Every time the NBA playoffs make us want to yawn, LeBron James swoops in and changes our reaction to mouths agape. We’re in awe of the best player in basketball doing best-player-in-basketball things, stretching his powers beyond perceived limitations and transforming the flawed Cleveland Cavaliers into the Finals contenders they shouldn’t be.
James isn’t merely living up to his kingly standard right now. The dude is acting out a script from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 11 postseason games so far, we’ve seen him bloodied, exhausted and nearly eliminated. And then we’ve seen him reattach his cape, make two game-winning shots, inspire spooked teammates and torment the top-seeded Toronto Raptors (again). All the while, he has demonstrated his knack for captivating a social media-obsessed audience, turning NBA Twitter into his playground and reigniting the endless GOAT debate.
LeBron James or Michael Jordan?
Back on that one, huh?
It’s fun, except when you find yourself yelling, nose to nose, with someone you just met over two superstars who never have and never will play an NBA game against each other. It’s also unfair to their greatness because, in order to have a preference and attempt to win an argument, you have to talk down one of the transcendent geniuses.
As someone who grew up watching Jordan and grew wise (I hope) watching James, I still think it’s easier, at this point, to laud Jordan as basketball’s invincible hero. He came first, and he possesses irrefutable accomplishments as the sport’s most deadly perimeter scorer, a six-time champion and a game-changing cultural phenomenon and celebrity endorser. And you’re also evaluating his playing career in totality; James probably has four or five good years left. It has been 20 years since Jordan pushed aside Bryon Russell and won the 1998 NBA Finals. It has been 15 years since his two-year comeback stint with the Washington Wizards ended. Time has provided the opportunity to digest Jordan and understand all layers of his significance.
On the other hand, James is still writing his story. It’s interesting that he was drafted in 2003, just months after Jordan retired for the final time, and since then, he has grown to be the game’s most important figure, even though legends such as Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal had prime years left during his era.
Fifteen years later, James is 33 and still ascending. He has improved as a shooter and as a clutch player. And as a leader, he knows how to inspire resistance from a struggling team. As he showed in outlasting the Indiana Pacers over seven tough first-round games, he can say “Enough!” and lift his team out of situations that would be too difficult for most stars.
Unless a Boston Celtics squad missing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward can stop him, James will carry the Cavaliers to their fourth straight Finals appearance and make his ridiculous eighth straight trek to the championship round. And he has done it with a team that Cleveland basically blew up at the trade deadline.
In the MJ-LeBron debate, many try to compare them in oversimplified ways. Jordan has six titles; James has three. Jordan won all six of his Finals appearances; James is 3 for 8. Jordan’s killer instinct was always on display; James likes being the nice guy. Jordan won all his championships in Chicago; James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami in order to win his first two. Such comparisons go on and on, many of them anti-LeBron in tone, but they miss an essential point: LeBron never really wanted to be like Mike.
He wears No. 23 and hangs in the air. He sells a lot of sneakers and makes a lot of money off the court. But James didn’t strive to be the Air Apparent in the way that Bryant did. James did his own thing, and he is his own thing: the most skilled, athletic and powerful big man ever to play a little man’s game. In the era of position-less basketball, James is the most magnificent unicorn.
“He’s a guy we really haven’t seen before,” said Grant Hill, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September. “He’s a big, fast, strong, athletic man who has the size of a post player but plays like a guard. We had Magic [Johnson], but Magic was not athletic like him. LeBron is almost like Shaq because he’s so dominant with his size and athleticism. He’s very different from Michael in a lot of ways.”
That’s why it is most unfair to James to foist him into a GOAT debate with Jordan and make it seem like James’s entire legacy is tied to leaping over him. It doesn’t allow you to fully appreciate his historical significance. There are few true mold-breaking talents who redefine how we look at basketball players. The most prominent and outlandish examples are James, Johnson, O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain. They carved out a niche even among the best ever. It might not make them the greatest ever, but they are incomparable basketball mysteries.
Just as people have spent decades verifying that Johnson, O’Neal and Chamberlain were real and explaining how wild it was to watch them operate, we will talk the same about James, and though this era is producing plenty of stunningly tall men with abnormal skills, no one has James’s combination of height (6-foot-8), weight (currently 250 pounds but has been bigger), speed, strength, leaping ability, scoring instincts, court vision, grace and basketball intelligence.
Hill, who is now an analyst for CBS and Turner Sports and part owner of the Atlanta Hawks, once played with the pressure of being considered a potential next Jordan. His game was more LeBron than MJ. But he was marketable, and he entered the league during Jordan’s baseball hiatus, and the sport was more obsessed with a Jordan substitute than it is now. Hill knows what it’s like to be different but forced into an awkward conversation that seems impossible to win.
“When I was younger and in Detroit before injuries, I’d like to think that how LeBron thinks is similar to how I approached the game,” Hill said. “You’re finding that balance between scoring and facilitating. I liked to pass, involve my teammates and be about playing the right way. I’d get criticized for being too passive. LeBron was criticized for that, too. In my sixth year in Detroit, I almost went too far the other way, looking to score. Coming on the heels of Jordan, people were so focused on your scoring. But LeBron is at that point where he’s figured out the balance to do both. His instincts are, ‘What do I do to help this team win?’ That’s the beauty of his game.”
Because he was such a great scorer, Jordan was an underrated all-around player. But his superpower was his competitive drive, and in his own, smooth way, James has that, too. How else could he have the Cavaliers four victories from another Finals berth? They have needed every bit of his 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game in these playoffs.
Yet for all of James’s greatness, he just might will his way to more heartache. Even if the Cavaliers followed up their sweep of Toronto with another one in the Eastern Conference finals, they will be heavy underdogs to the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in the championship round. James could fall to 3-6 in Finals series, and as a free agent this summer, he could be leaving Cleveland again for a destination with a younger and more formidable team.
James will never be like Mike. Some might say that to denigrate him. But remember that he doesn’t have to be like Mike. He once talked about Jordan as “this ghost I’m chasing,” but there are many ways to run after a ghost. Clearly, James is in pursuit from a different angle. And even if he doesn’t do enough to catch him — at least in the eyes of Jordan’s most ardent supporters — he’ll look up when he’s done running, at the end of the chase, and realize he did something just as meaningful: He took his own path.
It’s virtually impossible to stand alone at the top, and maybe that’s why people are so protective of Jordan’s legend. But GOAT or not, James is guaranteed to land in some opulent and uncharted territory.