The debate may still be raging about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, but we have a definitive answer now on which one has been humbler about discussing the matter. Whereas James recently declared that he had reached that particular mountaintop, Jordan asserted that he would “never” place the “GOAT” label on himself, out of respect to the NBA greats who played before his time.
Okay, Jordan said that in 2009. However, as he has not publicly responded to James’s comments, the Internet decided to make it happen, in a way, by digging up a clip from an interview he gave to Michael Wilbon, in which his apparent humility does contrast with what could easily be viewed as his counterpart’s self-aggrandizement.
In his own video snippet that made the rounds online last week, James declares that after leading the Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals to an upset of the 73-win Warriors, he felt that accomplishment “made me the greatest player of all time.” The four-time NBA MVP, now with the Lakers, adds, “That’s probably one of the only times in my career I felt like, oh, s---, like you did something special.”
The Jordan clip, which was posted on Reddit, begins with Wilbon asking him, “If you care about being called the greatest basketball player ever, does that matter, do you want that?” Jordan replies, “I don’t want it, in a sense, because I think it disrespects Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West — you know, all the guys that, prior to me, I never had a chance to play against. What everybody is saying I am, I never had the chance to compete against other legends that was prior to me.
"When I hear it, I cringe a little bit, because it’s a little bit embarrassing, because no one knows. I never had the chance to, once again, to play against those guys,” Jordan continues. “I would love to have played against them, but I never did. And for you to say that I’m better than him, I mean it’s your opinion, it’s their opinion. I accept that as their opinion.
“If you ask me, I would never say that I am the greatest player. That’s because I never played against all the people that represented the league prior to Michael Jordan.”
Beside being a nice reminder of Jerry West’s exceptional playing career, as opposed to the sterling run as an NBA executive for which he is arguably better known these days, Jordan’s comments seem to reflect his legendary competitiveness. It’s not hard to imagine him feeling the one regret from his career was that, having gone 6-0 in the Finals and vanquished every would-be rival, including the likes of Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and, of course, Karl Malone and John Stockton, he didn’t have the ability to display his dominance against earlier GOAT candidates.
In a sense, the clip serves as a sort of ghost of basketball past, trying to teach James a lesson about hubris. Sure, those Warriors had Steph Curry, but is he — never mind Draymond Green and Klay Thompson — really going to go down as a top 10 player in NBA history, and if not, how much can you really take from beating him?
That’s leaving aside the issue of James’s three other Finals losses to Curry’s Warriors, the past two of which came after Kevin Durant joined Golden State. In addition, it would be remiss to use the word “ghost” in this discussion and not bring up James’s much-noted quote from 2016 when he referred to Jordan in saying that his “motivation” was “this ghost I’m chasing,” adding, “The ghost played in Chicago.”
James made those comments just a few weeks after his triumph over the Warriors, and at the time, it didn’t sound like he was already granting himself GOAT status. “My career is totally different than Michael Jordan’s,” he said then to Sports Illustrated. “What I’ve gone through is totally different than what he went through. What he did was unbelievable, and I watched it unfold. I looked up to him so much.
"I think it’s cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.”
In the recent clip, from an ESPN series, James says, “I was super, super ecstatic to win one for Cleveland because of the 52-year drought. ... The first wave of emotion was when everyone saw me crying, like, that was all for 52 years of everything in sports that’s gone on in Cleveland.
“And then after I stopped, I was like, ‘That one right there made you the greatest player of all time.’ ”
In fairness, James was couching his self-coronation in the context of his euphoric emotions after an unprecedented feat. No Finals winner, including Jordan’s six championship Bulls squads, had ever come back from being 3-1 down, and as James put it, “Everybody was just talking how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. And for us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was like, ‘You did something special.’ "
An advocate for Jordan might argue that it could hardly be held against him that he never found himself in such a precarious position in the Finals. The most widely cited point in his favor, of course, is that he never lost, period, when a title was on the line, and he was named Finals MVP each time; while James has done extremely well to have led nine teams to the Finals, he has just a 3-6 record to show for it, including a 2011 upset of his Heat by the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks.
In general, pointing to any sort of Finals-based achievement as his GOAT argument seems like a shaky move for James, who’d be better off, if he were so inclined, to claim a greater all-around game than Jordan’s, superior versatility based on his physical stature and a longer, steadier run of individual dominance. He also could cite, as a way to put his championship-round failures into perspective, the fact that he has been an underdog in seven of his appearances, according to the pre-Finals Vegas lines (per FiveThirtyEight), whereas Jordan was favored in all six of his trips.
In fact, by the calculations of that analytics-oriented website, James’s three rings are slightly more than his expected total. On the other hand, the NBA player that FiveThirtyEight found had the best differential, since 1977, between expected and actual titles won was, you guessed it, Michael Jordan (in a tie with, go figure, Scottie Pippen).
In any event, we know for sure who has had the humbler-sounding quote about his possible GOAT status. Even if it came from 2009, not last week, that fits with what was essentially Jordan’s point: Instead of making grandiose claims about yourself, better to give more of a nod to the past.
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