There’s so much interesting overlap in the NBA, as far as individuals are concerned. Wilt played at the same time as Kareem. Kareem played at the same time as Jordan. Jordan played at the same time as Vince Carter, who is still playing today. Through just four players, you’ve covered almost 60 years of action.
Michael Jordan retired in April 2003, two months before LeBron James went first overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Draft. Even if these two greats had overlapped, it would have been an unfair duel, pitting an 18-year-old rookie against a 40-year-old established basketball god.
Fourteen years later, we’re still very aware that Jordan and LeBron can never settle the constant debates in a game of one-on-one. But we do have a much clearer picture of each player’s claim for being the best to ever hit the hardwood floor.
With our smartphones and constantly changing technology, it’s easy to forget that at one point in time, photography was a long and arduous process. The photos needed time to develop in the darkroom before the finished product could be displayed. LeBron James is 32, and still hard at work in his darkroom.
After the Cavaliers fell to the Golden State Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals, the most popular discussion point in America has likely been this: what is LeBron’s legacy following this latest Finals loss, the fifth of his career? Can he still be considered a better basketball player than Jordan?
My answer is this: I don’t think so, but let me explain myself. I’ll start by saying that older generations have to emerge from the 1990s and realize that LeBron James has done SO many things better than Michael Jordan ever did. He shoots better from short, and better from deep. He is well on his way to eclipsing Jordan in both rebounds and assists by the time he hangs it up. He’s one of the most durable players we’ve ever seen. He has appeared in seven consecutive NBA Finals, an accomplishment matched only by the great Bill Russell.
So he’s lost five Finals. It’s not a pretty statistic for damn sure. But when did it suddenly become less impressive to carry a squad to the Finals than to bow out in the first round? I am confident in saying that in three of those Finals appearances, the only reason the Cavs were even on the big stage was because of the King himself:
2007: The Cavs take on the title of arguably the worst NBA Finals team ever, predictably bowing out in four games to the mighty Spurs. James, just 22 at the time, carries the Cavs through the East playoffs (25 straight against Detroit in Game 5 of the ECF, anyone?) and maintains averages of 25 PPG, 8 RPG, and 8 APG throughout the ’07 postseason overall. In the Finals, he averages 22 PPG, 7 RPG, and 7 APG.
2015: LeBron’s back in Cleveland at this point, leading the Cavs against the Warriors in the first Finals duel between the two squads. Again, the Cavs fall, this time in six games, but LeBron is the only reason it even gets that close. He averages 36 PPG, 13 RPG, and 9 APG, drawing serious consideration for Finals MVP despite the loss.
2017: LeBron might have had the greatest Finals performance of all time against the Warriors this year. Against what many believe to be the greatest team ever assembled, James averaged a triple-double of 34 PPG, 12 RPG, and 10 APG. It’s the first time any player has averaged a triple-double in the Finals, and James did it against Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and two of the greatest defensive players ever in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
The other two Finals losses are not as excusable. James struggled in 2011 against Dallas, and didn’t exactly answer the call when the Heat were desperate for their star. In 2014, James ran into the Spurs again, and San Antonio’s depth proved to be too much for James to overcome. But let’s think about this for a moment.
Let’s say LeBron garners more talent around him, and the Cavs are able to win the three aforementioned series. All of a sudden, James goes to 6-2 in the Finals overall, which I firmly believe would cement him as the greatest to ever do it, undisputed. Now, don’t worry –I haven’t forgotten about the Big Threes that were assembled in both Miami and Cleveland, but make no mistake: in the losses of ’07, ’15, and ’17, LeBron put forth efforts that eclipsed what Jordan accomplished in his Finals appearances.
On June 14, 2017, LeBron is 32, so we can assume that he has another five years left, at minimum. On June 14, 1995, Michael Jordan was 32, with his incredible second three-peat still months away. Remember when I said MJ has the upper hand over LeBron? This is why. We don’t know what LeBron will accomplish over the course of the rest of his career, just like we didn’t know what MJ was capable of when he returned from his brief retirement.
People are acting like LeBron is the reason the Cavs fell to Golden State. Like he choked. To those people I say this: Entertain the notion that there is more to a game than simply one superstar. It goes the other way as well –both James and Jordan both had able teammates when they won their championships. Oh, and I didn’t know averaging a triple-double was emblematic of a blown performance.
LeBron’s road to late-career excellence will undoubtedly be more difficult than Jordan’s, because there is a mountain rising above the King, casting a shadow over San Francisco Bay and archaic Oracle Arena. I can’t wait to see how he attacks it.