How do you measure greatness? What helps you rank fairly the best players in the history of the game? Is this possible in principle, and what criteria do you use?
One thing is for sure – comparing players from different eras is a thankless task, and getting in the same sentence with arguably the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan, would require winning at least as many championships as he did. In the past, Jordan had tried to distance himself from the GOAT debate. Not having played against the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and other greats from different eras, he explained, was making it difficult for him to make his call. Instead, he preferred to talk about the greatest team, picking his 1995/96 Bulls as the greatest ever.
On the other hand, his number one challenger among active players, LeBron James, has raised many eyebrows when he reminisced about the Cavs’ 2016 championship run and referred to himself as the greatest of all time. As years go by and James keeps accumulating massive, mind-boggling numbers in almost every imaginable stat column, his claim to being the GOAT could be supported by the sheer weight of these impressive figures. And still, retiring at some point in the future with fewer titles than Jordan could put a definite “not good enough” tag on his legacy to basketball when compared to the Bulls icon.
Today, James is at a crossroads. The long-awaited end to an NBA season marred by COVID-19 is finally in sight, and the Lakers are just a couple of wins away from capturing the title. Jimmy Butler’s captivating performance in the Finals’ Game 3 did lift the spirit of Miami, but mounting a full comeback will be an incredibly hard task for the Heat in the absence of their injured stars Goran Dragić and Bam Adebayo. LeBron’s chances of claiming his fourth ring still look very handsome and the way his team has rebounded after losses throughout the playoffs has shown that it has what it takes to win it all. However, if you “scratch the surface” and look at this Finals series in the wider context of James’ pursuit of the GOAT title, you’ll see why this run is special for the Lakers’ superstar and why he has to win now.
Let’s consider two scenarios:
1. The Lakers win, James gets his fourth ring, but even more importantly – receives a huge stimulus to keep chasing Jordan’s record. Under such a script, he “only” needs two more rings, but as the man who brought the championship back to L.A. after a decade-long drought he can demand even more from the front office in terms of further tweaking of the roster.
Two more titles may seem within reach, but try winning just one and the living legends like Charles Barkley or John Stockton will tell you how elusive that dream may be, despite your and your team’s greatness at a certain moment in NBA history. However, the fourth ring would definitely provide an additional sparkplug for a hypermotivated superathlete like James, and if he continues to play until he is 40 (his body and stamina definitely make this possible), he could be looking at four more opportunities to win twice. Not so bad, huh?
2. The Lakers lose, and that’s a painful, demoralizing loss for James. Mentally, it would be extremely difficult to recover from such a blow. Imagine a man who walks through the desert hoping to quench his thirst and eventually learns that the only water well he has found is empty. If the Lakers squander the lead over Miami, James will feel in a similar way. The new NBA season is likely to start no earlier than 2021 and hopefully will be finished the same year. So in the “Lakers lose to Heat” script, James gets his next shot at the title in a year he turns 37. Instead of two, he needs three more rings to tie Jordan. That’s as many as he has won over the past 16 seasons in the league. Winning three more before his retirement would require building a Lakers dynasty in the 2020s, no less. Meanwhile, the competition will only get stronger as the Nets and the Warriors finally put to rest their superstars’ injury issues and join the pack of championship contenders.
James’ longevity and excellent physical abilities are unquestionable, however, considering all the “wear and tear” he’s been exposed to over the years, he’s likely to have his role redesigned and his playing time reduced in coming years. Actually, his minutes are dropping already – in these playoffs he’s spending 35.6 minutes on the floor whereas his postseason career average is 41.6. The chemistry between him and Anthony Davis is working wonders, and it is obvious that the Lakers will eventually become Davis’ team as the big man hits his prime. James could flourish in the role of the “elder statesman” and the game’s true savant who doesn’t need to dominate its every aspect in order to continue to make a huge impact. However, as he approaches the end of his career, building this Laker team into a dynasty might require adding a third superstar to share the burden. After all, the Big Three concept brought titles in Miami and Cleveland, why not give it a try in L.A.?
LeBron is at a stage in his career where points, rebounds and assists no longer matter to him. It’s all about his legacy to the game, and being recognized one day as the greatest of all time. By the way, nearly half the United States already thinks he is the greatest. He can say that individual achievements don’t really bother him, but his unbelievable competitive drive tells you the opposite – he does care about being recognized as the GOAT, and he cares a lot. He’s playing a team sport, though, and that’s why he requires of his teammates the same thing Jordan wanted from his Bulls – to share his competitive drive, commit to the higher goal and make whatever sacrifice is needed to win.
Apart from the controversial “Decision”, this may be the most delicate moment in James’ career. I have little doubt that his Cleveland ring shines brighter for him than the other two due to the promise he made to the local community, the city, and the state of Ohio that he would deliver an NBA title. Ring number four, though, may eventually have the biggest weight in his pursuit of Jordan. The time is now and he knows it. I’m sure he will seize the moment.