Back in 1963, Muhammad Ali—when he was still going by his given name of Cassius Clay—released an album called I Am the Greatest! Then just 21, Clay had not yet fought the fights that would make that self-fulfilling prophecy true. The very next year, however, he’d defeat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, a title he’d hold three times. And if anything, he only proclaimed his greatness that much louder. By the time Ali retired at the age of 39, when you said “The Greatest,” everyone knew who you meant.
Basketball is not boxing, of course, and Ali’s brand of self-aggrandizement is rare in the NBA, at least to that extreme. So when LeBron James said that coming back from down 3-1 against the 73-win Warriors in 2016 “made me the greatest of all time” on ESPN’s More Than An Athlete, a whole lot of people got in their feelings—some in quite predictable ways. Nevermind that James followed that statement with a “that’s what I felt” qualifier, he had already crossed some arbitrary line.
As always, the line was one drawn by Michael Jordan, still the standard by which NBA greatness is measured and, more often than not, found lacking. In a clip from 2009, Jordan declined the greatest of all time title, citing the fact that he never had the chance to compete against greats from other eras—nor they against him. Then again, Jordan was just politely refusing something that damn near everyone on earth was trying to pin on him, a title that’s been associated with him so much that it’s listed as one of his nicknames on Basketball Reference, and the sentiment is literally carved into stone on the base of his statue in Chicago.
The biggest problem with calling James the greatest of all time is that his career isn’t over yet. There’s still more for him to do, more accolades for him to earn.
James didn’t call himself the greatest of all time because everyone’s saying it, rather because not enough people are. And they should be. Sure Jordan did things that were unprecedented, but so has James—eight straight Finals appearances for starters—to the point that we’ve been taking them for granted for years. Yes, Stephen Curry changed the NBA, yet here LeBron is in his 16th season, averaging 27.3, 8.3, and 7.1. Yawn. The Venn diagram of his career and his prime is a circle.
As of this writing, James is fifth in career points. Jordan is fourth, less than 400 ahead. At his current pace, James will pass Jordan well before the All-Star break. He’ll still be 6,000 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time mark, but James, at 34, still has plenty of basketball left. And even if he never catches Jabbar, 32,000-plus points is pretty good for a guy who doesn’t even consider himself a scorer.
We’ve heard all of the reasons why LeBron CAN’T be the GOAT: His Finals losses (particularly that 2011 loss to the Dallas Mavericks), his propensity to pass at the end of games rather than take the last shot himself, his adventures at the free throw line. It should be noted that the latter never seemed to hurt the reputations of Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal—himself the self-proclaimed Most Dominant Ever—much. And the first of those is only a problem if you declare only Finals perfection to be acceptable. Which rules out everyone except Jordan—nevermind all the years he lost in the playoffs before even making the Finals.
The biggest problem with calling James the greatest of all time is that his career isn’t over yet. There’s still more for him to do, more accolades for him to earn. It’s hard to judge a story that’s still being written. But one gets the feeling that the biggest problem people have with James’s claim is that he said it of himself. What of it? Speak your truth, LeBron. Maybe just don’t record an album about it. The world certainly isn’t ready for that.