We’ve already heard it: Is LeBron the GOAT? Let the offseason of debates begin.
Let me start by saying, I am tired of hearing the term GOAT.
First used by Muhammad “I Am The Greatest” Ali, it has now become a common term that gets way overused, with people being the GOAT of everything from a particular sport to announcing to pretty much anything anyone does.
And besides being overused, it’s also impossible to quantify, which makes it like naming a Most Valuable Player in a sport. Everyone has their own qualities that they see as qualifying for the title, which means you’re going to have a wide range of opinions and never a consensus.
For the NBA, of course, Michael Jordan has long been considered the greatest player, though there are some that want to now say that LeBron James deserves to be up there in the top spot. But again, what qualifies a player to be … yep, I’m going to say it … the GOAT? And more importantly, is LeBron the GOAT now?
If we’re going to base the Greatest of All-Time on championships, it’s an open-and-shut case. Bill Russell won 11 championships in his 13-year playing career with the Boston Celtics. Yes, the NBA didn’t have nearly as many teams back then, but if it’s all about winning titles, then Russell is up at the top.
In that same vein, if titles are the main criteria, why isn’t Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the conversation? Six titles in his time with the Bucks and Lakers ties him with Jordan, yet his name is almost never mentioned in the GOAT conversations.
James’ fourth title, which he clinched Sunday night with the Lakers’ Game 6 victory over the Miami Heat, seems to have pushed him closer to Jordan’s stratosphere when it comes to GOAT status. But there’s definitely more to being the greatest than just team championships, or Robert Horry, Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn, among others, might have a say in this conversation.
Again, being the greatest can be associated with winning, this time with individual awards in conjunction with team success. Taking home the NBA Finals MVP is certainly a measuring stick, one that Russell can’t compete in. But that’s only because the Finals MVP wasn’t handed out until 1969 after Russell and the Celtics had won all their titles.
How many Finals MVPs would Russell have won? Well, his name is on the trophy now, so it’s pretty much understood that he would have the most now if that award had been given out during his playing career.
That fact notwithstanding, do we want to have our criteria being an award voted on by the media? And for a seven-game series only? Andre Iguodala won the award in 2015. Does that make him a better player than Stephen Curry?
What it does say is during the championship series, that player had the most dominant stats, but even that isn’t a definitive statement. When they were handing out the award after the Lakers’ win Sunday night, I would not have been surprised if James and Anthony Davis were the co-MVPs, or if Davis had won the award on his own.
Davis led the team in scoring in the postseason, and it was his defensive presence in the paint on Sunday that allowed the Lakers to turn the game into a blowout by halftime.
Game-winning shots? Jordan had a few, as has James. But so did Horry, Steve Kerr, John Paxson and many others. That’s more a matter of opportunity, especially if a star player is being double-teamed and makes the right basketball play to find the open man.
This could be a very different conversation, especially for me, if Earvin “Magic” Johnson hadn’t contracted HIV in 1991. Johnson is already considered a top 10 player by most people, but his career was cut short by the diagnosis, which forced him into an immediate retirement from the league after nine NBA Finals appearances in his 12 years in the league.
Johnson helped lead the Lakers to five titles in that span, winning Finals MVP three times despite having Abdul-Jabbar on his team. But, his career was cut short (he returned for a short stint in the 1995-96 season), so his status among the greatest is diminished a bit.
But, Jordan only played two more full seasons than Johnson, which includes his forgettable two-year stint with the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s. Yet, because of his six titles in an eight-year span, his championships seem to matter more. This despite Johnson and the Lakers going against some all-time great teams in the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980s.
James’ run of nine NBA Finals appearances in 10 years is amazing, especially in today’s NBA, but what seems to downgrade him a bit is the fact that he’s only come away the champion in four of those appearances. And that might be the biggest factor in people not seeing James on the same level as Jordan.
Image Is Everything
On the NBA’s biggest stage, those of us that were lucky enough to see it never saw Jordan come up short. Yes, James’ streak of NBA Finals appearances is fantastic, but when they show the montage of NBA Finals history at the beginning of every game, they don’t show the teams that lost. They show the winners, so we see Jordan every year.
James has shown himself to be vulnerable by losing (much as Johnson did in his Finals losses), despite the fact that you need to go through so much just to get to the biggest stage. To me, that’s the biggest difference in perception between the two.
Yes, Jordan was electric, both on and off the court, with a style that will likely never be matched. He set the standard that most of today’s players are trying to reach.
Russell and Abdul-Jabbar are great winners and players as well, but they didn’t have the style of Jordan. It’s the mystique of Jordan that sets him apart, no matter what other arguments are made.
So, is LeBron the GOAT? For me, it’s not an argument worth having. I don’t care who the GOAT is (or to ever hear the term GOAT again). I’ve been lucky enough to see Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Jordan and James play, and that’s good enough for me.