Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Who is truly the greatest of the bunch?
For Bulls supporters — and, it seems, most basketball fans in the wake of “The Last Dance” — the answer is simple. Jordan, of the five MVPs, six rings (and Finals MVPs), nine scoring titles and a litany of additional accolades is without comparison.
But appearing on Lunch Talk Live with Mike Tirico, Drew Gooden, now an NBC Sports Washington analyst and a teammate of James with the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2004-2008, brought up an interesting swing variable in the debate: Phil Jackson.
“There’s one variable that we never talk about when this discussion comes up between Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and it’s one guy that I think is the variable in this formula and it’s Phil Jackson,” Gooden said. “I mean, if you take Phil Jackson out of this equation, how many championships does Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant have?
“LeBron James is in a unique situation outside of not having a Phil Jackson, being able to have to go like a vagabond and go figure it out himself with multiple coaches, multiple organizations, multiple systems. With that being said, I think his book is a lot different than Michael Jordan’s and Kobe Bryant’s, because I feel like they had the structure with Phil Jackson most of their career and were successful with Phil Jackson.”
Indeed, James’ three titles are divided between two franchises, two with the Miami Heat, one with the Cavaliers. And he's positioned for another deep run with the top-seeded Lakers this year. Jordan and Bryant’s title-rearing years came under one coach’s tutelage, James’ two (that he actually won titles with) and counting, and he's cycled through countless rosters and team infrastructures. Some will point to that tumult being his own doing, but the point stands.
Gooden wasn’t ready to anoint James ahead of Jordan and Bryant. But he did say this season could be a pivot point.
I think this will be the tale of the tape of, OK, I’ve not only done that two times, but I’m gonna do it a third time in Los Angeles,” Gooden said. “Doesn’t matter who the coach is, doesn’t matter who my teammates are, I’m gonna provide another championship for the city of Los Angeles.
“Now if he does that now, you’re starting to see, alright, where does he separate himself from Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant.”
It won’t look conventional, but with the NBA announcing a 22-team return plan for the late summer, it seems James will get a chance.