LeBron James’ continued playoff greatness has inspired age-old conversations concerning ghosts and lists, but also presented the public with an opportunity to examine age-old, so-called “truths” about the game’s history.
Either way, the camps are out.
The side that claims James has surpassed you-know-who as the definitive G.O.A.T.
The side that will forever tout that 6-0 trumps anything James can achieve, since it appears likely James will retire with a losing record in the NBA Finals as he currently sits with a 3-5 mark.
The exhausting exercise appears to have no end in sight, even though anyone who can lay claim to the throne as basketball’s best, the Greatest of All Time, has holes in his resume.
No candidate—Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell or James—has an unassailable resume.
All sit at the special table in the special room reserved for only the best of the best and depending on the lens, each can make his case to stand above all the rest. Or at the very least, point out facts that detract from the others’ case.
Yes, even Jordan has things that work against him, facts that have been ignored or forgotten through the years as he has been, until recently, canonized as the greatest.
Jordan’s 6-0 Finals record came in one of the NBA’s weakest eras, diluted by expansion after the popularity boon of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird led 80s. Between 1988 and 1995, the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies were added, taking a 24-team league to thirty.
That’s 72 players who would otherwise be on a different roster, if not out the league altogether. It dramatically changed the landscape of the NBA, as well the depth of the rosters.
More incoming stars were dispersed to franchises that couldn’t compete. Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Kevin Garnett, Anfernee Hardaway and more would have been on different, perhaps more established, teams, making for a more competitive league.
It wasn’t Jordan’s fault he had no individual peer, as the greats of the 90s were clearly a step behind him. But considering the historical weakness of the teams the Bulls faced in the Finals, foregoing expansion would have produced better, more quality rosters.
When measuring Jordan against James, Jordan never played the quality of teams in the Finals James has. The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, who have delivered four of James’ five Finals losses, are among the NBA’s best, with their clusters of stars and rings to back it up.
The only champion Jordan beat in the Finals was the 1991 Los Angeles Lakers, a team well past its storied prime. Abdul-Jabbar already retired, Magic Johnson was months away from an H.I.V. diagnosis that precipitated his retirement while James Worthy and Byron Scott were nowhere near the supporting players they had been in the 80s.
Worthy’s field-goal percentage dropped from 55 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 1991 as he approached age 30, while Scott went from averaging a career-high 21.7 points in 1988, the Lakers’ last title season, to 14.5 in 1991. Worthy and Scott battled injuries in the series (each missing a game because of it), helping lead to the lopsided 4-1 triumph by the Bulls.
Speaking of Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar seems to be forgotten in this argument. Like James, he dominated basketball with longevity for decades. After forcing a trade to the Lakers in 1975, they only qualified for one conference finals until someone magical arrived in 1979.
Johnson reinvigorated Abdul-Jabbar’s career, even though Abdul-Jabbar spent the past several seasons being the league’s best player without accomplishing the ultimate team success.
That would qualify as a demerit on Abdul-Jabbar’s case, if one were to make a case against him. Considering his name is all over the record books as the game’s all-time leading scorer and possessing the single most effective weapon in the history of the sport with his sky-hook, the margins are thin.
The two combined to lead the Lakers to five NBA titles to dominate the 80s, even as Abdul-Jabbar’s game declined while Johnson began to take more of the reins and was a highly effective player until his second-to-last season in 1988—the last time the “Showtime” Lakers won a title.
Johnson, while leading the Lakers to nine Finals appearances, had a disastrous Finals series in 1984 against the Celtics—giving away games with late turnovers and mistakes unbecoming of someone in his position.
Johnson and the Lakers had the benefit of dominating a weak Western Conference during that time. A healthy Johnson—similar to James at this stage—almost guaranteed a trip to the Finals, in part due to challengers unable to emerge.
Still, though, Johnson’s Lakers were 5-4 in the Finals—closer to James’ mark than Jordan’s one of perfection.
Johnson won three regular-season MVPs to Abdul-Jabbar’s record mark of six, and the seamless transition of power in Los Angeles shouldn’t be used against one or the other, but it should be noted.
And for James, his warts are well-known. The meltdown in 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks, coming up short in four straight fourth quarters as the Miami Heat choked away a series is the biggest detraction.
He had a mysterious Game 5 in 2010 against the Boston Celtics in his first run in Cleveland that sticks out, but he’s been a pristine playoff performer otherwise—and has probably performed better in team defeat than wins.
He’s had no true head-to-head competitor in the Eastern Conference during this run of seven straight Finals appearances in Miami and Cleveland, and although it isn’t directly his fault, James’ presence makes it hard for teammates to be great around him.
His ability and intelligence demands his teams allow him to orchestrate so much of the schemes around him, perhaps to the detriment of his teammates and their ability to make plays on their own.
James’ monstrous statistics in Year 15 are also aided by defenses that aren’t allowed to be as physical on the perimeter, giving him free reign to dissect passive defenses to his will.
The rules have been bent to allow for more free-flowing basketball and more scoring, a benefit Jordan didn’t have in the 90s when “high scoring” meant a playoff score of 95-93.
But with all that said, his accomplishments must be acknowledged, similar to ones of his peers.
His performances don't have to be admired, merely respected. And as his longevity and consistency cements him deeper into the record books of all-time lists, it doesn’t require instant reflection on whom he passed or whom he’s yet to catch.
Sometimes it’s better to let it all play out before the next game-winner becomes a weapon in an argument there’s no true answer for.
Who’s the greatest? From here, it’s Jordan—by a hair. Wait, he’s bald.