With LeBron James back in the NBA Finals for the fifth straight season, many are rekindling the comparisons with him to Michael Jordan. The Cavaliers’ J.R. Smith explained to Chris Haynes of Northeast Ohio Media Group, “It used to be no question. It was a landslide. It was Jordan. Now you have to consider my boy.” Kendrick Perkins offered up a similar sentiment, but while it may be fun to speculate, many forget that it’s just that: speculation.
The first thing any amateur basketball fan argues while discussing Jordan and LeBron is rings. This is such a foolish endeavor, because if anyone feels rings define greatness, they have to believe that Bill Russell is the greatest player that ever lived. If not, the policy is askew, and the era in which the player played in becomes the next topic.
If a basketball fan is smart enough to understand that the style of the game is forever changing, they should know better than to compare LeBron and Jordan. Sure, the 90s were rougher, but the speed of players today makes for a much different game than before. The beauty of basketball is that it’s constantly innovative. Players and coaches with new styles create new genres of the game that fans have come to love. It’s likely Jordan in his prime would do well now and LeBron would do well then, but we don’t have a time machine so maybe it’s better to forget that whole argument, too.
There are lots of things in basketball that pertain to individual accomplishments. Points per game, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage. All of these easily accessible statistics are there for that exact reason: a numerical value of the individual player. Of all these things, something not listed on the stat sheet is championship rings. That is because rings do not, and have never, pertained to individual success.
A championship ring is the ultimate tribute to a team. There are so many twists and turns throughout the course of a championship season, that one player can never be the sole reason for a team’s success. If it did, fans would watch 1-1 tournaments, not NBA hoops.
Jordan was part of an incredible dynasty. Phil Jackson is one of the most successful coaches ever to be a part of basketball. During his success in Chicago, Jordan played with Scottie Pippen and numerous other luminaries, including Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant and Toni Kukoc, among others. Arguing Jordan as the best ever takes away from the great efforts of these incredible players.
And believe it or not, the same thing can be said about LeBron. His two rings couldn’t be achieved on his own, and even though he’s a prime component, there are many reasons for his fifth straight Finals appearance outside of his own abilities. If you can’t understand that, you’re likely missing the point of basketball.
Basketball is special because no matter how bright the star, it’s about the team. While that may be difficult to remember during endorsed commercials and isolation play, it’s still true. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs have reminded us of that fact for years.
So please, don’t get suckered into the pointless, vast, immature debate of LeBron against Jordan. The game of basketball deserves better than that. A Nike ad doesn’t define you as the league’s elite, no matter how big the billboard. The Cavaliers wouldn’t be in the Finals without the grit of unsung players like Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova. Just like the Bulls wouldn’t have been dynastic in the 90s without the aforementioned players and other key role guys.
When it comes to the Jordan and LeBron comparison, there’s no right answer. But what is true is this: Teams win championships, not players. If you can understand that, you’re the type of fan that basketball deserves. If you can’t, please do us all a favor and just save your breath.