It’s been one year since the Cleveland Cavaliers completed the most miraculous come-from-behind victory in NBA Finals history, overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the record-breaking 73-9 Warriors on the road. The heroic effort helped cement LeBron James’ legacy as one of the greatest players ever and led some to wonder whether he might edge out presumptive GOAT Michael Jordan before all is said and done.
Now, down 2-0 in the NBA Finals after back-to-back blowout losses in the Cavs’ Finals rematch with the Warriors, talk of LeBron overtaking MJ has cooled a bit. But should it?
Hailed from the age of 17 as the next big thing, LeBron is one of the only players in any major sport who’s ever lived up to those types of lofty expectations. Since entering the league as the first-overall pick in the 2003 Draft, he’s led the NBA in points scored and minutes played and ranks top 10 in assists, rebounds and steals. And he’s done all this while boasting the league’s best player efficiency rating (27.6) and most win shares (205.4) and earning five First-Team All-Defense honors, 13 All-Star appearances and four MVP awards. Oh, and he’s been to the Finals eight times, winning three titles and three NBA Finals MVP awards.
instead of spending LeBron’s twilight years measuring how great he can be at being Michael Jordan, let’s just sit back and enjoy how fantastic he is at being LeBron James.
Still, LeBron continues to live in the shadow of his idol, the six-time champion.
The difficulty in comparing James and Jordan is that their careers had such different trajectories. Unlike Jordan, who took seven seasons to reach his first NBA Finals, LeBron got there while still on a rookie contract in 2007. For MJ, his first Finals against the Lakers in 1991 marked the beginning of a three-year run of Bulls' championships. For LeBron, it culminated in a 4-0 Spurs sweep of the Cavs and a failure to reach the Finals in any of the three seasons that followed.
The futility of Cleveland’s attempts to build around James led him to Miami, where he teamed up with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and took the Heat to the Finals four straight times, winning two championships along the way. This is where James was able to do some much-needed catching up to Jordan, who at that same point in his career had earned three rings to James’ two. And while LeBron today sits at three titles, half the number Jordan earned during his 15-season career, the 32-year-old has shown no sign of slowing down and could easily make a half dozen more runs at the championship before his storybook career is over.
And beyond their long list of individual and team achievements, it’s worth pointing out just how much influence the two had on the game during their careers. The success of Jordan’s isolation-heavy style can be tied directly to the offensively focused play of the early 2000s. And today, positionless basketball dominates the game, with guards and big men alike emulating James’ all-around style. But to understand the legacies of the two superstars, it’s important to look beyond their impact on the court.
Jordan was a pioneer in terms of his brand and mass media appeal, from the way he completely changed the sneaker game to his crossover success as a spokesperson and actor. James, on the other hand, has reinvented what it means to be an athlete in the 21st century through his activism and leadership.
The first truly transcendent superstar in the Twitter age, LeBron has arguably been the most scrutinized athlete in history. But despite that, he’s continued to speak out about issues important to him, from his vocal opposition to issues of police abuse of power to the tens of millions of dollars he’s donated to children’s charities throughout his career. LeBron James walks the walk, and when he talks others follow.
Like Jordan, NBA diehards and casual observers across the globe are infatuated with James. Hell, both ESPN and the Cleveland Plain Dealer have beat writers solely dedicated to covering LeBron. On the world stage, LeBron is second only to Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of fame and name recognition, an amazing feat given the widespread popularity of soccer.
If James is able to defy the odds yet again and notch his fourth Finals victory later this month, there will undoubtedly be a lot of talk about where his legacy stands in relation to that of Jordan, especially since he just recently surpassed Jordan’s all-time postseason scoring record. We’re certainly guilty of pushing that storyline. But the fact of the matter is that LeBron shouldn’t have to prove his worth in units of MJ. He’s earned his own legend, and we shouldn’t be tearing down his legacy for what it’s not. We should be appreciating it for all that it is.
Those of us born in the 1980s have had the pleasure of seeing the two greatest players to ever step foot on a basketball court grace the NBA across basically our entire lives. One day soon, that’ll no longer be the case, and instead of spending LeBron’s twilight years measuring how great he can be at being Michael Jordan, let’s just sit back and enjoy how fantastic he is at being LeBron James.