The G.O.A.T. conversation is most vibrant and popular in basketball because there is no easy answer. One event can swing the pendulum of public opinion in favor of Michael Jordan or LeBron James.
LeBron comes from 3-1 down against the greatest regular season team in history and wins a title for his hometown team to firmly insert himself into the discussion.
The Last Dance documentary series gets released earlier than it was supposed to so people have sports content while COVID-19 has put a halt to live games. It is filled with visual evidence of Jordan’s dominance and unmatched drive. Everyone gets reminded he won three titles in a row and then did it again with a break in between, an eight-year stretch where MJ was a champion or did not play anything close to a full season.
Then the NBA returns, setting the stage for the strangest postseason in the league’s history. The home court advantage LeBron’s Lakers were practically guaranteed to have is rendered meaningless. They have to face a now-healthy Blazers team in the first round that would have finished much higher if not for injuries.
The stage is set for an L.A. showdown in the Western Conference Finals until the Clippers fail to hold up their end of the bargain. Meanwhile, LeBron reaches his 10th NBA Finals without ever playing a Game 6, where he dispatches a depleted Miami Heat team in six to claim his fourth ring.
The formula the Lakers used to win this championship is repeatable, which is why they’re the favorites to win again next season. It’s also the reason LeBron has a chance to end the G.O.A.T. discussion for good.
If he is willing, LeBron can take a backseat to Anthony Davis once Davis signs a new contract this offseason. The Lakers don’t need LeBron to average 34 points on 23 shots like he did the last time he made the playoffs. In fact, he has never posted more than 30.3 points per game in a postseason his team won the title.
Assuming LeBron agrees to defer to Davis and plays at least three more seasons, he could very easily match Jordan’s six rings while serving primarily as a facilitator rather than the offensive focal point. That would give him the same amount of championships and at least twice as many Finals appearances as Jordan.
At that point, the arguments in Jordan’s favor are dwindling. LeBron will likely end his career as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and already ranks higher than Jordan in every major statistical category for both the regular season and playoffs.
Jordan supporters love to point to his flawless 6-0 record in the Finals, about which there are two important points to be made. First, LeBron is 3-3 in the Finals against teams not named the Golden State Warriors and the first time he dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers there shouldn’t even count. The only time he’s lost as the favorite was in 2011 to the Dallas Mavericks.
Second, two more championships give LeBron a minimum of 30 Finals victories. Jordan has 24. What Jordan’s perfect mark in the Finals says is that when the Bulls didn’t win it all, they weren’t the best team in their own conference. LeBron has made the Finals nine of the last 10 seasons. No one should ever be penalized for coming closer to winning a title.
Finally, there is the context in which LeBron has done all of this. He’s led three different teams with three different head coaches to championships, two of whom are Ty Lue and Frank Vogel. Five different people have coached LeBron in the Finals. Jordan chose to retire rather than play for someone other than Phil Jackson.
The title he won with the Cavs is as significant as any in NBA history. Not only did LeBron come home and get the job done, he did so against an all-time great team that went 73-9 that season. Don’t think for a second all titles are created equal.
This title with the Lakers also carries special significance because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding it. Being in a bubble for three months isolated from the outside world is a unique kind of mental challenge. Some people are built for it, others are not. But everyone was in the same situation and LeBron came out on top in dominant fashion.
At this moment in time, the MJ/LeBron debate is essentially a matter of personal preference. LeBron’s fourth championship against what can only be described as below average competition doesn’t change the dynamic all that much. What it does do, however, is open a path for LeBron to make the debate much less interesting before his career is over.
There will probably always be people who believe Jordan is the best basketball player ever. Honestly, it’s an extremely easy argument to defend because of how dominant he was at the height of his power.
But best and greatest do not mean the same thing. Greatest places more emphasis on longevity and excellence over time. The discrepancy in championships plays such an important part in the G.O.A.T. discussion for that exact reason.
Should LeBron capitalize on the position he finds himself in and add another ring or two, that discussion will take a very different tone.
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