LeBron James’ greatness is on full display as we speak, and we are currently awaiting the start of the NBA Conference Finals. If LeBron makes another trip to the NBA Finals, that would be eight straight trips, something that hasn’t been accomplished in over 50 years! And, don’t look now folks, but he currently sits fifth on the all-time scorers list (31,038), and only 1,254 points behind many hoop heads’ all-time great Michael Jordan (and LeBron still hasn’t even retired, taken ownership of a team, and returned to play for them yet. Yikes!). He is showing no signs of slowing down, possibly playing the best ball of his career in his 15th season, and with an average of at or around 2,000 points per, it’s safe to say next season he will surpass the immortal MJ on this list, and begin nipping at the heels of Kobe Bryant, who sits third.
That would leave only Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) for LeBron to pass, and improve his argument for the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Which means, LeBron simply has to continue playing at this pace for a mere four more seasons, to achieve what many thought was impossible, and break Cap’s all-time scoring record. He is also fourth in triple-doubles (94), trailing Magic Johnson (168), Jason Kidd (118), and the triple-double machine himself, Russell Westbrook (112 and only entering his 11th season, so, yeah, probably not passing this guy). Not to mention all of the accolades he is in possession of now (3-time champion, 4-time MVP, 3-time Finals MVP, Scoring champion, ROY), and can potentially receive in the future. Keep in mind, the record for MVP’s is six, held by Kareem, and the record for Finals MVP’s is six, held by Michael Jordan.
So, naturally, fans are all becoming prisoners of the moment. Their eyes are all telling them what they are watching is the best basketball player that they have ever seen, and their response to it is to proclaim him as such. I can understand what fans are going through right now, as they watch LeBron and listen in disbelief as someone states matter-of-factly, that, as good as you think LeBron is, kids, Michael Jordan was that much better. I can understand because I lived through it. I watched Michael Jordan play basketball in the 90’s, when he began to collect his championships, as well as set the groundwork for his impeccable 6-0 record in the Finals (collecting all six Finals MVP’s). I can recall watching Mike dismantling Magic Johnson and the ’91 Lakers, and the great Marv Albert himself, exclaiming (and I quote), “Michael Jordan has answered a couple of questions. There have been doubters over the years whether a team led by Jordan could win a championship”.
If you’re a Jordan fan (like I am), this probably sounds so foreign in your ears, as the mere thought of anyone questioning the greatness of Michael Jordan is laughable at this point. But it was a real thing, because the people who questioned whether a me-first basketball player could win a championship were the same ones who watched Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Magic and Larry had fans watching basketball in a different way, causing them to believe only great players could assimilate their selfless style of play throughout an entire team. I’m a Lakers fan, and even I can appreciate the style that the ’86 Celtics played with. There is not one player who stands out in any video collection of their highlights, and it’s not due to lack of individual talent (Larry Bird [1986 NBA MVP], Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish are all Hall of Famers). It’s the sacrifice of said individual talent, the belief in a team-first style of play, as well as in their teammates, from the third best player, to the twelfth.
It was truly “beautiful”, and Magic was doing the same thing in Los Angeles. Albeit in a marginally flashier, more fast-paced style, but it was the same idea. Before the ’80’s, Dr. J had everyone wanting to dunk from the free-throw line sporting giant afros. Magic Johnson came in and made passing the ball cool. At the time, nobody cared how many points Magic or Larry scored, and the triple-doubles they both recorded were incidental, because all anyone was concerned with was winning championships. Magic’s Lakers won five to Larry’s Celtics, who won three, and at least Magic or Larry appeared in every Finals matchup through the entirety of that decade of basketball (And they would obviously play each other, with Magic besting Larry two out of their three Finals meetings).
Following easily the most important NBA Finals ever (1984, the first of three Lakers-Celtics Finals matchups), and at the heights of Magic and Larry’s powers, comes Michael Jordan. Mike walks into the NBA and immediately averages 28.2 PPG, which is the highest average for a rookie since Kareem averaged 28.8 fifteen seasons prior (and has not been equaled since). Yes, he would go onto set a playoff record for points in a game against the pre-mentioned ’86 Celtics, netting 63, but it would come in a loss. When Father Time finally caught up to the Celtics, the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons would become Mike’s next foe, proving a team effort could still thwart an outstanding individual one. It would take six seasons (Really? That’s it?) for Mike to overcome all of these obstacles and finally seize the one accomplishment that had eluded him his entire career: An NBA championship.
So, from 1984 to 1991, there was enough time for people to talk up doubt regarding MJ’s abilities to lead a basketball team. Which also means there was enough time for him to rack up individual accolades, which now include:
- 6-time champion
- 5-time MVP
- 6-time Finals MVP (record)
- 10-time scoring champion (record)
- 3-time steals champion
… to name a few. And yet, there are still plenty of fans out there who don’t believe Michael Jordan to be the greatest basketball player who ever lived. I’m sure there are quite a few young fans who only know Mike as “the crying face meme”. And I guess that’s just what happens to great players as time passes them by. As crazy as I thought it would be to hear someone saying Michael Jordan wasn’t the greatest of all time, it must have been the same for someone who had watched Kareem Abdul-Jabbar play:
- 6-time champion
- 6-time MVP (record)
- 2-time Finals MVP
- All-time scoring leader
- 2-time scoring champion
- 4-time blocks champion
- Rebounds champion
… and that’s only professionally. I can imagine someone idolizing Kareem, and having to hear about this kid named Mike, who’s claim to fame at the time was setting a playoff record for points in a loss and winning a slam dunk contest.
Even before Kareem, there was Wilt Chamberlain, who set the record for most points scored in a game (100), averaged a still-standing and unbreakable single season record for points per game (50.4) and rebounds (27.2)! Other accolades include:
- 2-time champion
- 4-time MVP
- Finals MVP
- All time rebounds leader (23,924)
- 7-time scoring champion
- 11-time rebound champion (record)
- Assist champion (as a center??)
I always found it funny when I would bring up Wilt in casual conversation with my friends. A popular argument is always,
“Eh, Wilt is overrated.”
“He was playing against a bunch of short white guys, so of course he was dunking all over them.”
“So, you don’t think he would fare very well in today’s NBA?”
“Well, how do you think someone like Shaq would do if he played during Wilt’s era?”
“Shaq? Oh man, he’d average like 50 points and 20 rebounds on those short white guys, are you kidding me? Ridiculous numbers!”
“OK, OK… I’m asking you this because, Wilt fucking did that in his own era!”
It’s not like Wilt was out there dominating with numbers like 25 PPG and 15 RPG. His numbers were astronomically better than everyone else’s from that era. It was almost like he was originally drafted in 1995, someone invented a time machine, and then dropped his big promiscuous butt off in the 1960’s to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting basketball population (as well as all of that poontang). I’m not crazy enough to believe that Wilt could still drop 100 in a modern day basketball game, but I am willing to believe that he could have been a multiple time all-star, if only for the way he dominated the opposition in his time. That’s a lot to say for someone who played over 40 years ago.
Having said that, I realize someone can still reply with, “Well, that’s why Wilt was overrated. Back when he played, he was a monster. In today’s game, even you are saying he would simply be a multiple time all-star. That’s not saying much”. I can understand that logic, but I’m speaking from a hypothetical situation. Obviously, Wilt cannot be transported to today’s game to prove to everyone watching that he could average 20 and 10. I’m saying he was so good in his own era and ahead of his own time, we can actually have a conversation in which this hypothetical situation can be entertained.
What does that mean? Think about how amazing you believe LeBron James to be. Now consider the future of basketball is only going to be better. In about 40 years, everyone playing now won’t be able to hold the coach’s clipboard. Don’t believe me? Look at today’s game now. Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, players of this size and skill set in the 1960’s would have been relegated to being rebounders and inside scorers. Today, they dribble, shoot, and penetrate like guards. Tomorrow, perhaps even the 12th man earning the league minimum has to be able to do this to keep his job.
Maybe one day the future NBA adds a 10-point shot, and suddenly the kids are all proclaiming What’s-His-Face as the greatest shooter of all time. You furiously try to explain how great of a shooter Steph Curry was, and how “If only there was a 10-point shot back when he played, he would have been the king of that shot. It would have been like shooting free-throws for him”. But, thanks to the 10-point shot, even mediocre shooters in the future NBA have passed him on all-time scorers list, so Steph’s name and abilities are all but forgotten. Who just shoots 3-point shots now anyways? Now you understand the pain of a Jerry West fan, who watched their “greatest shooter ever” play before the addition of the 3-point line.
Everyday, the game is changing and evolving. In the ’80’s, the best teams played selflessly and together, but the 1977 Portland Trailblazers provided the blueprint for them to follow (It’s no surprise Bill Walton was the missing ingredient that the 1986 Boston Celtics were looking for). In the ’90’s, the best team would literally beat the hell out of you, and they all had the 1989 Bad Boy Pistons to thank for it (Again, no coincidence that when Mike was finally able to humiliate the Pistons, the rest of the league was a piece of cake).
This is why it’s useless to argue eras and how certain players would have competed today, because of course today’s players overall are better than the players before them. The examples I gave above was the league learning from teams who played just a few years prior. So, how can any one player from the past be better than the players of today, when there are 30, 40, 50 years of basketball knowledge and evolution that the players and coaches of today have learned from? LeBron could have fared pretty well in the ’90’s, but do you want me to now imagine what Jordan could have done in the ’70’s as a fair comparison? The fact that we can take players like Mike and Larry and even entertain the notion that they could play today is a testament to their abilities and how well they dominated in their individual eras.
I watched Michael Jordan play. When the dust settled, his accolades were collected, and he was done playing basketball, we all dubbed him the G.O.A.T. When really, he was only the greatest basketball player in our lifetime. I had never watched Kareem, a prime Larry, Wilt Chamberlain, or Bill Russell play, but I felt Mike had done enough before my eyes to deem a G.O.A.T. label. Now LeBron is making a new group of fans do the same thing, sweeping Mike away under a rug. When really, LeBron is simply the greatest basketball player in their lifetime.
As unbelievable as it may seem, there will come a new crop of players who will challenge LeBron’s greatness. Shit, it’s already starting. What could this next generation of ballers possibly accomplish that LeBron hasn’t? Well, there is that 3-5 Finals record (which is only getting worse) that’s been quite the knock on his resume. People are arguing right now about LeBron’s legacy, and how it could improve if he were to win just two more championships. Suppose this next LeBron/Jordan type makes seven Finals trips, winning all of them, including five in a row? Where do we put him now? Where will your argument for LeBron be when a majority who never watched him play are suddenly judging the greatest basketball player in your lifetime solely by his Finals record, because the era in which this new guy plays in is “so much better”?
But you watched him play. There’s nothing anybody can tell you, because they just will never understand. Instead of becoming frustrated, we should instead realize that the game is better today because our favorite players suited up and changed the way it’s played. The narrative for what makes a G.O.A.T. is ever-changing, and is always relative to the era. That’s why the G.O.A.T. label doesn’t exist. We can only judge the players in the eras that they played in, and simply appreciate that at one point, they each will have shared the unique distinction of being the greatest basketball player in someone’s lifetime.
All stats were obtained, as always, at www.basketball-reference.com, with a little help from www.landofbasketball.com. And, for what it’s worth, the G.O.A.T. label does exist, and is owned by the late great Muhammad Ali, who coined it himself. You must be the goddamn G.O.A.T. to proclaim yourself the G.O.A.T., and then go shut all of your doubters up, reminding them all with every spare second you have (as you continue to make history mind you) that you are the G.O.A.T. Follow me on Twitter for more of my takes to end all silly and childish Twitter debates, once and for all.