Mocking LeBron James seems to be popular these days. From Kevin Durant commenting “nah” in response to a fan suggesting that James is better than him, to Charles Barkley claiming that James “didn’t want to compete” by begging the Cleveland Cavaliers to bring in a backup point guard, to Phil Jackson dubbing James’ business partners as his “posse,” there has been no shortage of high-profile individuals in the world of basketball taking digs at ‘The King’.
Then there is Kyrie Irving, whose antics this summer are deserving of their own paragraph entirely. Ever since his trade demand became public, Irving has done nothing but poke the bear. And poke the bear. And poke the bear some more. Finally, he poked the bear with Stephen Curry for good measure.
But the latest member of the basketball community to get in on the fun was none other than the ‘G.O.A.T’ (greatest of all time) Michael Jordan, who stated last week that he believes that Kobe Bryant is a better all-time player than James because “something about five beats three.” Then, Jordan proceeded to double down by ranking Kawhi Leonard ahead of James as the “best two-way player in the game right now.”
Michael Jordan’s Comments Show How Close LeBron James is to Surpassing Him
In sports, ex-players are often seen as beacons of insight, and rightly so. They know exactly what it takes to reach, and succeed at, the highest level in their field. As a result, we tend to believe what they say because they have earned credibility through their first-hand experience.
In this case, Jordan’s comments do indeed offer some valuable insight, except nothing he said has anything to do with Bryant or Leonard. Rather, Jordan’s refusal to give James due credit tells us just how close James is to surpassing him as the greatest basketball player of all time.
‘M.J.’ knows full well that he is no longer the untouchable figure of immortality that he once thought he was, and he’s starting to sweat. Deep down, he knows his six-for-six argument (NBA Finals appearances and wins) is weak. He also knows that both the numbers and the eye test have placed James on a very dangerous trajectory to surpass him when it’s all said and done.
The Fallacy of the ‘Six-for-Six’ Argument
James has already eclipsed Jordan in Finals appearances, thanks to an unprecedented reign of dominance over the Eastern Conference for the better part of the last decade. No team other than James’ has represented the East in an NBA Finals since 2011, with no end to that streak in sight. And yet, James’ impressive Finals run has not been considered a testament to his greatness. Instead, it’s been held against him in debates.
Context for the Finals Losses
In 2007, James carried an otherwise mediocre Cavaliers team all the way through the East to the Finals, where he met a powerhouse San Antonio Spurs dynasty that swept the series. James could not possibly have done more, and yet is credited with a Finals loss. Would it have been better if James and the Cavs lost before the Finals instead? Similarly, would it have hurt Jordan’s legacy if he hadn’t been swept out of the first round by the Boston Celtics twice, and instead advanced past the Celtics but lost in the Finals those years? Don’t answer that.
James also lost in the 2015 Finals despite averaging close to 36 points and nine assists per game. Apparently, it was a reasonable expectation for James alone to drag the Cavs past the Golden State Warriors, despite the absence of Irving and Kevin Love. Yeah, right.
The same conversation can be had again for the most recent Finals. People act as though James averaging a triple double for the first time in NBA Finals history wasn’t an adequate showing against a team with arguably the greatest compilation of talent ever seen in Curry, Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson.
The bottom line is that teams win championships, not players, and the circumstances that surround winning and losing actually matter. Jordan never had to contend with a 73-win team in the Finals, but rather was a member of the comparable 72-win Chicago Bulls in 1996. Furthermore, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six of his trips to the Finals, whereas James’ team has been the underdog in six of eight. And as Chris Broussard of Fox Sports pointed out last June, James has gone up against a staggering 26 current or future Hall-of-Famers in his eight Finals appearances, compared to Jordan facing only nine.
Numbers and Eye Test Place James on a Threatening Trajectory
No one has impacted a franchise as much as James has both on and off the court for the Cavaliers. His leadership, basketball IQ, and community involvement take him above and beyond a typical franchise player, and that was reflected in James’ two major career moves.
When Jordan left the Bulls in 1993 to pursue baseball, their win total dropped from 57 to 55. When James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, the Cavs dropped from 61 wins to 19. When James returned to Cleveland in 2014, the Cavs jumped from 33 to 53 wins and 10th in the East to second. The Heat, on the other hand, dropped from second to 10th. The two franchises quite literally swapped places in the standings because of one player.
From a basketball standpoint, James’ well-rounded style of play allows him to do much more than Jordan ever could on the floor. While Jordan was superior as a pure scorer and on-ball defender, James tops M.J. in multiple other areas. Distributing the basketball, shooting efficiency, and defensive versatility are just a few of James’ advantages over Jordan. James is willing to do whatever is needed of him to win on any given night, but more importantly, he has the ability to do anything that is needed because he can do it all at an equally high level
James has the stats to back up his play, too. He is the youngest player to reach 28,000 career points, and he currently sits seventh on the all-time scoring list with 28,787 points at just 32 years old. He is the only player ever to record at least 28,000 career points, 7,000 rebounds, and 7,000 assists. And for all of you advanced stats junkies like myself, James also has the highest all-time VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) at 115.94. Behind him in second is Jordan at 104.44, and that gap is only going to widen further until James calls it a career.
Immortal No More
Some people will say that M.J. is untouchable and that nothing James does will be good enough to supplant him for G.O.A.T status. But James’ resume speaks for itself and suggests quite the contrary. While Jordan would love for us to believe the former to be true, his comments from the past couple days exhibit that he’s well aware of reality: there is a very real chance that James does enough with the time left in his career to bump the G.O.A.T off his throne.
He hasn’t done it yet, but The King is getting closer and closer by the day.
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