As LeBron James heads into what will likely be his fifth straight finals appearance, his dominance since his entrance into the league has been nothing short of amazing. He has been without a doubt the best player of this generation, and could someday go down as the best player to ever play the game.
LeBron will always be second to Michael Jordan if he loses in the Finals this year. You cannot walk away with only two rings in six Finals appearances if one wants to be considered the greatest of all time. There have been some incredible players to play the game, but what separates the legends at the very top are rings.
In the NBA, everyone on the championship team gets a commemorative ring, but there is a difference between Sasha Vujacic’s ring and Kobe Bryant’s ring, and it is not cosmetic. As a great player, the rings you’ve won are considered ‘yours’, in that you led that team to the promised land and you are the one that took them home.
At the very top of the list of the greatest players in NBA history, the number of championships one has is a barometer for how good a player is. Dominance in a certain category is a nice accolade, but the best players are expected to be able to carry an entire team on their shoulders, and take them to the playoffs.
Regular season numbers are great, but championships are where the greats are made. There has never been a great player that wasn’t able to take his team to the playoffs, and to join the elite company of the very best of all time, one must have a ring.
For LeBron, his legacy and his case to be the best of all time rests within winning this upcoming championship. To be the best, you have to beat the best. If LeBron loses this year, there is not much more he could do to have a convincing argument that he is better than Michael Jordan.
Let’s compare careers to this point.
In Jordan’s first nine years, he only won three championships, hypothetically the same number that LeBron could win. However, Jordan would have been on his third attempt (going 3 for 3) while this would be LeBrons sixth appearance.
Jordan was dominant in his first nine years in the league, establishing himself as the best player by his fourth year, while it took LeBron five years to win that MVP honor. Interestingly enough, Jordan received an MVP vote every year he was in the league except for the last year with the Wizards, and LeBron could be on his way as he also has received an MVP vote every year he has been in the league.
LeBron has been the better passer and rebounder, averaging 6.9 assists and 7.1 rebounds* while Jordan averaged 5.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds. Jordan was the better overall defensive player, however, averaging more defensive win shares than LeBron, as well as winning Defensive Player of the Year—something LeBron has failed to do.
*The rebounds are attributed to LeBron being bigger than Jordan, and the assists are due to the ball being in LeBrons hands so much. But again, with the size and vision of LeBron, why wouldn’t you want the ball in his hands as much as possible?
On offense, as great as LeBron is and as great as he is passing the ball and finding the open man, Jordan was more dominant. Jordan could go get your team a bucket at any point, and his stats are just eye popping: In his second season in the playoffs, he averaged 43.7 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting. Granted, it was only in three games as his Bulls got swept by the Celtics, but still incredible. His career averages in the playoffs are 33.4 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting. Jordan’s athleticism and finesse gave him the ability to rise over defenders for easy jump shots or drives to the rim where he could finish with both hands, or over the top of defenders.
The difference between LeBron and Jordan can be understood in a playground analogy. You would love to play on LeBron’s team, as he understands team chemistry and will actively make sure that everyone is getting touches and staying happy. He is like a camp counselor—energetic, happy, uplifting, and leading by example.
Jordan is the team you would want to be on if you want to win. He was simply unstoppable and could get your team the bucket they needed three times in a row down the stretch if needed. He was so dominant that the Detroit Pistons (no cakewalk back in the day) utilized a strategy known as the ‘Jordan rules’ where they would double and triple team Jordan as soon as he touched the ball, forcing the other players to beat them.
The difference between LeBron and Jordan lies within mentality. Jordan was ruthless, caring only about winning and doing whatever it would take to get to that stage. He would dominate not only the game but the opposition, trying to take the will out of the opponent. Jordan could care less about what others thought of him, other than that they had to respect him.
LeBron comes from a different time, a time where AAU circuits get the really good players in contact with each other at an young age, building friendships early on. LeBron understands that there is more to basketball than the 48 minutes on the court and is concerned about life past the hardwood. There is a sense of camaraderie that LeBron shares with the rest of the NBA players, starkly different to the aura of MJ, where he was almost untouchable from the regular Joes of the hardwood.
No one can force LeBron to adopt the killer mentality that Jordan had, but people can question whether it is detrimental to LeBron being the best ever. There is no doubt he has all the physical tools to be the best. LeBron has the size of Karl Malone and combines that with elite athleticism and speed. He is truly one of the best athletes to ever play the game. He is the definition of a matchup nightmare—the guys big enough to body with LeBron typically do not have the foot speed to keep up with him and will give up LeBron drives to the rim whenever he wants. Those that do have the speed to keep up with him typically lack the strength to not get posted by LeBron, and not to mention the man is 6’8″ and can get his jump shot really at any point he feels like. He is ambidextrous and can finish at the rim, but he can also pick apart the defense when the defense collapses on his drives. He has all the tools he needs to be great.
If he loses in the Finals this year, the best he can do is second behind Jordan. Part 2 coming soon.