Americans are about to watch a basketball slaughter. Imagine the NBA Finals as a kind of Fourth Punic War of Hoops, with the mighty Warriors of Golden State set to destroy Cleveland and salt the basketball earth. Given the likely fallout, including free-agent departures, it might be a thousand years before the Cavaliers rise again.
So, before the massacre, it’s vital that we pause for a moment and consider history: It’s time to acknowledge that LeBron James is now the best basketball player who ever lived, the GOAT (Greatest of All Time).
There is a certain class of basketball fan who scoffs at this notion. Fans my age and older vividly remember a singular night in June 1998. You know the moment. Michael Jordan slightly pushes off Utah Jazz forward Bryon Russell, rises up, and sinks the game-winning shot to secure his sixth title in six trips to the Finals. The instant the shot went in, I just knew that I was witnessing greatness. No one would be better. No one could be better.
Of course, it’s not easy to choose one over the other. As of now, the statistical measures are so close that you can stare at them until your eyes bleed and you still won’t settle the debate. Jordan has higher career scoring and steals averages. LeBron has better rebounding and assists totals. Jordan has more total points, but assuming no catastrophic injuries, LeBron will pass him next year, in fewer seasons. Jordan did something that LeBron will never do, winning those six titles in six Finals tries. LeBron has done something that Jordan never did, taking nine trips to the Finals (so far), including eight straight (so far).
The argument that Jordan was undefeated in the Finals while Lebron’s Finals record is (again, so far) “only” 3–5 seems particularly convincing to a certain kind of fan. But it ignores the fact that not even Jordan could win on his own, as his failures in the Eastern Conference playoffs prior to Scottie Pippen’s arrival in Chicago will attest. Jordan couldn’t even make the finals without Pippen.
James, on the other hand, has often had to do it all by himself. This year’s finals is déjà vu. Quick, can you name a single member of the starting five of his first finals team? Ladies and gentlemen, here was the most common starting lineup for the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers: Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Eric Snow, and LeBron. Who started Game Seven Monday night in Boston? LeBron, Jeff Green, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, and George Hill.
Those are subpar supporting casts to say the least, and there’s more where they come from. In fact, LeBron is so famous for dragging journeymen teammates to the finals that The Ringer ran a delightful piece earlier today ranking “every teammate LeBron James has ever carried to the NBA Finals.” It’s a glorious list. I see you, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic.
It’s time to acknowledge that LeBron James is now the best basketball player who ever lived, the GOAT (Greatest of All Time).
Jordan, by contrast, had underrated supporting casts his entire career. Consider the controlled experiment of the first season after his first retirement. His 1993 title team won 57 games and beat the Phoenix Suns in six games in the Finals. He retired to play baseball, and Phil Jackson ran out four of the five starters, replacing Jordan with . . . drum roll please . . . Pete Meyers, he of the 4.8 points per game career scoring average. (Perhaps you remember him by his legendary nickname, “Skeeter Hawk.”) The Bulls won 55 games anyway, and lost a hard-fought, seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals series to the Knicks.
Now, I ask you, if you replace LeBron James with the modern equivalent of Skeeter Hawk, does his current Cavs team even make the playoffs?
Yes, I know that LeBron has only ever won with all-stars by his side — his Heat championship teams featured Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, while his lone Cleveland title team featured Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — but so did Jordan. And Jordan never, ever beat a team as good as the 2015–2016 Golden State Warriors, who LeBron dispatched by overcoming a 3–1 deficit and winning game seven on the road.
It’s not Jordan’s fault that he dominated the NBA after Magic, Larry, and Isiah had passed their primes and before Shaq joined with Kobe to create a Lakers mini-dynasty. It’s not Jordan’s fault that the best team he beat in the finals was the Charles Barkley-led Phoenix Suns. But it is to LeBron’s credit that his team beat Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobli, and Tony Parker. It is to LeBron’s credit that his team beat Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. It’s to LeBron’s credit that the Warriors had to add the second-best player in basketball to their lineup, Kevin Durant, to reclaim the throne.
Finally, just a word about life off the court. Though the GOAT debate should be settled on the hardwood, if all other things are equal (they’re not, but let’s pretend), and we judge the players based on their positive cultural impact, LeBron wins in a landslide. It’s hard to imagine a kid coming out of high school — lacking the strong father who blessed Michael Jordan’s life — navigating the immense and intense fame better than James has. He’s a family man. He’s an extraordinarily successful businessman off the court. He’s an actual role model for young men. Oh, and try not to consider the implications of this tweet without feeling real sympathy for the challenge of his childhood and admiration for the man he’s become:
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 3, 2018
LeBron has been called “King James” for a very long time, but the title always seemed premature. He was until recently a mere prince of hoops, waiting for his time to assume the throne. Now, that time has come. The old GOAT is gone. Long live the new GOAT. King James has earned his crown.