are needed when considering the GOAT.
Followers of NBA history know that Jordan was 6 for 6 in NBA Championships and LeBron has 4 titles in 10 attempts, which means LeBron lost 6 times in the finals. So some claim how can LeBron be considered the greatest if he lost 6 times in the finals. In today’s NBA, it’s amazing that James has made it to the finals 10 times on 3 different teams. In the last 10 years of NBA Finals, LeBron has played in 51 of 57 games, remarkable. One might consider anyone with this resume is a very special player even if it meant he lost more than he won.
A few more things about LeBron, he played in all his eligible 260 playoff games, the most in NBA history. That’s over 3 seasons of competitive and fierce basketball. This was his 17th season, so if you add playoff basketball, he’s played a total of 20 years and was recently named the Finals MVP for the 4th time.
Do I consider him the greatest basketball player of all-time? Before I answer this, I think we’re comparing apples to oranges. Jordan was a great defender and incredible shooter and scorer but wasn’t easy to play for and didn’t always like to share the basketball. His all-time scoring average is 30.1, the highest of anyone who has played at least 10 seasons. He also tallied 32,292 points in 15 NBA seasons and retired at age 35, where his last two seasons with the Washington Capitals were sub-par seasons for Mike. On one other note, he might categorize his first 6 seasons as a failure as he was unable to get out of the Eastern Conference until the final pieces were put in place the next year.
If Jordan is an apple, then James is an orange. Even though his defense over these last few years is not as stellar as his earlier years; he is still considered a very good defensive player. His 34,241 points rank him 3rd all-time, and he's averaging 27.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game and even though he's no longer in his prime. During his career playoffs, he averaged 28.8, 9.0 rebounds, and 7.2 assists (and is the all-time playoff scoring leader). Also, at 35, he has taken over the primary ball-handling skills and has focused more on distributing the basketball – which has lead him to be the oldest NBA player to lead the league in assists. Again, LeBron is not the pure shooter that Mike was, but has been a prolific scorer and is best known as an all-around great basketball player.
So what's my point? Let's not have this silly debate as to the greatest ever. Some say it’s Jordan, others say it’s James and even others say it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Many fans in the 70s, 80s, and 90s fell in love with certain home-town players and are not willing to waver on their all-time greatest player. That's their choice and prerogative but that doesn't mean it's always the right path to take. If you talk to older Chicago Bulls fans, most will say Jordan is the greatest ever. LeBron will not even come into the picture. You may Cavalier and Lakers’ fans who swear it’s LeBron. At the same time, older Milwaukee Bucks' fans will say it's Kareem (formerly Lew Alcindor) who helped the Bucks win their first and only title.
Perhaps these three players are the greatest. Each one of them played a different position and did special things with their physical and mental gifts to help their teams win -- let's be real, they are all champions. Let’s leave it at that. In the meantime, perhaps we should merely enjoy what LeBron does on the court. Because at some point he’ll be gone and perhaps some of us will be sad that we didn’t just appreciate his greatness because we were too busy downplaying his greatness in order to hold onto our own personal GOAT.