Where Greatness Began
Michael Jordan and LeBron James – two names in basketball which need no further explanation.
Because of the level of achievement each athlete has attained by the tail end of their careers, we often take for granted where each began.
Michael Jordan, before being selected third overall in the 1984 draft, was already an accomplished basketball player. He was a national champion for his collegiate team the North Carolina Tar Heels and in the same year won the Olympic gold medal with the United States men’s basketball team.
LeBron James on the other hand never attended college, but the level of hype on his imminent coming to the NBA was unparalleled in history. As a third-year high school student playing for St. Vincent-St. Mary, there were already talks of him skipping his senior year to declare for the 2002 NBA Draft. He was dubbed ‘The Chosen One’ and although he had no Olympic gold medal nor a NCAA championship to show for, he was by and large considered the greatest high school basketball player of all time.
The G.O.A.T. Debate
The debate for ‘Greatest of All Time’ or G.O.A.T. has been revisited quite recently because of LeBron’s 4th NBA championship. Some say LeBron, by winning this title, and having won three championships on three different teams, has sealed his status as the greatest player who ever played basketball.
Recency bias aside, Michael Jordan only ever won a championship with one team, which isn’t entirely his fault. But the six-titles-versus-four debate will somehow always cast doubt on LeBron’s status, up until he ever wins another two (as if it’s that easy to win one more).
And there’s the issue on scoring championships. There’s no point in counting scoring championships won between the two, because all you need to know is that Jordan won it multiple times while LeBron never won it. And the ‘legacy-evaluators’ on LeBron’s side will always be defensive in saying that LeBron was never a score-first guy, but a playmaker, more like a super-athletic Magic Johnson.
And then there’s Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan won the award during his career while LeBron, despite being named under the first and second teams All-Defense multiple times in his career, never managed to win the award. There’s even that conspiracy theory floating around that the media never wants LeBron to ever win the award, because when Marc Gasol won the award back in 2013 LeBron was in First Team All-Defense while Gasol was in the Second Team.
And of course, we can’t bring up the G.O.A.T. debate without talking about the respective players’ Finals record (as if losing six NBA Finals is somehow worse than not making the Finals at all). Michael Jordan’s stellar NBA Finals record is six wins and zero losses, while LeBron’s is four wins and six losses. Those on Jordan’s side will tell you that the six NBA Finals losses incurred by LeBron has forever tainted his legacy and that it doesn’t matter how many more championships LeBron will win in his career.
(There’s a funny and practical take Nick Wright made on how Giannis Antetokounmpo had a better season than Jimmy Butler last year, for dropping out in the second round as opposed to losing in the Finals.)
But the career judges on LeBron’s side are surely quick to rebound:
- ‘LeBron had the longest prime in NBA history.’
- Or ‘LeBron won the most difficult championship in 2016, bouncing back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat a team that was 73-9 in the regular season with the reigning MVP.’
- Or even ‘LeBron will end his career becoming the all-time leader in points scored while being top five all-time in assists.’
- And of course ‘LeBron is the greatest foundational piece in NBA history, winning a championship within his first two seasons of the new team he plays for.’
If you’ve read this far into the article, you must know that this is not about comparing LeBron’s legacy to Michael Jordan’s or making his case as the greatest player of all time. Instead, this will be about shedding a new light into LeBron’s legacy, especially once he’s done playing.
LeBron removed the one-team-forever norm for superstars.
Before LeBron, superstars were already known for leaving the team that drafted them or invested in them the most. Wilt Chamberlain left Philly to become a Laker and Kareem left Milwaukee to also become a Laker. And there’s Charles Barkley who had different superstar peaks in both the Sixers and the Suns, eventually teaming up with Hakeem and Clyde Drexler in a failed attempt to win a title. There’s Shaq who left Orlando, won three in Los Angeles, won one in Miami, and bounced around the elite teams of the day – Cavs, Suns and Celtics – in a last ditch to add to his four but to no avail.
But all these NBA legends aside, LeBron was viewed as the one who ushered in the player empowerment era. Shaq was an outlier in his time – no one else really bounced around to whichever team he chose to contend for a title. After LeBron’s iconic and notorious 2010 decision to move to South Beach, players started moving around more. Free agency became a hot topic in the summer when no NBA games were being played. Kevin Durant already went through two major free agency frenzies. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George went through their own.
The one-team-norm perpetuated by Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant to name a few, was just gone.
LeBron ‘played the right way.’
One thing that separates LeBron and Jordan is that LeBron is said to have ‘played the right way.’ And the obvious way to describe this is that unlike Jordan who was a score-first type of player, LeBron likes to get his teammates involved while carrying the scoring load when called upon. There’s really not much compelling evidence to say that LeBron played the right way when compared to Jordan because much of it is really just anecdotal.
When you have two side-by-side screens simultaneously playing a LeBron game on the left and Jordan’s on the right, you might be able to point out what it is that’s different about the way these two played the game. But it’s hard to say that Jordan played ‘the wrong way’ simply because he played a lot of isolation basketball and didn’t like to pass the ball that much.
The difference in the way the two played is really a function of their era. Jordan played a lot of isolation because zone defense was ruled as illegal defense in his time – which meant that the best offense was to beat your own man. Earlier in LeBron’s career with zone defense becoming a norm, especially when playing against him, passing the ball for an open three was the very weakness of zone defense: sacrifice wide open perimeter shots to prevent penetration that led to easy points near the rim.
And so although it is an unfair comparison considering the variations in the rules of NBA basketball, the eye test will tell you that LeBron was the one who played the right way.
No other player has had a career arc as crazy as LeBron’s.
Crazy as it seems, LeBron looks in perfect shape and is playing at an elite level at age 36 and in his 18th season. But let us not forget how crazy a ride his career has been. Expectations were a mile high being drafted straight out of high school, but he exceeded those and won rookie of the year and making the All-Star team in his second season. He made an unknown Cleveland Cavaliers franchise relevant, like what Vince Carter did for Toronto.
In his early twenties he carries the Cleveland Cavaliers to multiple playoff appearances, never losing a first round series and carries a mediocre team to the NBA Finals. He wins Most Valuable Player but the NBA fanbase grows anxious of when ‘the best player in the league’ would be able to win his first championship. Losing to the Celtics in the playoffs, he moves to Miami to form what was perceived at the time as a ‘Super Team.’ And the once golden boy of the NBA who could do no wrong transformed into a villain. The hate that LeBron received that first season with the Heat was immeasurable.
After winning two out of four tries for the NBA title while in Miami, he returns to his home franchise, apparently already forgiven by the owner and the Cavaliers fanbase. He becomes a hero again. And after winning one out of the four tries, all against Golden State, the NBA fanbase will have you thinking that LeBron’s golden years were over. And that the reason he signed with the Lakers was to promote his already established brand and make movies in Hollywood.
But as last year’s NBA Finals in the bubble would have you know LeBron’s career arc isn’t fully written. His formative years in Cleveland as phase one of his career, he was a ‘promising superstar.’ His four years in Miami with the Heatles, he was a villain but one who fulfilled his championship destiny. His four years in Cleveland he delivered on his promise to a fanbase and cemented his figure as the face of the NBA. And now with the Lakers, he has shown that even with his old age he can still win titles and compete with the very best.
No other player has had a more colorful career than that, and I doubt anyone ever will.
Coming to terms with the fact that LeBron just isn’t ‘Like Mike’
Because LeBron’s so great, the only other great basketball player you can pit him against is the Michael Jordan, which is exactly how this article started. But Michael Jordan and how his career turned out should no longer be the sole measure of the greatness of another player’s career. Having shed a new light on LeBron’s career and having seen it unfold these past two decades, scoring titles and 6-0 records shouldn’t be the barometer anymore.
LeBron played the game differently and he achieved differently, too. He showed everyone that you can help a team win a championship not just by scoring. He also showed he could play with a different set of teammates and still win the highest prize. And he is the prime example of a player being able to care of his body and continue to work on his craft despite the mileage.
All of these Michael Jordan was never able to prove, or even attempted to.