Not that we needed an excuse -- some of us love this topic -- but LeBron James opened the door to the "greatest of all time" discussion after Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He was asked for his goals going forward, and he said some nice stuff about inspiring kids and leading his teammates before giving the money quote:
"And I want to be, if not the greatest, one of the greatest to ever play this game," he said. "And I will continue to work for that."
That's open to interpretation, of course. He will continue to work for what? To be "one of the greatest" ever? Or the absolute greatest ever? We can't dig into the bigger question -- Jordan or LeBron -- without answering that pesky one, so for the sake of argument let's assume (as I do) that he was saying his goal is to be the best ever, or to come as close as possible.
LeBron is taking a run at Jordan. That's what he was saying.
Whether LeBron succeeds won't be up to him, though. It'll be up to us. You and I will decide in the years to come whether he caught or even surpassed Michael Jordan -- just as you and I decided years ago that Jordan had surpassed Wilt and Russell and Kareem.
And that part of this equation -- winning our approval -- is LeBron's biggest hurdle. For him, surpassing Jordan is the easier part of this two-step process:
Step 1: Surpassing Jordan.
Step 2: Convincing us that he actually did it.
Step 2 is where biases and personal feelings come into play, and typically those biases lean toward Jordan because we romanticize the past -- and that's where Jordan lives. We cannot watch Jordan now, watch him shrink from the big shot by passing to Steve Kerr or volume-shoot his way to scoring titles or commit an uncalled offensive foul to give himself room to hit the biggest shot of his NBA career.
We cannot watch any of those things as we congregate on Twitter and discuss in real time just how lousy Jordan is. You think Julius Erving would have passed the ball to Kerr? Oscar Robertson didn't have to lead the league in shots to lead the league in scoring. No way Jerry West would've pushed off for that jumper. He'd just drill it in your face.
That's what we'd have done to Jordan had he played today, and you know it. But he doesn't play today, LeBron does -- and that's what we do to LeBron. We get caught up in the moment, some of us (ahem) worse than others, and we overstate whatever the position is. And since the accepted position is that LeBron can't possibly be the greatest of all time, we overstate the reasons. The way he is so unselfish when his team needs him to take over. The way he left Cleveland to pursue a championship.
Jordan never left Chicago, you know. Not in pursuit of an easier NBA title, anyway. But then, salaries were different in the 1980s and the people running Jordan's Bulls were better than the people running LeBron's Cavaliers, which is why Jordan was presented with a running mate named Scottie Pippen while LeBron was given Larry Hughes and then Mo Williams before deciding he'd seen enough and was taking his talents ...
We're biased. LeBron will (probably) never catch Jordan as the greatest of all time for a number of reasons, the main one being: We like Jordan more. But another reason is their style of play. By becoming the greatest of all time and doing it as a pure scorer -- a scorer who can do other things, to be sure, but a scorer first and foremost -- Jordan set that as the mold. Before Jordan it was Russell, then Wilt and Kareem, setting the mold with points, rebounds, blocks and rings. Once upon a time, to be the greatest you had to be a center.
Now we've decided that the greatest of all time has to be more well-rounded, more of a guard, which is why Shaquille O'Neal was never given a sniff as the greatest of all time -- even though he did win four NBA titles and was his generation's Wilt.
Jordan was well-rounded but he was a great scorer, first and foremost, and LeBron doesn't score like Michael -- though he could, I bet. LeBron's scoring average in Game 7 is 34.5 ppg, the highest of all time, and he won an NBA scoring title at age 22. I don't know about you, but I suspect he didn't peak at age 22. He's better now than he was then because he creates more and rebounds more and shoots at a much higher percentage.
There's also the age thing.
When LeBron was 22 he was losing his first NBA Finals and therefore eliminating himself, in the laziest of eyes, from the GOAT conversation. Jordan went 6-for-6 in the NBA Finals, and since that loss in 2007 meant LeBron would never equal that perfection, he will never equal Jordan. Never mind that LeBron's greatest sin, in hindsight, was leading that horse-crap 2007 Cleveland team to the NBA Finals, including his epic 48-point performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, when he scored his team's final 25 points because there just wasn't anyone else to do it. By leading the Cavs to the NBA Finals, he was leading them to slaughter.
And that's somehow his fault?
LeBron is on a pace to catch or even surpass Jordan in the biggest of milestones. Jordan won five MVPs; LeBron has won four, all in the last five years. Jordan won his second title at age 29. LeBron has two at 28.
Jordan scored more. LeBron creates and rebounds more.
If it sounds like I'm lobbying for LeBron, I'm not. But this issue is more complicated than most people make it sound. Show me someone who dismisses LeBron outright -- including me, as I did here in 2011 after LeBron's baffling performance in those NBA Finals -- and I'll show you an idiot. LeBron was 26 years old in 2011. When Michael was 26, he was leading the Bulls all the way to fifth in the Central (though they did reach the Eastern Conference finals that year).
This is a complicated issue -- and looking at LeBron's genius for versatility and wondering why that isn't valued as much as Michael Jordan's genius for scoring, I wonder one more thing:
Are we sure Magic Johnson doesn't belong in this conversation?