On October 11, 2020, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals, giving the Lakers their 17th franchise championship, which tied them with the Boston Celtics for most championships by one team.
James, 35, captured his 4th NBA title in his 10th Finals appearance, while Anthony Davis, a 27-year-old seven-time NBA all-star, captured his 1st NBA title in his 1st year with the Lakers.
“[LeBron] is the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen” said Frank Vogel, the 1st year head coach of the Lakers after the victory.
This statement reignited the most popular question in the NBA today: is LeBron James the greatest basketball player of all time?
For years, the G.O.A.T. title has belonged to Michael Jordan, who led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in the 1990s.
Few players since have challenged Jordan’s title, but year after year, LeBron James continues to fuel the conversation.
One reason why James continues to challenge Jordan’s title is his incredibly consistent statistic performance year in and year out in both the regular and postseason, leading some reporters to claim that he maintains the longest prime in professional sports history.
Although Jordan had a slightly higher average scoring rate throughout his career, so far James has achieved higher rates of rebounds and assists. It’s quite possible that James will surpass Jordan and other basketball greats in statistical categories soon because of the longevity of his career if he continues to put up consistent numbers.
It took Jordan 7 years from the time he was drafted to his 1st Finals appearance compared to only 4 years for James. In the Finals, Jordan is undefeated in 6 appearances while James has won 4 of 10. Although James has had more experience in the Finals, it would be hard to top an undefeated record.
Jordan went to each of his Finals appearances with the same coach, the same franchise, and the same number two player in Scottie Pippen while LeBron has been to the Finals with three different teams and five different coaches.
Although it seems LeBron overcame more challenges in different franchises, players, and coaches over his ten finals appearances, the most important factor in this debate is the context and rules of the leagues and eras in which these two players have competed.
The NBA of the ‘80s and ‘90s is completely different from the NBA of the past two and a half decades.
Jordan’s NBA was much more physical—and more was tolerated by the referees. As an NBA player during Jordan’s time, you were going to battle every night. Every last shove or elbow to the face could decide the game for your team. NBA players were beaten up at the end of each game, not to mention at the end of the season.
In contrast, today’s NBA is a much softer league. Especially in the 2020 season, we’ve seen players arguing with the referees at every opportunity trying to plea their case to get a foul call. LeBron and many other players often get saved by the whistle, and free throw shots and three-pointers are a vital part of today’s game. LeBron is one of few players who aren’t afraid to take the ball to the paint, but even when he does, he’s almost guaranteed a foul call as long as he holds on to the ball.
Perhaps the reason LeBron’s career will outlast Jordan’s is because there are fewer severe injuries tolerated by the rules in today’s game
At this point in basketball history, Michael Jordan remains the greatest to play the game, but only time shall tell whether or not that will change.