It’s tough to be LeBron James.
No, I’m not saying you should shed any tears for the anointed one. Sure, he has four MVP awards. Sure, he has two NBA championships. Sure, he has a net worth approaching half a billion dollars. But in terms of “feeling the love,” LeBron has always had road blocks other great players don’t have to deal with.
The main debate, which crept up again Thursday — as is won’t to be the case when there’s more than a week of air to fill before the NBA Finals get underway — is whether James is as great as Michael Jordan.
It’s stupid. Let me just say that right off the bat. But this is what we do in sports when we can’t measure something on a scoreboard. We compare.
So, let’s compare. Think for a moment, back to 1993. Jordan had just led the Bulls to a 57-win season and was taking on a 60-win top-seeded New York Knicks team in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a tough series in which Chicago went down 0-2 before coming back to win in six games. Jordan averaged 32 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists a game.
Now imagine that Chicago’s second and third-best players, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, played a total of 49 minutes in the entire series. And that Jordan averaged 30 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists. And that the Bulls swept their 60-win opponent in four decisive games.
Well that’s what James just did to the Hawks, yet people still seem to be saying “so what?”
When LeBron went back to the Cavaliers, the idea that he’d be teaming with All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving made Cleveland a possible title contender, but certainly no sure thing. There were still a lot of young pieces in the mix. If he could win a title for his forsaken city, it would be an enormous accomplishment.
Now he’s on the cusp of such a feat and he’s getting there with no Love, a hobbled Irving and key contributions from the likes of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Smith and Shumpert were castoffs from a terrible Knicks team and are now arguably the third and fourth-most important players on a championship contender. They’re not playing well because they’re away from the New York night life – well, not only because of that – but because James does what we always want our superstars to do. He makes his teammates better.
No, the East isn’t as strong as the West. But the Cavs had to go through the Bulls, a team some actually considered the league’s best, before sweeping a Hawks squad that won 60 games and had the conference’s best point differential. James nearly averaged a triple-double in the Eastern Conference Finals and showed in Game 2, with Irving unavailable, why he’s the best in the world. He put his head down, put his team on his back and dominated the action in Atlanta, where the Hawks had gone 35-6 in the regular season before the Cavs won both games to open the series.
Atlanta was very good. Chicago was very good. But it’s gotten to the point where a team needs to be better than very good to beat LeBron James four times. Just about every night, the Warriors are better than very good, which is why they have opened as a heavy favorite to win the title.
Even if he doesn’t pick up championship number three, any remaining critiques of James’ play – that he’s not clutch being the most prevalent and the most incorrect – are just stupid. It seems like the last bit of hate that still has any breath is this notion that he isn’t Jordan. That, in itself, is almost telling of how great he actually is. The only way to diminish his accomplishments is to say he’s not as great as the greatest to ever play the game, as if that’s an adequate barometer.
We keep moving the goalpost on LeBron and it’s gotten to the point where it sits beyond that bronzed Jordan statue. If he somehow manages to beat the best team in the NBA and win another Finals MVP, I wonder what we’ll say to diminish him then.