Imagine a warm summer day in Chicago, there’s a light breeze and the sunlight is dancing off the Sears Tower; of course you’ll have to imagine this without the gunfire and unequivocal homicide rates but stick with the image. Three tall gentlemen walk into a swank bar & grille where they gather around a table for a couple drinks, Michael Jordan sits down first then LeBron James and Kobe Bryant flank him at both sides. A wide eyed young waitress rushes to the table struggling to contain her excitement. She finally manages to compose herself to ask them for their drink orders.
“Oh my god, LeBron James! What can I get you and your friends to drink?”
Seems strange that a waitress would be able to display such blind ignorance towards the identity of two companions sitting with LeBron James, does it not? If that seems strange, then why does it seem as though so many media outlets and pundits are doing the same? The societal obsession with current events and the perpetual idolatry of the 24 hour news cycle has planted a seed in the minds of sports fans everywhere that LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are comparable to Michael Jordan on the axis of greatness. This same seed has also sprouted the idea that LeBron’s current string of phenomenal game play cements him as a more skilled basketball player than Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Well, all hail King James let’s wrap this piece up and meet them at that bar in Chicago. Sounds like a great time except for one small detail, the aforementioned is simply not true.
For starters, allow me to inject a disclaimer. LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world that we know of right now. There are no ifs, maybes or ties; he is playing the best basketball right NOW by a large margin; second place would probably be Kevin Durant, who by the way is having an MVP season if not for LeBron. With that said, best right now is not indicative of greatest ever or comparable for that matter we are still yet to determine if it’s a prerequisite. What LeBron can hang his headband on is being the greatest athlete ever; there shouldn’t be much argument here. When we mention being the greatest athlete ever we are speaking of raw athletic prowess; speed, power, agility etc. LeBron’s physical abilities are remarkable; we have never had an athlete of his genetic composition play the game of basketball, ever. In fact, the only comparable athletes would be the likes of Bo Jackson or Jim Brown and perhaps even they fall well short of LeBron’s abilities as he stands at 6’8.
Greatest athlete ever, no doubt; the greatest basketball player ever, pump your brakes son. There are some that would extrapolate his athletic gifts into all around greatness, this is admirable but mistaken. It’s safe to say that LeBron has the tools to rival Michael Jordan’s accomplishments, but saying he will because he has the ability is a monumental gamble. The spark plug to this debate is intertwined with the ultimate goal of most NBA players, championship rings.
The topic of championship rings is hotly debated, before LeBron and for years to come after him especially depending on what he is able to accomplish in that regard. Michael Jordan’s greatness can be demonstrated through all manner of statistics and Hollinger Metrics; he has records that will never be broken and numbers that seem as though they were pulled from a screenshot of NBA2k13 on easy mode. Perhaps the crown jewel of all these numbers is his 6 NBA Championships with the adjacent 6 Finals MVP awards. With mention of that, the LeBron sympathizers will quickly point out that the great Bill Russell has more rings than Jordan as does NBA footnote extraordinaire Robert Horry. In reality this is more of a parlor fact rather than an arguing point and anyone making an attempt at using it as a true point of reference is forfeiting any expertise on championship basketball in favor of personal bias. While basketball is a team sport like any other professional sport the paramountcy of a singular great player is larger than any other professional team sport, the margin isn’t even close. One man can drive a team to the ultimate victory in basketball on both sides of the court; that can’t be done in baseball or football the dynamics of the respective sports simply don’t allow it. This brings us back to Jordan’s 6 Finals MVPs, what makes them so important? For starters he has 6; no other player in NBA history even has 4. Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan have 3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon all have 2. With the presence of those 6 Finals MVPs also comes the absence of another immense detail, failure. Michael Jordan has reached the NBA Finals 6 times, has won 6 times and has dominated the opposition in an MVP fashion; you guessed it, 6 times. Jordan’s Championship pedigree is unrivaled, not even Bill Russell dominated at both ends of the floor in such a manner in his 11 Championships. Magic and Bird battled through much of the 80s often stopping each other from achieving similar feats. This brings us to Kobe Bryant, the quintessential “closest thing to Jordan” we’ve seen since 1998. Bryant is an interesting character in the scheme of greatness; his professional resume is decorated much like the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, so much so that listing all his accomplishments would lengthen this article unnecessarily. What are interesting facts about Bryant are his 7 trips to the NBA Finals, 5 NBA Championships and 2 NBA Finals MVPs, a point that will always act as a barrier in his own quest to surpass Jordan. Immediately we see how the aspect of losing can stain a resume in this discussion, of course there is no shame in losing an NBA Finals series. There is a lot of success that goes into reaching that stage, although for this debate it only amounts to failure. Combine that with his success at the side of Shaquille O’Neal and we have another blow to Bryant’s Jordan arguments. While Bryant wasn’t Robert Horry in regards to relevance, he was integral to the success of those Lakers championships; it simply does not happen without him but he also wasn’t the MVP either. Perhaps he missed his best chance to equal Jordan’s total ring count and achieve another Final’s MVP when the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the first of the three trips to the finals from 2008-2010. Now we arrive at LeBron James’ resume, his individual achievements should be fresh in memory as should his NBA Finals performances. James has been to the Finals 3 times, he has 1 Championship and 1 Finals MVP, well short of Bryant and Jordan’s counts. In addition his first two Final’s appearances were, forgettable, to say the least.
What does this all mean? What does it mean for LeBron or Bryant’s comparison to Jordan? Well, it certainly doesn’t aide either party. As stated, the allure of Jordan’s pedigree is the absence of failure at the pinnacle of the sport; it’s an opportunity that only comes once. Jordan seized it in grand fashion; throttling the Magic Johnson led Lakers with no regard for pleasantries; James and Bryant both came up short. Does this mean James can’t reel off a string of Finals victories and MVPs, certainly not; but the perfection of what Jordan did can’t be recaptured and if James hopes to blaze a new trail he will have to work fast and with little room for error. For now and perhaps the foreseeable future James and Bryant will be picking up Jordan’s drink tab at that bar, but even if Jordan never has to throw his black card on the table; that’s not a bad tab to pick up after all.