The locker room at QuickenLoan was still soaked in champagne as the takes concerning the “greatest ever” started flowing freely. With each passing NBA Finals, with each additional title under LeBron James’ belt, the conversation around the “GOAT” or the best ever NBA player ever is reignited. Up until a year or so ago, outside of a handful of fringe fans, the consensus was that the throne unequivocally belongs to Michael Jordan.
Things have gotten a lot more interesting since LeBron James delivered on his promise of bringing a championship to his hometown of Cleveland. The manner in which he did it, bringing the Cavs back from being down 1-3 in the series, leading in every statistical category during the seven game series are the stuff of legend, putting him squarely in the middle of the debate.
Below are a list of arguments that I find most compelling in LeBron’s favor, placing him on the same echelon as His Airness, Michael Jordan. Before anyone gets overly excited about the level of heat in this take, let me clarify – I am not saying LeBron is the greatest. I am saying that for me personally the pedestal of “greatest” is now shared by both His Airness and the King, both deserving of the same level of praise and consideration. Obviously everyone is free to choose their own personal greatest to their heart’s content, but I believe that as of June 2016, the choice you make as “best-ever” becomes a matter of personal preference subject to your own biases and subjectivity. The time for a purely objective, analytical debate ended as soon as LeBron lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy on June 19. Here’s why:
The LeBron Homer Arguments:
- LeBron just won his 3rd ring, bringing the city of Cleveland its first title in the last 52 years. In the process, he led the NBA Finals in every statistical category (points, rebounds, assists, blocks). Let that sink in for a moment.
- LeBron did this against the NBA’s best-ever regular season team, featuring Steph Curry, the two-time MVP, considered to be the greatest shooter the league has ever seen.
- LeBron is staking claim as the “most complete” player ever, able to play shut down defense against the other team’s star player, rebound, block (his block with a minute left in the finals will go down as one of the most surreal moments in NBA Finals history). He has done all this without sacrificing any production offensively, averaging 30 points a game in the 2016 Finals and 36 (!) points a game in last year’s finals. While we’re on the 2015 Finals, LeBron managed to drag a bunch of D-Leaguers who might not be good enough to make the Iowa Energy’s roster (the Chicago Bulls’s D-League affiliate team) to the Finals, somehow managing to win 2 final games against the Warriors.
- LeBron has been in the NBA for 13 years. Never took time off from the game, never rode the bus with the Birmingham Barons and has played each season at an MVP-level caliber, regardless of whether his teammates were future Hall of Famers or guys like Delonte West or Matthew Dellavadova.
- LeBron competes against modern athletes who have access to better than ever training, nutrition, and recovery technologies.
- While the game was more physical in the 90s, I believe LeBron’s build would have been very well suited for that type of game, with his speed and explosiveness giving him an edge over that era’s slower, more deliberate defenders.
The Jordan Hater Arguments:
Over the years, Jordan benefited from a stronger supporting cast than his advocates care to remember, playing on teams that featured all the key ingredients necessary to win a title and then some. As such:
- Legendary, Hall of Famer, all-time great swingman in the prime of his career, Scottie Pippen. Check.
- All Star power forward Horace Grant. Check.
- International Super Star, NBA Six Man of the Year, Toni Kukoc. Check.
- Arguably the best rebounder ever to play the game, Dennis Rodman. Check.
- A slew of clutch shooters that not only opened up the floor, but hit championship winning shots (John Paxson’s three pointer in 1993, Steve Kerr’s shot in 1997. YouTube these at your leisure).
Yes, Ray Allen did the same for LeBron. No question. This is another reason why Jordan and James belong on the same level.
Jordan’s playoff record without Pippen? 2-9.
During Jordan’s (and the Bulls) championship years, there was a legitimate lack of transcendent talent in the NBA. Here’s what transpired during His Airness’s reign at the top:
- Magic Johnson diagnosed with HIV. Retired in 1991.
- Larry Bird’s back gave out. Retired in 1992.
- Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons on the downswing, a mere shadow of the 1990 Bad Boys team.
- Shaq was just coming up in the league, still growing into that frame and years away from his prime.
- Kobe drafted out of high school in 1996 and was about 6 to 7 years away from his prime.
Here are the players who were actually in their prime back then: Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Pat Ewing, Reggie Miller (feels a little forced to add Miller on this list, yet here we are).
All time NBA greats? Certainly. Transcendent players on the same tier with Kobe, Shaq, LeBron, Magic, Larry Bird? Not exactly. You will also notice that much like LeBron’s tenure to date, all but two of that era’s greats (Ewing, Miller) played in the West. The path to the Finals was equally difficult (or comfortable) for both.
LeBron & Co. just took down NBA’s best – ever regular season team.
James is now 31 and has the same number of rings as Michael Jordan at this age. If you believe the “ring factor” to be the ultimate argument, conversation-killer, decisively putting MJ on some untouchable echelon, I have a name for you to consider – Robert Horry, proud owner of seven championship rings, and without a doubt the greatest player who ever lived…
Yes, rings matter. But if the argument is simply that 6 > 3, then the pro-Jordan faction is really running out of arguments. There are nine players who won more rings than Jordan and none of them should be considered as the greatest ever.
What are your strongest arguments for or against James and Jordan being on the same level of greatness? Let us know know in the comments below.