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.”
“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.
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“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.
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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.
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