Sorry Michael Jordan But LeBron Is The GOAT
The conversation can never be closed for most sports. But it can for basketball.
In 2007 I made the pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden, the spiritual epicentre of basketball, to watch the New York Knicks take on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Early in the game a 23-year-old phenom named LeBron James caught the ball at the elbow, dribbled behind his back and through his legs, jumped from one side of the basket, spun 180 degrees in mid-air and dunked the ball from the other side of the basket. The crowd briefly gasped, then collectively lost their sh*t at the explosive athleticism they’d witnessed. High-fives. Camera flashes. Incredible reaction, considering LeBron played for the opposition.
We watch sports because we hope that at any moment we could witness greatness. Greatest goal. Greatest comeback. Greatest upset. Paradoxically, each generation of sports fans tend to believe that the athletes they grew up with were the greatest. Conversation closed.
But the conversation can never be closed for most sports. Depending on your age, the best tennis player ever could be Rod Laver, Roger Federer or Serena Williams. AFL, League and Union each don’t have an unequivocal Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). Pick your favourite immortal, pontificate for your favourite sportsperson, but know that you’ll be at the pub until last drinks without winning the argument.
Then there’s the inarguable few. Where the conversation is over before it starts. Where the player transcended the sport. Boxing -- Muhammad Ali. Baseball -- Babe Ruth. Cricket -- Don Bradman. You can have a conversation about the best spinner, the best quick or all-rounder, but there is no argument about the greatest cricketer. I know I’ll go my whole life without anyone averaging 99.94 again.
Michael Jordan retired from basketball with six NBA Championships, six Finals MVPs, five League MVPs, and remains the all-time leader in points scored per game. When professionals were admitted to the Olympics for the first time in 1992, and the USA assembled the “Dream Team”, Jordan was their best player.
Nike doesn’t become Nike without Michael Jordan. When he hung up his sneakers in 2003, he was universally considered the GOAT. Conversation closed. Jordan was basketball’s Bradman. But LeBron James is the reason for the use of the past tense, because he re-opened the conversation.
James is currently contesting his eighth consecutive NBA Finals. (The longest streak ever for a player that wasn’t part of the juggernaut 1960’s Boston Celtics, when the NBA only had one-third of its current teams). During this time he's led stacked squads of all-stars and carried mobs of mediocre misfits, unquestionably the alpha dog on each team. For almost a decade now, if LeBron's on your team, you play in the finals, and shorten your off-season vacation.
Jordan fans will shoot down this feat, arguing that James has actually only won three NBA Championships during the streak, that he’s lost more than he’s won; with another loss a likely scenario in 2018. Jordan made six finals and won all six, the ultimate winner and clutch performer. They will close their eyes, fingers in ears, and scream this fact out relentlessly.
But those screams fall on deaf ears. It’s a lazy argument, like saying Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King is the best movie ever because it won Oscars in all 11 categories it was nominated. It ignores the fact that the first half of Jordan’s professional career was bereft of major success. It conveniently forgets that Jordan quit basketball in the middle of his career to play baseball, toiling away as a sideshow in the minor leagues before returning to the NBA.
Whilst James’ resume of three NBA Championships, three Finals MVPs and four League MVPs are all ticks lower than Jordan, it certainly merits the GOAT conversation. The soberer for Jordan addicts is this: LeBron James is still in his prime. We’re having this conversation about best career ever, and his career isn’t finished yet.
James has played 15 seasons and, barring injury, will play several more. LeBron has also indicated he’d love to play with his son, LeBron Jr, should the talented youngster make the league. The earliest that could occur would be in 2024, another six seasons from now. Six more chances to win championships, MVPs and to pad his resume further.
Next season James will overtake Jordan in career points scored. He already has more rebounds and assists. James is more efficient offensively, with higher shooting percentages from three-point range and overall. If you can decipher advanced statistics like Win Shares and VORP, LeBron leads most of these too. Six more seasons, and his numbers will dwarf Jordan's.
Right now, the GOAT conversation is open. In six years, it will be closed.
Exhibit A: Even Twitter agrees!