The GOAT debate has been reignited by today’s master of narrative, LeBron James, although the discussion probably won’t go the way he envisioned as we are starting to re-examine long-held beliefs about what we’ve seen and how we should process it.
When Michael Jordan’s extended right hand followed through on an 18-foot jumper in Salt Lake City to win the 1998 NBA Finals, it was widely regarded as the perfect bookend for the greatest player of all time.
Case closed, and any discussion about other candidates fell to the wayside in hushed tones because of the way Jordan came up during the explosion of the game in his heyday. Although he never participated in those conversations, often deferring to players in the past as a way to say there’s no definitive way to determine who holds the crown, the cases of other candidates were widely dismissed with very little argument.
James’ hubris — or honesty, as he sees it — placed himself at the top of the mountain as he stated the Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback from being down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors in 2016 cinched his claim as a feat neither Jordan nor anyone else in the discussion has on his dossier.
One wonders if the massive scrutiny James has encountered since he was a 16-year-old has created this world where he has to stake his claim as a shot to the haters who said he would never get to this place, let alone be in the same neighborhood as the greats.
Look, James has every right to believe he sits at the front of the table and giving the world a glimpse of his psyche through his various media vehicles shouldn’t be taken the wrong way. But it does rub people the wrong way because so few have had the audacity to outwardly state such a title. Not since Muhammad Ali has anyone been so bold in declaring what he was, and the all-time great heavyweight did it in a much louder way.
Some have called it disrespectful to the game’s greats who paved the way for James, but it feels more like an unintentional slight than anything — which is what the basketball public used to do in trumpeting Jordan as the best ever.
It’s easy to have Jordan there, without much argument. Basketball was exploding globally in the 1990s. In the early 1980s, NBA Finals games were shown on tape delay before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the league, laying the groundwork for Jordan. The Bulls were on NBC every week and in the years before the Jordan brand had built to a crescendo before there actually was a Jordan Brand.
The Southern charm he often displayed, even though he kept the world at a distance regarding his private dealings.
There wasn’t a template for the basketball world to create the greatest ever, so it was easy to assign Jordan’s path as the road one should walk. Steal the show individually, but struggle to win the big one.
Overcome the physical bullies and get to the top.
But stay there and reaffirm dominance for an extended period of time.
Winning three straight from 1991-93 before Jordan’s sabbatical only seemed to enhance his legacy once he returned, winning more MVPs and getting back to the top.
And staying there.
That’s why it’s hard for many to embrace James’ claim because his career doesn’t look that way. Many dismissed him as a choker in 2011 when the Dallas Mavericks stymied him so much in the Finals, they put J.J. Barea on him and didn’t have much to worry about.
James’ initial departure from Cleveland also was viewed as a demerit before perspective has shown James had the foresight in his power moves to stay ahead of the curve.
The fact that James has even rebounded from such low points to be in the conversation is accomplishment enough, and if this is indeed the greatest collection of top-level talent the league has seen, James being the best player 10 years running is a feather in his cap.
But our criteria should be altered as we determine where James fits among the greatest, and we should no longer arbitrarily dismiss the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or even Magic Johnson as competition to Jordan — or whomever one feels should occupy the top spot.
Russell, of course, is the ultimate winner, with 11 championships in 13 years. Chamberlain, Russell’s main rival, has his own wing in the NBA record book even though he doesn’t have the team hardware to show for it.
Abdul-Jabbar may have the most complete case of all when you consider his high school and college days, and his six MVPs are tops in NBA history. But his last few years carry too much weight as he played into his 40s on Lakers teams that were headlined by Magic Johnson.
Johnson was the ultimate leader, spearheading nine runs to the NBA Finals in his 12 seasons — much in the same way James has been a one-way ticket to June this decade, win or lose. Johnson’s five titles are more discussed than his four losses — the worst of which was an embarrassing, error-filled series against Boston in 1984 that had Celtics forward Kevin McHale calling him “Tragic” Johnson in the aftermath.
The larger point is that each player in the argument has facts that work against him, even the exalted Jordan, as he won his championships in the era of expansion, with the league going from 24 teams to 30, potentially stripping opponents of valuable depth.
And there never seemed to be a foil who could equal Jordan and push him, like Russell had with Chamberlain, like Magic had with Larry Bird, like James has had at times with Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant.
The circumstances aren’t Jordan’s fault, just as the game not being as evolved hurts Russell and Chamberlain, as we rely on word of mouth as opposed to our own eye test for perspective.
James has the misfortune of going against some of the best teams in basketball history, and short of the 2016 Finals win, his teams have fallen to the likes of the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors in unremarkable fashion.
It doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s likely the greatest combination of power, skill and athleticism we’ve ever seen, fitting comfortably in a 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame — so it’s not like his beliefs are off the wall.
But him saying it can rightly make us cringe, while simultaneously making us realize our expert evaluations can be a wee bit incomplete.
1. It’s easy to bag on the Washington Wizards for John Wall’s supermax contract now. But when it was agreed to, the Wizards had just completed a season in which they were a quarter away from the conference finals and Wall was the catalyst. However, some of the other deals they handed out? Feel free to blast away.
2. New York Knicks coach David Fizdale called Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic a 7-foot-2 Magic Johnson. Can’t say I’ve ever thought about it that way, but I can’t say Fizdale is out of his mind, either.
3. James Harden is vaulting himself into the MVP race, game by game. You can admire what he’s doing and not like the flopping and theatrics that sully those performances.
4. If anyone can figure out what the Boston Celtics are doing or who they are, let them know. Smart money says they’ll figure it out and at least reach the conference finals. But it’s no longer a certainty.