LeBron over MJ? That kind of talk simply won’t fly — not yet, anyway
Nobody’s perfect, not even the beloved media, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that that the 2016-17 All-NBA teams were announced Thursday and the only unanimous first-teamer was … not Cleveland’s LeBron James, the greatest player on the planet. It wasn’t even Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, the first player to average a triple-double for a season since Oscar Robertson.
It was Houston’s James Harden, he of the unstoppable left-handed drive, the unruly beard-gone-wild and the unconscionably bad defense.
Oh, well. Does it even matter?
One player looms above all others in today’s NBA, and it isn’t Harden or Westbrook or Golden State’s Steph Curry, the best player on what clearly has been the best team all season.
It is, of course, James, who is three, maybe four, games away from his seventh consecutive NBA Finals. The No. 1-seeded Celtics, blown out by the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, have roughly as good a chance of winning that series as I have of winning next year’s Boston Marathon.
But just think about that for a moment: seven straight trips to the championship round. All those extra games. All the physical demands. All the stress. All that winning.
No one since Bill Russell, five decades ago, has played for the title so many years in a row, but that isn’t the comparison we’re about to get into here.
You know where this is going.
You might not like it. Your guard might be going up already.
But you know.
So let me start by saying this: LeBron James isn’t better than Michael Jordan. Not yet. Maybe not ever, but that should be very much in doubt to anyone who’s willing to be honest.
I, too, struggle with the notion that any player could be better than Jordan; that it’s even possible. And I understand there’s the whole sacrilege thing. It’s one thing to make a case that Jim Brown or Barry Sanders was better than Walter Payton. Or that another Super Bowl champion was better than the 1985 Bears. Or even that Magic Johnson’s Lakers or Larry Bird’s Celtics were better than Jordan’s Bulls.
I’m not making any of those cases. Not today, anyway. No, I’m going even farther out on the ledge, to a place where many Chicago sports fans probably would be happy to give me a final shove. I’m saying Jordan won’t go down in history as having been better than James.
If you have a teenage hoops junkie in your home, then you’ve had many of the sorts of Jordan-vs.-blank discussions that I’ve had. Example: How do I know Jordan was better than Kobe Bryant? Because Jordan was better in every single statistical category you could find. Look it up.
Lately, the conversation has been all Jordan-vs.-James. About which I’ve said: Yeah, but Jordan never let anybody beat him. Yeah, but Jordan was the ultimate closer. Yeah, but Jordan was a killer. Yeah, but if Jordan hadn’t left the Bulls in the middle of their title run, they might’ve won eight in a row.
But the conversation is changing. If LeBron’s back-to-back titles in Miami didn’t impress you, what he has done the past two postseasons had to floor you. Don’t even try to deny it.
Jordan never lost, but he never tried to win a Finals without his two best teammates on the floor. That’s what James did in 2015, when the Cavs were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Warriors won the trophy, but James — who averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists — won respect on a level he never had before.
And in last year’s postseason, capped by the Cavs’ comeback from a 3-1 deficit to beat Golden State, owner of the best record in league history, James ascended to yet another level. He led his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game in the playoffs. In the Finals, he led all players — on both teams — in all five categories. It was uncharted territory.
Jordan played 1,072 regular-season games; James has played 1,061. If James’ career ended after this season, whether he wins his fourth ring or not, Jordan, who won six of them — as if you need me to tell you that — would have to be seen as the better player.
Yet Jordan played until he was 40. James is 32 — and so squarely in his prime, he averaged career highs this season in rebounds (8.6 per game) and assists (8.7). How many years does he have left? How many more climbs to the mountaintop?
In his 14-year career, James has over 1,000 more boards than Jordan had. And nearly 2,000 more assists. He’s still about a season and a half behind Jordan in points, but he’ll get there and, if all goes according to plan, eventually take down each of the remaining three who’ll be above him on the scoring list: Bryant, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
What’ll Bulls fans say then?
LeBron James isn’t better than Michael Jordan.
But check back with me in a few years, would you?
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.