Why Can't LeBron Just Be Great?

If you are reading this, then you're probably aware of the fact that LeBron James has recently turned the NBA into his personal play-thing.  The level of consistency and efficiency with which he is currently performing is truly transcendent.  He has become a complete, fully-actualized basketball player, an A+ in virtually every relevant basketball skill and ability you could want.  The Platonic ideal of a baller, if you will.

You would think we, as fans, would be celebrating the fact that The Chosen One has finally lived up to his lofty billing, finally fulfilled all the hype.  But you'd be wrong.  The sports world is pissed.

The reasons for the hysteria are somewhat complicated (more on that to come), but the basic problem, in our feeble basketball minds, is that witnessing historic greatness can only ever evoke memories of (and more damagingly, comparisons to) one Michael Jeffrey Jordan.  We see a player toying with the world's best athletes the way LeBron is right now, and our collective psyche immediately needs to know: "Is he better than MJ?"  "Can he be better than MJ?"  And this leads to a darker place in our minds: "I'm scared that someone could be better than MJ.  I will be utterly irrational about the entire topic, and I will hate LeBron for making me even think such thoughts."  The deification of Jordan is so complete, so enormous is his sphere of influence, that for someone to even approach his rarefied Air is akin to basketball blasphemy.  And this is incredibly unfair to LeBron.

Don't get me wrong - I don't feel particularly bad for LeBron.  He is fantastically famous and well-compensated for his otherworldly talents.  But it has got to be frustrating to do the kinds of things he is doing on the court, and have the main narrative centered around comparing his game to a guy who hasn't played an NBA minute in 10+ years.  Trying to compare MJ and LeBron is as pointless as it is lazy.  Everyone knows that Jordan is widely considered the best player to ever play the game, and that his body of work vastly exceeds the work in progress that is LBJ's career. 

But somehow this becomes the cornerstone argument in every one of these debates.  "MJ has 6 rings, LeBron only has one.  Game over" or something to that effect.  Oh really, Mr. Internet Troll?  Did you figure that one out all by yourself?  But it goes much deeper than just the rings.  There is much, much more to this Cult of MJ and the resulting marginalization of other forms of greatness (LeBron-related or otherwise).

I am going to break down the standard MJ arguments one-by-one, but before I do, understand one thing very clearly: I am not making the argument that LeBron is better than Jordan.  Far from it.  I grew up as a nascent Knicks' fan in the early 90's, and I remember having to repeatedly endure Jordan eviscerating my favorite team, seemingly every other Sunday during the regular season and every year in the playoffs.  I knew, even as a young fan, that I was watching a level of greatness that I might never see again.  He is the greatest of all time, and anyone who debates this is a fool (or a troll).  He combined jaw-dropping athleticism, continued improvement of measurable basketball skills, a hyper-competitive will to win at all costs, and an outsized impact in the realms of business and pop culture that has made his influence within the global game of basketball dwarf that of all others, even to this day.  For all intents and purposes, he IS NBA basketball.

With that said, to dismiss what LeBron is accomplishing right now under the "well, he's not MJ" defense is both lazy and unfair.  Time to break down exactly why:

Argument #1: Rings are all that matters.  MJ got six.  LBJ has one.  LeBron couldn't win without D-Wade.  MJ never lost in the Finals.

Terrific, let's start there.  First off, if the number of rings is the sole determining factor in greatness, then Bill Russell is the best player to ever play the game, and it isn't particularly close.  Robert Horry has more rings than MJ.  Come on, use some common sense.  There are mitigating factors at play here.  In LeBron's case, the argument is pointless in the first place because he likely has 10+ more years of career left to build his resume.  I don't feel like I should have to waste too many keystrokes explaining something that should be obvious to anyone capable of understanding the most rudimentary logical concepts.

"LeBron couldn't win without D-Wade."  Damn straight he couldn't!  Did you see the players he had around him in Cleveland?  Those teams would have been 25-win teams if you replaced LeBron with, say, Marvin Williams or Alonzo Gee, and that proved to be true once LBJ took his talents to South Beach. 

Picture this scenario: the league's most talented young player teams up with a super wingman and a sweet-shooting, if somewhat soft, power forward.  The team goes through some growing pains early on, but then puts it all together, vanquishes their long-time nemesis in the Conference Finals, and takes down their first title with relative ease. 

Sounds familiar, right?  Now here's the question: am I talking about the 2012 Miami Heat, or the 1991 Chicago Bulls?  The narrative of the two teams is almost identical, except for the way in which the star players came together.  The backlash to the backlash to the backlash from "The Decision" and "The Party" obscures the fact that every great team consists of multiple Hall of Fame players, regardless of how they are assembled.  Kobe Bryant couldn't win titles in the mid-00's after he strong-armed Shaq out of town until the Lakers managed to acquire Pau Gasol (and to a lesser extent, Ron Artest to do the heavy defensive lifting for Kobe).  NBA history is littered with great players that should have won titles but never got the help they needed to do so.  Holding LeBron to a different standard is bullshit.

Argument #2: Jordan made his teammates better.  LeBron just picked a better team.

This is revisionist history at its best.  If you don't believe me, please read "The Jordan Rules" by Sam Smith.  At a similar point in his career, MJ was still considered a ballhog who would freeze out his teammates because he only trusted himself to make winning plays.  And yes, this includes Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant (his D-Wade and Chris Bosh, respectively).  He would often shoot 25-30 times or more per game, and many of his lesser teammates simply wilted under the enormous pressure he placed on them.  LeBron, by all accounts, is nothing like this.  He shoots significantly less (and at a more efficient rate, particularly this season), has a higher assist rate (both by counting stats and by advanced metrics), sports a similar defensive efficiency while at times guarding all five positions on the floor, and is, by all accounts, a consummate teammate.  Jordan's "clutchness" is the stuff of legend, but this hardly qualifies as making teammates better (even as it obviously contributes to wins).  Simply put, if given the option, most players would rather play with LeBron over Jordan. LeBron just makes the correct basketball play virtually every time.  MJ always thought he was the correct basketball play.  Hell, he may have been right most of the time, but that doesn't mean he was lifting up lesser players; it just made him a superior one.

Argument #3: The league was way better back then.  The defenses were much tougher.  LeBron couldn't dominate against those teams like he does now.

This is the classic argument of people who love to have opinions about the NBA without actually watching any games.  Have the defensive rules changed some?  Of course.  Teams were allowed to be much more physical on the perimeter with Jordan at the time than they would be now.  The "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons wouldn't be the "Bad Boys" if they tried to play that way today.  They would just be that team whose guys fouled out all the time.  Conversely, would LeBron have adjusted to a more physical game?  Umm, have you looked at him?  He would have been just fine, and just as dominant.  Great players are great in any era.  Just stop it.

The point of all this is that the sports world is doing everything it can to marginalize this historically great stretch that LeBron is putting up, seemingly in the name of defending MJ's greatness.  Why compare the two?  Why can't LeBron just be the great player that he is, and why can't we just appreciate that greatness? 

If we have to compare players from different eras, then I say we look at specific vintages rather than entire bodies of work.  Think about it this way: if you had to pick a team for a pickup game with your life on the line, and you could pick from any vintage of any player in history (i.e. there wouldn't just be one version of LeBron; rather there would be one LeBron for each year of his career), who would you pick first?  For me, the choice would come down to three guys: 1992 Jordan, 2007 Kobe, and 2013 LeBron.  I think I'd probably have to go with '92 MJ, but it's a tougher choice than it might seem.  Jordan's career vs. LeBron's career is no contest (at this point); '92 Jordan vs. '13 LeBron is a different matter. 

I am truly glad that this is a debate, because it means that we are witnessing true greatness.  I just really wish that the sports world could put it into its proper context.  I hope that the debate will evolve into Team LeBron vs. Team Durant as the season(s) progress, which would mean that two historically great players are pushing each other to even greater heights.  I am blessed as a basketball fan to have witnessed Jordan's prime, Kobe's prime, and now LeBron (and hopefully KD) in his prime.  I can't really ask for much more than that, other than for everyone to just leave the past alone and let these guys be exactly as great as they are.


  1. Great read.

    Everyone wants to see the next king of the throne, which is why the comparisons will never go away. It also keeps the casual fan intrigued. LeBron will have more casual fans show up to games at smaller markets just to see what the hype is about.


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