2019 NBA Free Agency Tracker

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2019 NBA Free Agency Tracker

Editor's note: You can find all of Tom Haberstroh's thoughts and analysis on all the big news and notes from 2019 NBA free agency right here. Bookmark this and come back throughout what's sure to be a crazy two weeks.

DeMarcus Cousins reunites with AD in Hollywood | Kawhi picks the Clippers, and Paul George joins him from OKCHassan Whiteside traded to BlazersWarriors ship out Iguodala, bring in RussellRedick heads to Pelicans | Brogdon joins the Pacers | Horford joins Embiid, Philly | Harris re-ups in PhillyButler leaves Philly for Miami | Durant heads to Nets | Kyrie teams up with KD in Brooklyn |Khris Middleton gets paid by the BucksKristaps Porzingis staying in Dallas Nikola Vucevic stays in Orlando | Kemba Walker heads to Celtics | Klay Thompson to re-up with Warriors | Harrison Barnes stays with Kings

Editor's note: You can find all of Tom Haberstroh's thoughts and analysis on all the big news and notes from 2019 NBA free agency right here. This article will be updated as signings, trades and transactions happen.

DeMarcus Cousins reunites with AD in Hollywood

Contract details: One year, $3.5 million

Analysis: Boogie and the Brow have relocated to Los Angeles. A year and a half after DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis were scaring opponents in New Orleans, they’ll reunite in a championship quest for the Lakers under very different circumstances.

Cousins posted solid numbers for the Warriors last season, averaging 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds in just 25.7 minutes. Coming back from a ruptured Achilles, Cousins played just 30 games in the regular season and was limited to eight of the Warriors’ 22 playoff games dealing with a torn quad muscle.

Cousins is still trying to prove he can return to All-Star levels, but he has to win a starting job first. He will fight with JaVale McGee for the starting center position in LakerLand next to LeBron James, which is quite a sentence. It’s a good low-risk move for the Lakers, considering it’s just a one-year deal.

Cousins should be motivated to maximize a free agency deal next summer. He needs to stay healthy and show more mobility than he did in the playoffs. Should Cousins struggle to stay on the court, the Lakers can move on without much of a hit. The talent is worth a flier, but Frank Vogel should find some zen while he still can. Next year will be something.

Kawhi picks the Clippers, and Paul George joins him from OKC

Contract details: Four years, $142 million

Analysis: It’s a major coup by Doc Rivers and the Clippers franchise, which has lived in the Lakers’ shadow for decades. Led by president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, general manager Mike Winger and consultant Jerry West, the Clippers have added the best player in the NBA and the best player in franchise history.

Snatching Leonard away from their Staples Center roommates and the defending champion Toronto Raptors is the icing on the cake. Oh, and a runner-up MVP is coming along, too, in the form of George.

If you ranked the Clippers’ top 12 assets heading into free agency, they just tied a bow around nine of them and shipped them over to OKC for a single superstar -- and an injured one at that. They kept Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams on their team-friendly contracts but gave up just about everything else.

To recap: the Clippers will send away their unprotected 2022, 2024 and 2026 picks, their unprotected 2021 and protected 2023 first-round picks via Miami and the rights to swap picks in 2023 and 2025. That’s the most picks the Clippers can legally send under the collective bargaining agreement, which prohibits teams from selling first-round picks in consecutive years.

On top of that, the Clippers are sending their 2018 first-round pick, Gilgeous-Alexander, who was second-team All-Rookie last season. Wait, there’s more! Gallinari, who averaged 19.8 points last season and has a $22.3 million contract that expires next summer, will be going in the deal, as well.

The price is just astounding. I’m surprised OKC general manager Sam Presti didn’t get a share of Clippers owner Steve Ballmer’s estate as well. Maybe he asked for it.

L.A. isn’t the finished product yet. It can use the room exception to add another player. The Andre Iguodala sweepstakes will bubble to the surface now that he’s on a rebuilding Memphis team. An Iguodala swap for Harkless and a longer-term asset seems fair for both sides.

The Clippers aren’t heavy title favorites at the moment. I’ll put them on the same tier as the Lakers, Milwaukee, Houston and Philadelphia, with Utah, Portland and Denver just on the outside. If they land Iguodala, the Clippers will rise to outright favorites.

Blazers trade Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless to Heat for Hassan Whiteside

Contract details: N/A

Analysis: Portland must really believe in its organizational culture. It makes some sense to take a chance on Whiteside given that Jusuf Nurkic may need some extra time to ease back into the Blazers’ rotation after breaking his leg in March. With a 7-foot-7 wingspan and broad shoulders, Whiteside can bat away shots and pull down rebounds like few on Earth can.

But the Heat know him better than anybody, having groomed him from a Lebanese basketball leaguer to a double-double machine. But one year into Whiteside’s $100 million contract, the Heat drafted center prospect Bam Adebayo with the 14th overall pick. A year later, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra decided Whiteside would be Adebayo’s backup, following a history of league suspensions and a 2018 fine for conduct detrimental to the team.

Portland sees opportunity in the change of scenery. Whiteside is also an expiring deal who can be flipped at the trade deadline or sooner, if things don’t work out. To me, moving Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Whiteside was surprising because of the opportunity cost. If, say, Kevin Love became available, would the Blazers like to have Harkless and Leonard still around to put together a potential package?

It’s unclear how the Blazers view the prospect of adding Love and the remaining four years on his deal. Maybe the Cavs aren’t interested in moving him at all. But I figured the Blazers could fetch better value than Whiteside, who clearly fell out of the Heat’s favor last season in a playoff push. If Whiteside puts it together in a contract year, the Blazers will enjoy a big upgrade in rim protection over Leonard. If not, they always have Zach Collins to lean on as well.

Warriors ship out Iguodala, bring in Russell

Contract details: Four years, $117 million

Analysis: This signals the end of Golden State basketball as we know it. At 23 years old and coming off his first All-Star appearance in Brooklyn, Russell is young and dynamic and an incredibly talented attacker. But he’s also completely alien to what the Warriors like to do under coach Steve Kerr. 

Russell is a pick-and-roll machine of the highest order. According to Synergy Sports, only Kemba Walker logged more pick-and-rolls than Russell last season, which is a categorical shift from Kerr’s pass-heavy offense, which ranked dead-last in pick-and-roll frequency last season. In fact, Russell almost used more pick-and-rolls all by himself (920) than the entire Golden State offense last season (995). 

By moving Andre Iguodala to Memphis, the Warriors just don’t have enough wing defenders to play Curry and Russell regularly together and expect a top-10 defensive outfit. 

They’re going to need about 175 percent of Draymond Green if they want to contend next season. I can’t tell whether Draymond Green should spend the entire summer at SoulCycle to stay in shape or whether to hibernate him in a float spa until training camp. 

Redick heads to Pelicans

Contract details: Two years, $26.5 million

Analysis: The New Orleans Pelicans are making the playoffs next season. How do I know that? Redick has never missed an NBA postseason in his 13-year career. He’s also never won a championship, which is why I found it surprising he decided to leave Philadelphia and sign with a rebuilding team in the Big Easy.

Redick still has plenty of air in those tires. He just turned 35 years old last week and is coming off his career-high in scoring at 18.1 points per game. Philly will surely miss his 3-point shooting and two-man game with Embiid, but the team will pick up some defensive toughness with Josh Richardson in his place.

Redick will provide some much-needed spacing along with 28-year-old Italian sharpshooter Nicolo Melli, who has made 38.7 percent of his 462 career 3-pointers in the EuroLeague before signing with the Pelicans on Sunday. Of note: Redick is now the seventh former Duke player on the roster if you include general manager Trajan Langdon. 

Pacers bring on Brogdon

Contract details: Four years, $86 million

Analysis: It’s a big risk for the Milwaukee Bucks to let Brogdon go, given that Giannis Antetokounmpo can be a free agent in 2021. Is the 2020 first-round pick that the Bucks received in the deal going to improve their championship quest next season? It’s doubtful.

Indiana got itself a really good two-way player to handle the offense until Victor Oladipo returns from his torn ACL. Brogdon became a card-carrying member of the exclusive 50-40-90 shooting club, which has only been done by Steve Nash (four times), Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry this century. 

At 26 years old, Brogdon is older than your typical three-year player and has dealt with foot issues in his past. Maybe the Bucks didn’t feel comfortable committing to Brogdon at that kind of money with his medical history. But if I’m Milwaukee, I’d swallow that risk, knowing Antetokounmpo will be scrutinizing my every move. Brogdon will share backcourt duties with Jeremy Lamb, which makes for an interesting combo with T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner up front. 

Al Horford joins Joel Embiid in Philly

Contract details: Four years, $109 Million

Analysis: That’s one heck of a way to make Joel Embiid’s life easier. By signing Horford, the Sixers didn’t just add a great two-way big man who can help spell Embiid on back-to-backs. They removed one of Embiid’s biggest obstacles from the team’s path to the NBA Finals. 

Horford has been a nightmare matchup for Embiid. Of the 11 players Embiid faced at least 100 times in matchups last regular season, Horford held Embiid to just 25.0 points per 100 possessions, 13.3 points below his normal rate. Only Marc Gasol suppressed Embiid’s scoring numbers more than Horford.

Horford can space the floor, run your offense from the elbow and pass as well as any big in the league. Anytime you sign a 33-year-old big man to a four-year deal, you tug at the shirt collar and hope he doesn’t break down. But Horford has a skillful, cerebral game that should age well alongside Embiid.

Tobias Harris re-ups in Philly

Contract details: Five years, $180 million

Analysis: You might scoff at the notion of a player who has never been an All-Star getting a $180 million contract. But that’s the going rate for a player of Harris’ abilities in today’s NBA. Once Khris Middleton, a similarly skilled star in Milwaukee, got $178 million over five years, Harris’ bar was set.

At 6-foot-9 with handle, Harris is a huge small forward who can do just about anything on the floor. He’s demonstrated that he’s a much better shooter than what he showed in his half-season in Philadelphia and despite the dip in his 3-point shooting percentage, Harris still managed to score 18.2 points per game while juggling possessions in a loaded lineup.

Five years is a formidable commitment for a guy who has bounced around the league, but he’s a 26-year-old with a clean bill of health. That’s hard to find in this league. He’s missed just two regular season games in the past three seasons and doesn’t play the type of bruising game that you worry about going forward. With a full training camp and more breathing room in next year’s offense, he should only get more productive in Philadelphia next season.

Butler leaves Philly for Miami

Contract Details: Fours years, $142 Million

Analysis: Does this mean we get one last, last dance from Dwyane Wade? Putting Wade’s possible unretirement aside, this is a big swing for Miami. Butler will give them an established closer and two-way star that can take the baton and lead the next phase of the organization.

From a personality standpoint, I love the fit with Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley. They’ve been hunting for a hard-nosed star like Butler for a long time. He’s one of the best 15 to 20 players in the NBA when he’s healthy. The question is whether he’s the right fit from an organizational trajectory.

Butler makes more sense on a championship contending team, not on a retooling one like Miami. He’ll be 30 years old when training camp comes around and has a lot of miles on his tires. He’s played more than 70 games in a regular season just once in the last seven years. But I get the gamble. The Heat are wagering that he’s the type of talent that will attract free agents in 2020 when Hassan Whiteside’s money comes off the books. At $141 million, that’s quite the bet.

Durant heads to Nets

Contract Details: Four years, $164 Million

There’s a very real chance that Brooklyn never contends for a title. It all hinges on Durant’s recovery from an Achilles tear, which has ended careers before. Irving will be turning 29 years old by the time Durant is likely to be ready in 2020-21. Say it takes Durant another full season to establish himself as an MVP-caliber player. In that scenario, Irving will be 30 years old and Durant will be 33 by the time the 2022 playoffs begin. 
 
Maybe Durant returns to elite status right away, like Dominique Wilkins did. That’s one data point. So is Isiah Thomas, who retired at the age of 32. Kobe Bryant was a shell of himself after his tear at the age of 34. Though Durant at 30 years old is no spring chicken, the four-time scoring champ has to hope his relative youth leads to a better outcome than Bryant.
 
As I reported earlier this year with Cousins, the biggest factor in Achilles rehabilitation is weight loss. That shouldn’t be a huge factor with Durant considering he’s already so slender. There’s not much weight to lose on that frame. But as SNY’s Ian Begley noted recently, the Nets have a strong performance and medical staff, which helped Caris LaVert miraculously return to the floor this season after a gruesome ankle injury. Durant should be in good hands.

For more of Tom's analysis on the Durant deal, click here.

Kyrie teams up with KD in Brooklyn

Contract Details: Four years, $141 Million

Analysis: Two of the best players in the league and one of the best free-agent hauls in years might not have much impact on the 2019-20 season. The more impactful transaction would have been if Irving re-joined LeBron James alongside Anthony Davis in L.A., but by joining the Nets, it’s not clear whether Irving is any closer to a championship in Brooklyn than he would be in Boston next season. Instead, for the second time in three summers, Irving has abruptly bolted from a winning situation. With a healthy Durant in 2020-21, the Nets figure to be a championship contender, but a lot can change in Irving’s world. It was only nine months ago that Irving told a crowd of Celtics season ticket holder that he wanted to be in Boston long term. 

“I shared it with some of my teammates as well as the organization and everyone else in Boston, if you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing next year,” Irving proclaimed in October.
 
But after numerous reports of locker room infighting and turmoil, Irving obviously changed his thinking. Now, he’ll try to find what he seeks in Brooklyn.

More of Tom's analysis on KD and Kyrie's move to the Nets can be found here.

Khris Middleton gets paid by Bucks

Contract details: Five years, $178 million

Analysis: What a haul for Middleton, who signs the richest contract ever for a second-round pick. It’s been quite the journey for the former 39th overall pick in 2012. The 6-foot-8 Middleton became an All-Star in his age-27 season, averaging 18.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists while making a career-high 179 3-pointers on the wing. 

Bucks fans should be thrilled he’s back. As a big wing scorer, Middleton has a lot of Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson to his game. By keeping Middleton, the Bucks are also one step closer to keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo over the long haul, signaling to the reigning MVP that the Bucks are operating like a big market in the NBA’s fourth-smallest TV market. That might be the most important angle when it comes to this deal. The Bucks aren’t being stingy when a title is within their grasp and their MVP can be a free agent in two years.

Kristaps Porzingis staying in Dallas

Contract details: Five years, $158 million

Analysis: This was a mere formality. After trading a package involving Dennis Smith Jr. and two valuable first round picks (2021 and 2023 top-10 protected) to the New York Knicks for Porzingis at the deadline, I would have been stunned if the Mavericks failed to bring back Porzingis in restricted free agency.

Signing any player recovering from a torn ACL is a risky proposition [see my writeup on Klay Thompson] but a unicorn like Porzingis is a worthy gamble. We haven’t seen a 7-foot-3 star come back from a torn ACL. You know why? There aren’t any 7-foot-3 stars, period. The guy averaged 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks at 22 years old while playing on a bad knee. If that’s fully healed, he might win a championship one day next with Luka Doncic. They’re that good.

The question for me is whether the long layoff will hurt or help KP. In most cases, the injured player is returning to the same team. That’s not true for Porzingis. I think it was smart for Dallas to wait and give him a full training camp with Luka Doncic and Rick Carlisle to ease him back into the flow of things. 

Of all the lottery teams, I’m highest on the Mavs’ future with only two exceptions, New Orleans and Los Angeles Lakers. If they add DeMarcus Cousins like I predicted earlier this week, they instantly become League Pass royalty.

Nikola Vucevic stays in Orlando

Contract details: Four years, $100 million

Analysis: On paper, this looks like a steal for Orlando. We have a stretch All-Star big man in his prime who averaged 20.8 points and 12 rebounds last season along with an impressive 3.8 assists per game. A skilled seven-footer who placed eighth among all players in real plus-minus last season, above names like LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant, this is the profile of someone you’d expect to command multiple max offers from around the league.

Instead, the Magic retained him for considerably less than the max, which, in Vucevic’s case, could have meant five years, $190 million from Orlando and four years, $141 million from other teams. From that perspective, the Magic should be thrilled with the number they landed on.

But I’m not sold that Vucevic is as good as his top-level numbers suggest. For one, this was a contract year for Vucevic, playing on a team that desperately needed a high-volume scorer. A regression might be coming. Secondly, his postseason was dreadful, rubbing the sheen off his glossy regular season.

Draymond Green coined the notion that there are 82-game players and then there are 16-game players, a nod to players who perform better in the playoffs where 16 wins gets you a championship. Vucevic seems like a classic 82-game player. His point totals in five games against the eventual champion Raptors only confirm that: 11, 6, 22, 11, 6. The Magic were outscored by 66 points with Vooch on the floor in the series as the Raptors sliced him up on the defensive end.

Orlando’s commitment also signals that they aren’t sure Mo Bamba, the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft, is ready for primetime yet. Vucevic and Bamba can’t defend fours, so it’s tough to see how Bamba will get the exposure he needs to develop as their center of the future. The bright side is that if Vucevic proves his 2018-19 season wasn’t a fluke, that contract should be movable. If Vucevic struggles to live up to his contract, rival teams should be calling to pry Bamba away.

Orlando will have the full mid-level exception to fill out the roster, which they can use to chase a point guard in the four-year, $40 million range. Terry Rozier could be a play for them, now that Kemba Walker is headed to Boston. Depending on what type of player they envision next to D.J. Augustin (and yes, Markelle Fultz), here are some names to watch for Orlando, in order of my preference: Tyus Jones, Ish Smith and Derrick Rose.

Overall, I’m lukewarm about this deal from Orlando’s side and can see a future of NBA purgatory for Orlando. But after years of aimless basement-dwelling, I understand their desire to lock in the first-time All-Star for four years. This deal could be way worse.

Kemba Walker heads to Celtics

Contract details: Four years, $141 million

Analysis: The Hornets’ offer to Walker must have been so unappealing that he took a four-year, $141 million deal from Boston before the players and teams were even allowed to negotiate. For a guy who said he’d take less than the max to stay, that is a tough pill for Charlotte fans to swallow.

But for Walker, Boston and Charlotte, this is probably for the best for all three parties involved. To illustrate how rotten the situation has become, the Hornets still won’t have cap space even after Walker’s departure.

With the Celtics, Walker figures to play more like Isaiah Thomas in 2016-17 than Kyrie Irving the last couple seasons. Thomas held the ball for a Walker-like 6.9 minutes per game that season and the Celtics churned out the seventh-ranked offense in the NBA. With Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward sharing ball-handling duties, Walker won’t have to create fire from wet blankets like he did in Charlotte.

The Celtics did well to pivot and ink Walker to a deal. He’s an incredible player, who can score on and off the ball, and was beloved by fans, teammates and coaches in Charlotte. Maybe the locker-room refresh after the Irving era will pay more dividends than expected. They’ll need all the help they can get to return to Eastern Conference prominence. Now, they try to find a starting power forward and starting center.

For more of Tom's analysis of the Walker deal, click here.

Klay Thompson gets max from Warriors

Contract details: Five years, $190 million

Analysis: A cold probabilistic analysis might say handing a max contract to a player on crutches is a dubious choice. But Thompson has given so much to the organization, this feels more about the past than the future.

The safe bet here is that the Warriors will be conservative on his return date, just like they were with DeMarcus Cousins and recovery from a torn Achilles. The Warriors have extra reason to play it safe considering they’re paying Thompson the max through the 2023-24 season.

Max money for a player coming off an ACL tear is a sizable gamble no matter how you slice it, especially when the Warriors could be paying $200 million in luxury taxes. But the Chase Center could be essentially printing money with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green opening the San Francisco waterfront property. Considering Thompson has played an average of 92.3 games per season since being drafted (playoffs included) and contributed to priceless memories for the Warriors faithful, Thompson has more than earned this paycheck.

For more of Tom's analysis of the Thompson deal, click here.

Harrison Barnes stays with Kings 

Contract details: Four years, $85 million

Analysis: The first domino has fallen! Well, not quite. Barnes drew some confusion around the league when he turned down a one-year, $25 million player option to stay with Sacramento. Now that he has guaranteed himself over three times as much dough, he’s looking pretty shrewd for that decision.
 
After life as a go-to scorer in Dallas, Barnes downshifted into a useful role player in Sacramento after the midseason trade. Playing alongside De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, the 27-year-old Barnes saw his usage rate drop from 23.7 percent in Dallas to 16.3 percent with the Kings, returning to his levels with the Golden State Warriors. He’s better suited for his current role as he posted a career-high true-shooting percentage in Dave Joerger’s uptempo offense.
 
At first blush, the financial commitment seems a bit steep for a player of his caliber, but that’s the small-market premium for you. Some stability in Sacramento isn’t a bad thing. The Kings should have more than $40 million left in cap space to round out their roster.

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Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Why now? It’s one of the great underlying questions around the Michael Jordan-centric “The Last Dance” documentary.

The behind-the-scenes footage that provided the bedrock of the amazing 10-hour ESPN series had been locked away in Secaucus, N.J., for about two decades. For any of that film to see the light of day, as agreed upon by then-head of NBA entertainment and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan himself would need to sign off on any sort of project using it.

For years, it sat there locked away without Jordan’s key to unlock it. We waited and waited and waited, until the morning of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in 2016, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. That day, after an in-person meeting with Mandalay Sports Media executive Mike Tollin, Jordan finally decided to greenlight the documentary.

The timing is undeniably fascinating. LeBron James had just beat a Golden State Warriors team that not only featured NBA history’s first unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry, but one that broke the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a regular season. James also delivered a championship to Cleveland, ending the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The triumph was enough for James to declare himself the GOAT in 2018 during ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete:” “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt. Everybody was just talking about how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all-time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’”

Did that backdrop make Jordan nervous about his place in the history of the game? Did Jordan feel that a generation of young fans needed a reminder of his greatness?

We may never know the answer to that, but we do know that the documentary has, in some circles, become something of a Jordan haymaker in the GOAT debate. In many eyes, this wasn’t just a documentary; it was a verdict.

In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson on Monday, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, unsolicited, made his stance in the debate extremely clear.

“‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time,” Reinsdorf said. “In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.”

He continued.

“I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary.”

It’s interesting that Reinsdorf didn’t mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird in those quotes to NBC Sports Chicago. He mentioned LeBron James, perpetuating the notion that the Jordan documentary was, at some level, a James counterstrike. 

But is Jordan actually head and shoulders over everybody? Not even close with James?

At the risk of wasting Reinsdorf’s time, it’s definitely a topic worth exploring, especially since the overall numbers don’t agree with Reinsdorf’s assessment.

* * * 

“The Last Dance” might as well be named “Six” for the lasting image of Jordan flashing his digits after the 1998 Finals, symbolizing his championship total. Yes, the documentary used the 1997-98 season as a storytelling anchor, but it felt more like a celebration of Jordan’s glorious career than a blow-by-blow examination of the 1997-98 season. Jordan last faced the Bad Boy Pistons on the playoff stage in 1991, but they received far more play in the docuseries than the Bulls’ actual 1998 Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Jordan’s 6-0 record is spotless and beautiful and irretrievable for James, who has instead gone 3-6 in the Finals. For Jordan's strongest supporters, this is the nail in the coffin. However, reducing the GOAT debate purely to one’s Finals record would mean that John Havlicek (8-0), K.C. Jones (8-0, Tom Sanders (8-0) and Robert Horry (7-0) all have better cases than Jordan. And that’s before mentioning Bill Russell’s baffling 11-1 Finals record.

The James-vs.-Jordan debate needs a little bit more nuance than that. Jordan may have 6-0, but James has longevity in his corner. James has simply lasted longer than Jordan, both in career seasons and in deep postseason runs. 

James is in the midst of his 17th season and still playing at an MVP level. Jordan played 15 seasons, electing to retire twice during his prime years. Part of that gap in career length can be explained by James skipping college and entering league as an 18-year-old, which Jordan did not. 

What gets lost in the discussion is the fact that both Jordan and James have made 13 postseason appearances, but Jordan fell short of the Finals seven times. Whereas Jordan failed to reach the Finals more often than he made them, James has only fallen short four out of his 13 appearances. So not only has James been in the league longer, but he has had much longer playoff runs than Jordan, even if they didn’t always end in a Larry O’Brien trophy.

That has to matter in the larger conversation. Playing at a high level for that long begins to tip the scales in James’ favor, and that’s before we get into the individual barometers. 

The advanced metrics agree that this is a much closer affair than Reinsdorf would assume. Using win shares, which is an established all-in-one value metric that estimates a player’s contributions to overall team success, James has Jordan beat in cumulative value, according to Basketball Reference data. 

In fact, James eclipsed Jordan in that department years ago. At the moment the NBA halted play on March 12, James had 287.1 career win shares compared to Jordan's 253.8 figure.

Case closed, James is the GOAT, right? 

Not so fast. It turns out neither James nor Jordan possess the most win shares in NBA history. That distinction belongs to eternally-great Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons, with all but one of those being All-Star campaigns. 

If James plays two more full seasons at a high level, he will undoubtedly unseat Abdul-Jabbar in career win shares. Trailing Abdul-Jabbar by just 21.9 win shares at the career level, James averages 16.9 win shares per season in his career (this suspended season included) and appears to have several years left in the tank. If win shares aren’t your thing, James has already surpassed Jordan in other cumulative measuring sticks like career VORP and the championships added metric from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. 

Individual all-in-one metrics aren’t meant to be judge, jury and executioner in these debates, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that James has distanced himself from Jordan in measures outside of title count. And it’s here where the GOAT discussion becomes more art than science. Do you prefer Finals records or overall playoff records? Do you prefer longevity or peak seasons? 

If you prefer looking at peak seasons, Jordan has the upper-hand on James. If you rank Jordan’s best seasons by win shares and compare it to James’ best, it’s clear that Jordan’s peak years are superior to those of James.

The chart above is my favorite way to distill the Jordan and James debate. As you can see, Jordan’s best seasons are superior to James’ best, with Jordan’s red line resting comfortably above James’ purple line until their respective 10th-best season of their careers. After that, James far outpaces Jordan’s best. If we include his MVP-caliber ‘19-20 campaign, James has 15 high-level seasons while Jordan only had 11, due to his foot injury and his two retirements. (Jordan’s final two seasons with the Washington Wizards at the ages of 38 and 39, after three years away from the game, don’t move the needle in the GOAT discussion, but appear here near the back end of his red line.)

The fact that Jordan’s heights are taller than James was hammered home in Pelton’s recent ranking of the best individual seasons in NBA history. In that study, Jordan made five appearances in the top 25 at Nos. 1, 5, 12, 17 and 31, while James sat slightly lower at Nos. 3, 8, 9 and 23.

Jordan has higher ceilings and James has higher floors. That’s the crux of the debate.

The former will always resonate far more with the masses on an emotional level than the latter. And with good reason. Though James has already registered considerably more career value than Jordan by advanced metrics, Jordan’s six championship seasons continue to stand out -- not just in the minds of basketball fans, but also in the numbers.

Looking at the conventional GOAT standards, James’ biggest flaw may be that he took his teams too far. Take the 2006-07 season. James was just 22 years old, with Larry Hughes serving as the Robin to his Batman, when James led the Cavs to the Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. 

If James had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals like most expected, James’ NBA Finals record would be shinier. Instead, by getting to the Finals and losing, it’s a strike against him. Same goes for the 2014-15 Finals run when James’ Cavs swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were sidelined (Irving played two games of that Eastern Conference finals). If James simply lost earlier, again, his Finals record would be cleaner.

Because of his lopsided 3-6 record in the Finals, most fans may view James as an underachiever but, according to Vegas, the opposite is true. James’ teams were favored in just two of his nine Finals appearances (2011 and 2013) and overall, he actually surpassed expectations, ending up with three titles. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six Finals and won all six. Jordan took care of business.

But, for the sake of argument, what if the Bulls didn’t lose to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals? The Bulls entered the series as minus-165 favorites, according to Vegas, but the Magic went on to face (and get swept by) the Houston Rockets in the Finals. What if the Bulls didn’t blow that series and instead, like the Magic did, beat the Indiana Pacers and faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets for the title?

I recently caught up with former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich about that hypothetical (full podcast next week!) and he pointed to a conversation he remembers having with Michael Jordan at Charles Barkley’s house in Phoenix in 1996. Barkley had invited his new coach, Tomjanovich, and the team’s trainer to hang out at his abode, along with Jordan and Tiger Woods (!). That night, Tomjanovich and Jordan discussed the Finals match that never happened. 

“[Jordan] said we were the team they feared the most because they didn’t have an answer for Hakeem,” Tomjanovich said. “It would have been a great series.”

We will never know how the Bulls would have fared against a Rockets team that won back-to-back titles, but Jordan ensured his clean Finals record by retiring in 1993 and losing in the 1994-95 East semifinals. In a strange way, James reaching eight straight Finals doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the “five” in “three-and-five.” 

Fair or not, there’s only so much James can do to erase his Finals losses in the basketball world’s collective psyche.

* * * 

The hook to all of this is the fact that James is still playing -- at an MVP level, no less. Declaring Jordan the GOAT before James retires is like awarding an Oscar to a film after refusing to watch the last 30 minutes of its top competitor. 

James has a legitimate shot to change the conversation, but the pandemic shutdown hurts those chances. With regular-season games threatened, the league’s hiatus has all but ruined James’ chance to overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo and win his fifth MVP award. James was also on track to surpass 2,000 points for his 11th season as he chases down Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. In the past 14 months, James has passed Kobe Bryant and Jordan on the all-time scoring list and trails Abdul-Jabbar by 4,300 points. 

Depending on what route the NBA goes with a potential season restart, James could lose all or most of the Lakers’ remaining 19 regular-season games. Based on James’ 2019-20 scoring average of 25.7 points, that could cost James as much as 500 points. At current levels and without those 500 points, James would probably need three more seasons to catch Abdul-Jabbar. 

If he did pull it off and pass Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a world in which James’ supporters could use the trump card of James being the top scorer of all-time despite that not being his best basketball skill (that would be passing). Outside of that, James could also win a title or two alongside Anthony Davis to nudge closer to Jordan. But given the six losses on James’ ledger and Jordan’s “perfect” tally, it might be best to leave Jordan with that and change the conversation all together. 

James has a strong track record of doing that. Following “The Decision” fallout in 2010 and his 2011 Finals meltdown, even James’ strongest supporters would’ve had a hard time imagining a world in which James was largely beloved in northeast Ohio. Yet, after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers and opening the “I, Promise” elementary school in Akron for at-risk children, his reputation with local fans is fully restored. After James left Cleveland and joined a barren Lakers franchise, he helped lure Anthony Davis and returned the Lakers to title favorites. Equipped with his own production company, James is chasing Jordan on the silver-screen, starring in a Space Jam sequel with an on-the-nose title, “A New Legacy.” James has created an empire by patiently waiting to get the final word.

Ultimately, the verdict remains out on the greatest argument in basketball circles, although it is a lot closer than many, including Reinsdorf, would like to believe. “The Last Dance” may have ended with the enduring image of Jordan cackling at his vanquished foes, but James still has a chance to have the last laugh.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan dominated every Hall of Famer he faced, including the 20 fellow members he eliminated from the playoffs throughout his career. However, some superstars fared worse in their career matchups than others.

Charles Barkley finds himself at the bottom of the list as Jordan averaged 35.8 points against him in their 55 career matchups. Jordan logged his points per game record versus Hall of Famers against Chuck with 41 points in the 1993 NBA Finals.

While Sir Charles struggled against Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal held Jordan to an average of 28.7 points per game in their 21 career matchups, the lowest of those 20 Hall of Famers Jordan eliminated.

This ought to stir up some competition on the next episode of "Inside the NBA."

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