After LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 NBA Finals, immediately the question of “Who’s the GOAT?” in basketball pops up. This final gives LeBron four championships after ten finals appearances.
Some refuse to acknowledge James’ contention for the title of greatest of all time on the mere fact his finals record isn’t perfect. Jordan’s six championships with zero losses seem untouchable.
The issue is it’s almost impossible to compare the two. If one were to use stats, James would trump MJ in practically any category because of his number of games played. Zach Lowe said on The Hoop Collective Podcast by Brian Windhorst, James has played 81 playoff games more than Michael Jordan, almost a full seasons worth of games. Any statistical comparisons are going to be hard to make after LeBron’s career ends. James is 35 right now, which was also the age Michael Jordan retired. LeBron seems to have more basketball ahead of him.
Regarding comparing the number of titles, Jordan has six, and LeBron has four, but then if that’s the criteria, wouldn’t Bill Russell’s 11 rings overwhelm both of them? It’s widely accepted that since the NBA had fewer teams and overall less talent in the 60s, Russell’s titles don’t hold the same weight. However, if that’s the case, we need to look at the Jordan and James championships’ context, which is a complicated task.
Jordan has the advantage of the perfect finals record, but it’s possible that if he didn’t take the year and a half off from basketball, they wouldn’t have won six straight. From the Last Dance, it was clear the three championships, and the national spotlight drained him. How much further could that team push running on fumes?
Brian Windhorst brought up how Steve Kerr didn’t think the Bulls would have won three straight if Michael Jordan didn’t take a break on the Hoop Collective Podcast. He has the perfect record, but he didn’t reach the championship twice between the third and fourth championships (one to baseball and the other he returned midseason and lost to the Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals). That break and loss to the Magic gave Jordan a renewed motivation.
LeBron has inched closer to Jordan’s six rings, but the knock-on him is six finals losses. However, LeBron has been a clear underdog in five of those championship appearances. His first appearance was on the Cavaliers in 2007, where he carried a starting lineup of Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, and an old Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the finals. The San Antonio Spurs swept them. The next four underdog appearances stretch from 2015-2018, where they faced one of the best, if not THE best team of all-time in the Golden State Warriors. James picked up one of the finals that he shouldn’t have won in the infamous 3-1 comeback in 2016. That may be the most impressive finals wins on his resume and of all-time.
The only championship that he shouldn’t have lost was 2011. The Mavericks picked the Heat apart, and it was one of the only times in James’ career where he struggled heavily. That one final has created a narrative of James not showing up when it matters even though he’s performed beyond exceptional in every final since then. The question is, does the 3-1 comeback make up for the one clear series that he performed poorly?
LeBron has lost six times in the finals, but his roster was outclassed in five of those. Do the 2016 finals make up for the one poor performance he had in 2011? On the other hand, Jordan is perfect in the finals, but he didn’t make the finals for two seasons between the third and fourth championship. His Bulls team was also the best in each of the finals he played.
It’s a comparison with no clear winner.
The next area of analysis is the eye-test. Which player at their peak dominated more? Defensive rule changes after 2001 make this question near impossible. In summary, during the Jordan era, defenses couldn’t play zone. If they wanted to bother the player with the ball with more than one defender, they had to send a hard double. Isolation basketball was pure one on one at that time.
After 2001, zone defense was essentially permitted. There was the defensive three-second rule, but teams could still load up on the strong side and make it way more challenging for an offensive player to score.
Look at the 2020 NBA playoffs. Deeper into the playoffs, the Miami Heat utilized a 2-3 zone that the Celtics had a hard time figuring out. The defense is way more complicated now than pre-2001. Teams can help in the nail and thwart drives by ball-dominant players. Overall, teams can provide more help to the on-ball defender.
How do you compare two players who played under different rules and have contrasting styles? The first argument is that the physicality of the old NBA would neutralize LeBron. However, it’s essential to consider teams would have to guard LeBron James one on one. What makes him so great is that it’s hard to match up with him. No one has his combination of elite strength, quickness, and IQ. He arguably would be better in an era where he could play one on one.
On the flip side, MJ would have to deal with team defenses. Teams would treat him like the way they did with Kobe. He would take a lot more contested pull-ups and would have to truly expand his range to the three-point line (which he could do).
Offensively, both are transcendent talents that would undoubtedly thrive in any era.
LeBron has garnered attention for being a lazy defender on the defensive end, which is partially true. During the second go-around with the Cavaliers with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, he expended less energy on defense. However, when it mattered, James locked in and could defend anyone in the league. One of his signature finals moments was his chase-down block on Iguodala.
The Miami Heat defense led by James was nicknamed the “Flying Death Machine.” Spearheading their scheme was James, who could guard anyone from Tony Parker to Tim Duncan. His combination of IQ, speed, and strength gave him the ultimate versatility and effectiveness.
This most recent year proved LeBron still has it on defense. He bought the whole year with his communication and IQ and took significant assignments (think Jamal Murray in the conference finals and Jimmy Butler in the finals).
Jordan was the ultimate stopper. His mental fortitude, paired with his physical gifts, made him an elite defender. When the media tried to play-up the Clyde Drexler and MJ comparison, Jordan swallowed Drexler up in the finals. He also won the Defensive Player of the Year award in the 1987-1988 season and numerous All-Defensive Team appearances. However, similar to LeBron, defense naturally became less of a focus to reserve energy. When he needed to turn it up, he had more than enough to do so.
James has numerous All-Defensive Team appearances but no DPOY, which might give Jordan the edge regarding defensive accolades. Both were formidable defenders, and the margin might not be enough to say that one of them is the GOAT off of defense alone.
What Does the 2020 Finals Add?
Without a doubt, this is an unprecedented year for basketball. There is going to be a giant asterisk next to the 2020 playoffs and season. The debate is whether or not that asterisk is a positive or negative thing.
There will always be a group that points to the Clippers and Bucks early exit and the Heat injuries to discredit this year’s title. The Lakers can only control what they control. The Clippers’ lack of experience playing together came through in the playoffs. The Bucks had flaws all year long when it came to closing games. The Heat peaked at the right time and proved they were a top eastern conference team.
Additionally, the Lakers put on a dominant performance every round. No series went to a Game 7. They handled their business in the Bubble without a doubt.
According to Kendrick Perkins, Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, who reported from the Bubble, told him that the winner of this finals deserves “two championship trophies.” Players were away from their families for months and were in an isolated environment.
To put this in perspective, life in quarantine has generally been more challenging for everyone. It’s more difficult to stay motivated. Now imagine being away from your family for months, and only hearing the media critique your play. That’s why players, such as Paul George and Danny Green, struggled mentally in the Bubble. The 2020 playoffs took a whole new level of mental toughness and discipline.
LeBron arguably has the two most significant wins in NBA history: 2016 coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors and the 2020 championship in the Bubble. He may lose the counting game, but these championships hold extra value.
In an interview after the finals, still fresh off the celebration, James admitted he has his won interpretation, but he said, “I’m not giving it to y’all…Y’all can do the debates. Ya’ll can figure that out.”
There’s a case both ways without a doubt. That’s the beauty in having this debate.