As if it was news to anyone outside of Akron and Cleveland, Dwyane Wade recently repeated the most common of all truths, that no way, no hell, no chance does LeBron James have of passing Michael Jordan as the greatest player in NBA history.
James already is the greatest player of his generation but the climb is an uphill one to pass MJ just for the fact that Michael never lost a NBA Finals and Michael never left the team that drafted him when he was in his prime and Michael dealt with being punked by the Pistons year after year by becoming more anal and more possessed and Michael revolutionized the iso scoring game. He wasn’t a freak of nature like LeBron. Michael took what Elgin did and what Dr. J. did and what David Thompson did and put it in the stratosphere.
LeBron is an anomaly. The chance of seeing another 6-8 athletic, explosive, skilled scorer, genius passer, penultimate leader, grace the NBA stage and appear in four straight (and counting) NBA Finals- well no one is holding their breath for that to happen.
Andrew Lynch of Fox Sports laid out what LeBron would have to do to make the debate serious, to match MJ. He would have to retire a Cav. He would have to stick with Kyrie and ask for no other superstar help. He can’t miss games due to injury or labor strife. He has to get three more rings with no more losses, bringing his record in the Finals to 6-4. He needs to four-peat, something Jordan never did. He needs to make the Warriors an irrelevant three point shooting team that can’t solve his riddle. He needs four more Finals MVP’s. He needs to appear in 10 NBA Finals in a row, meaning six more. And do this while he is getting older.
In other words, it is nearly impossible given the numbers.
But where LeBron has a big edge over Michael Jordan is his influence. Michael cared about winning titles and making money. The negative detritus that soaks humanity didn’t matter to him. He lived well and so did his family. He refused to get involved in social issues. He was a loner with friends scattered here and there. Charles Barkley was his closest NBA friend. Jordan was interested in influencing the generation in which he played but only by how he devoured opponents on the court . Only one person was influenced by the Jordan mystique and played the way he played: Kobe Bryant. So Jordan’s influence was temporary and small.
LeBron, because of his freakish size and explosiveness, doesn’t influence on court play. There are no LeBron copies. There are no 6-8 athletes soaring to the rim and dunking. There are no power forwards with the talent of point guards enabling his teammates with the game on the line.But LeBron’s influence on his generation and the generations that follow him is significant.
He was bold enough to leave the team that drafted him and join two other super players. Two years before LeBron defected, the Celtics built their own Hall of Fame superteam but the C’s did it through maneuvering. Ray Allen was traded to the Celtics. Kevin Garnett was traded to the Celtics.
LeBron was a free agent who willingly turned his back on the Cavs to pair up with more talent because the pressure was on him to win. He looked around the Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao Cavs and knew he didn’t have the talent to win. He was willing to take the abuse in the short term, to have his image affected so he could win and it worked, though it wasn’t perfect. 2 Finals wins. 2 Finals losses.
LeBron set an example for other NBA stars. If you are losing. If you are unhappy. If you look around and see there is no hope of winning a title, then leave. Go. Find greener pastures. Which is what Kevin Durant did. The template was set because LeBron had the guts to take a huge risk in 2010.
Unlike Jordan, LeBron isn’t afraid to step out and be political and talk about what is right and wrong in the racial paradigm. LeBron endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and Hlllary Clinton in 2016. Michael Jordan refused to endorse Harvey Gantt in 1993, fearing backlash from Republicans who as he put it, “buy Nikes too.” This uneven social activism from Jordan and James may possibly have economic roots. James was an impoverished kid from Akron who never knew his father and a lot of his childhood was spent moving around. Jordan was born into a middle class family with the father as the hero and role model, preaching excellence, education and perseverance. Jordan just wasn’t as desperate financially as James, nor did he see the ubiquitous results of poverty and despair like Akron raised LeBron did on a daily basis.
LeBron is active in the Players Association when he doesn’t have to be. He could be happy with what he has. But he makes sure the players point of view and perspective is heard. It helps that his best friend is the president of the union. Chris Paul may have the unique distinction of the union never striking when he is its leader. LeBron attends meetings, is vocal, makes sure his voice is loud in the room. When Jordan was a star in the league, the money players didn’t get involved in union business and it allowed their agents to control the process. The players today are more aggressive, more socially conscious, more independent thinking, not afraid of speaking out and more economically astute. They are also more tribal: we are in this together.
On a macro level, Jordan could only influence so much. Social media had yet to be in existence. The internet was a work in progress. Jordan had his commercials, his appearances, his championships and that was it. Nearly two decades later, everything LeBron James says and does is repeated and talked about and debated. He is the recipient of a social media culture run amok with all of its pluses and minuses.
So no, LeBron will never pass the greatest of the great. Michael Jordan’s reputation and legacy remains intact 15 years after his first title. But LeBron James is the most influential NBA player of the past 30 years.
photo via llananba