After opting out of his contract, Lebron James is once again a free agent. This much I’m sure you knew. People also seem to know, for reasons inexplicable to me, that Lebron’s career will never surpass Michael Jordan’s. Now with a third ring under his belt Lebron is building a compelling case for the greatest player in NBA history. If you say this in conversation, you’ll always lose people on this argument. And it’s for that reason that I want to at least put forth Lebron’s right to have a foot in the door.
My source of deepest confusion lies in the average fan’s mythical view of Jordan. I understand what he did and all of the folklore accompanying it. Where I’m lost is how the sentiment crept in that Lebron would have to win 12 rings to surpass Jordan. Really. That’s how people talk about Jordan. If Lebron retires with six rings no one will give him the benefit of the doubt. Why? That same status isn’t given to Babe Ruth or any football player. Granted, these are two sports in which there is no unanimous greatest player in the minds of many. Everyone acknowledges that players of years past and present play in remarkably different eras that can’t be compared. So why is that view not shared in basketball? Retired NBA players of Jordan’s generation say that Jordan played when defenders could get away with far more physicality. The argument then goes that Jordan would score far more in today’s game. Maybe so. My issue is more with the unfairness placed on today’s players. That’s not Lebron’s fault and he doesn’t deserve to be scorned for rule changes that occurred before he ever stepped foot on an NBA court. What happens when we bicker over meaningless semantics is that we take away from enjoying a player’s greatness while they’re playing. You’ll have all the time in the world to make the Jordan-Lebron comparison after he’s taken his last shot. They’re not going anywhere.
At the ripe age of 31, Lebron has won three finals MVP’s along with four regular-season MVP’s and been selected to twelve All-Star teams. King James now trails only Jordan in finals MVP’s, and is on the same trajectory as his childhood idol. At 31, both players had three rings and three finals MVP’s. James took over the series, nearly averaging a triple-double during Cleveland’s three comeback wins. In bringing a championship to Cleveland for the first time since 1954, Lebron finally did what people had been asking him to do for so long: win with a team that had no business being in the finals. With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving at full strength that is open to interpretation but last year there was no question; Lebron nearly won an NBA title by himself. Lebron has done more with less, winning the Rookie of the Year on a terrible Cavs team but pulling them above .500 in his second season. In 2007 Lebron led the Cavs to his first NBA finals before getting swept by the Spurs. That team’s second-leading scorer was none other than Larry Hughes. Jordan had one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history with Dennis Rodman and was a part of one of the greatest teams in NBA history. When you tell that to a Jordan-lover they counter with “That’s because of him, because he was on it”. But not matter how good you are a team consists of five players on a court at once, one great player is never enough. Ironically enough, it’s Lebron who taught us that.
Want to talk about greatness? Four years into his career Lebron was already the Cavs all-time leading scorer. It’s entirely plausible that’s just because Cleveland is terrible at sports, but remarkable nonetheless. James ranks eleventh in points all-time with 26,833 and it stands to reason he will pass Jordan who sits in fourth. The caveat is that Lebron got to 20,000 points at a younger age than anyone preceding him, Jordan included. Lebron has just missed the 2,000 point mark his last two seasons but virtually every season he’s garnered over 2,000 points. By that estimate, with six more seasons of similar productivity he’ll be right at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record of 38,387. All at age 37. Not to exclude any categories, Lebron is also 24th in steals and 18th in assists, and with all things being equal he will find himself firmly entrenched in the top 10 in the latter around the same time.
A few more rings, the all-time scoring leader, and maybe a few more MVP’s? He’ll surely have my vote. And perhaps one billion dollars.