No one can argue that Miami Heat superstar LeBron James is not the best basketball player in the world. The 6-foot-8-inch, 250-pound forward was recently named National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player for the fourth time, perhaps cementing his legacy as the best player of his era. But what about the mantle of best player of all eras? The greatest-of-all-time crown has been resting on the head of NBA legend Michael Jordan for the past 20-plus years and James has long been regarded as Jordan’s heir-apparent. But dark clouds are gathering over the reputation of the player once known as “King James” as the game’s best living player and maybe the best of all time. Unfortunately for James’ legacy, he has already been on the losing end of two out of three NBA Finals series and is one loss away from exiting the current NBA championship series as second best. The Miami Heat currently trails the San Antonio Spurs three games to two in the best-of-seven series. Will King James’ failures in the Finals prevent him from ever wearing the real king crown? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question.
Riley: This question is nonsense. Let me make this very clear: LeBron is easily the greatest athlete that the game of basketball has ever seen. No one in the world has ever seen anyone do what he can do on the basketball court, and for that reason alone, he is already on the verge of best-of-all-time status. Let’s also not forget that he’s only 28-years-old and is already a four-time MVP. He has one ring now with plenty of years left to get more. And even if he never does match MJ’s ring count, that doesn’t disqualify him from claiming to be the greatest. MJ doesn’t have more rings than Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, but you don’t hear anyone proclaiming Russell as the best-ever. Teams, not individual players, win championships so LeBron’s individual legacy shouldn’t be affected by his teammates’ shortcomings.
Green: I actually agree with your last statement. Teams win rings, not players. However, LeBron is undoubtedly the leader of this Miami Heat team and he hasn’t been producing during this current Finals series against the Spurs the way a superstar leader should. Everybody on the Heat squad is playing their typical role, besides LeBron, who has struggled mightily against the Spurs’ defensive strategy. LeBron is capable of averaging 30 points per game, just like he did during this year’s Eastern Conference Finals against the tough Indiana Pacers. Instead, he’s averaging a quiet 21 points per game; he didn’t even score more than 18 points in the first three games of the series. Michael Jordan never struggled like this in six finals appearances. He never scored less than 24 points in any championship game. MJ was a perfect 6-for-6 in championship tries, and that’s because he dominated every game as the leader of his team.
Riley: First of all, MJ didn’t reach the Finals and win his first ring until he was 27-years-old. That’s the same age LeBron was when he won his first ring. Sure, LeBron was 0-for-2 in his first two Finals appearances, but he was only 22-years-old and far from his prime when he lost to the Spurs in the ’07 Finals. He was just 26-years-old, and still not exactly in his prime, when he lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. Young and undeveloped, LeBron was still able to lead his team to a championship series. And even though he lost, that’s an accomplishment that MJ doesn’t have. LeBron didn’t really enter his prime until 2012, when he won his first ring as the Finals MVP; now that he’s at his best, let’s see how many rings he’ll collect.
Green: Honestly, it wouldn’t matter if LeBron finished his career with more titles won than MJ. His career resume will never match Jordan’s; not the way that he has individually underperformed much of this year’s Finals series against the Spurs. And I’m not taking credit away from the Spurs team, and especially their head coach Gregg Popovich. Popp is a pure mastermind and has put together a defensive strategy that has kept LeBron from doing what he does best, which is driving the rim for layups and dunks. Yet the fact that Popp can even devise this kind of strategy against LeBron tells you why he will never be better than MJ. Mike Jordan might have been “Air Jordan” because of his elite athleticism, but he’s the greatest of all time because of his all-around game.
If a team had tried to keep MJ from attacking the rim, he would have burned them with his outside jumper. That’s exactly what LeBron (or as I like to call him, LeUp, because driving for a layup is his only go-to move) should be doing. Instead, he’s been held in check. No team could ever hold MJ in check in his prime. And that’s why nobody will ever take his crown from him.