MJ’s 50, the King reigns, and the Black Mamba fiercely fights the gradual end to his career. Meanwhile, we talk and compare them incessantly. No matter how you feel about them, one day we will not compare them to each other. Rather, everyone will be compared to them.
One of the most intriguing debates in sports has resurfaced in the last week because ESPN deemed it Michael Jordan week, in honor of his 50th birthday on Sunday. Coincidentally, as the world pays homage to MJ (the undisputed “best basketball player ever”), LeBron James (the disputed “best basketball player right now”) put together one of the most impressive short-term runs in NBA history. So it only made sense to revive the debate that has been going on since LeBron was 17 years old: Can LeBron become Michael Jordan? How much more does he have to do to reach the level of His Airness?
LeBron himself got into the debate by posting the simple tweet that you see above. Which made us answer the questions: Who is LJ? Can he be MJ?
But with LeBron still in the prime of his career and with a lot of work left to do to catch MJ, the debate quickly switched to: Is LeBron even the best player in the league? If there was anytime for the answer to easily be “yes” it was now, amongst LeBron’s best season and best run of his best season. Kevin Durant, a name that gets tossed around by a lot of people as the best player in the league by LBJ haters, dropped out of the discussion quickly when James and the Heat obliterated Durant’s Thunder on Thursday night. So case closed. It might seem like that, but then Michael Jordan weighed in, saying that he would take Kobe Bryant over LeBron James, citing the difference in championships as his main reason. Then, on Friday, LeBron said it’s unfair to use rings as such an important criteria when evaluating players.
Where the truth lies in all this, don’t ask me; I’m not writing about that. I’m writing this because something very interesting and unique has happened that we don’t often see in sports. And it’s a sign of something truly legendary that will impact not only the NBA, but the sport of basketball, forever. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James have created something that will go on forever. The comparisons we continually draw between the jumpman, the sheath, and the crown will forever link the three of them, and that link will forever define the essence that is the life and beauty of the game.
The Man Who Would Be King
LeBron James is possibly the most interesting athlete of my lifetime. I have written a great deal about him; I could have written a great deal more. Experts say much about him; they could say much more. When he is finished playing basketball, much will be written: but no one who does not live through LeBron’s career will be able to fully grasp the immense meaning of it all. (Unfortunately, in a similar way, I cannot fully grasp the greatness of Jordan, having only seen him as a Wizard). James has been through many different stages in his career and has been seen in many different lights. He’s been a chosen one, an underachiever, a prodigious talent, a crumbling choke-artist, a villain, and a king. At times he has been judged by the standard of Carmelo Anthony. At other times, Kobe Bryant. But the entire time, one comparison has had everyone wondering and watching. LeBron has been, since he was 17, the one that we have looked to in hopes of seeing the next Michael Jordan.
No other player has looked like LeBron. No other player has played like LeBron. He has crafted his game over the years to become something special. Forged in the fires of failure and frustration, his game has reached levels that few players in history have ever matched. This season has been one from another planet.
In short, LeBron James may hold the NBA in the palm of his hand. If he, Wade, and Bosh are able to stay healthy, they could very possibly win a championship this year and next. They could all re-sign and continue a dynasty, or they could split up and LeBron could join a mid to lower-level playoff team (Kyrie/Dion/Tristan in Cleveland, for example) and continue to make runs at rings. If voters vote fairly, he could win the MVP four or five more times. It would take Herculean efforts, but LeBron James could end his career with something like 6 MVPs, 5 Championships, and a statline that few can match. Despite his reputation as a poor clutch player, he is statistically one of the best playoff performers of all-time.
And he still won’t be MJ. To reach the accomplishments I “predicted”, he would have to be totally dominant for another five years and very good for a few more. Even after all of that, he won’t stand up to 6 Championships, 5 MVPS, and 10 scoring titles. He won’t be able to reach Jordan’s all-time best mark of 30.12 ppg. MJ is currently number one in career Player Efficiency Rating, with LeBron close behind in second. To surpass him in this very good measure of a player’s performance, LeBron would have to play better than he has for the first 9 and a half years of his career. Can he possibly do that? Can he get any better than he is right now?
When he’s done, LeBron will be considered to be the best “all-around” player to ever play. And it’s true; no one has been the combination of scoring, passing, defense, and rebounding as he has been. No one has been able to play all five positions like him. But he still won’t be the best player ever. Even if he matches Jordan in rings and MVPs and is the best all-around, he won’t be able to take the title of “best ever”. The only way he could do that is if he is so clearly superior in accomplishments (7 MVPs, 8 Championships, Higher PER), and as you can see that just simply is not going to happen. He is playing as well as you can play basketball right now; he can’t be better. Project the rest of his career based on where he is now and you can see the writing on the wall.
LeBron James cannot take the top spot all by himself.
And he will lose the tiebreaker. Why? It’s this thing called mystique. Myth. Jordan is a larger than life athlete who is more than man. He’s a symbol, a logo, and a brand. For a few generations older than I, he is basketball. He is the quintessential competitor, the ultimate winner. He has the flu game, crossing up Bird, the switch-hand layup, the posterizations, the dunk contests, shooting the free throw with his eyes closed, the tearful embraces with the trophy, scoring 42 points when he was 40 years old.
What does LeBron have? The “No Regard for Human Life!” dunk on Kevin Garnett in the playoffs is certainly one for the highlight reels, his game-winner vs Orlando has stood the test of time, and I have a feeling we won’t soon forget his dunk over John Lucas III. But he still hasn’t done enough to become the icon. In this resurgence of the debate, he has had a difficult time garnering support. Fans and experts quickly flock to Jordan, claiming James could never be MJ. For all his dominance, some people will not accept what he could become. He is not the legend that MJ was and is.
I think this is because of the move to Miami. It’s still shocking to see how many people despise him for that. Ever since he left Cleveland, so many fans have been permanently predisposed against LeBron. They won’t allow him to become a legend. They can accept that he’s a force of nature, but they won’t allow him to be something more than special. There will always be something wrong with his game. That’s why he can’t become the legend that Jordan is. And, at the moment, he’s not yet the legend that Kobe is either….
The Middle Man
At 34 years of age, the Black Mamba is still deemed to be a useful marketing agent. Just a year after his Kobe System commercials showed us his motivational seminars in which he instructed some of the world’s most successful people on how to be, well, successful, Nike decided to start a new campaign. And it worked. The “Count on Kobe” commercial is, in my commercial-expert opinion, very well done. “Count on Kobe” is a brilliant slogan as well. So is the final line, “This is the way it was, this is the way it is, this is the way it will be.”
Especially when you consider that his team is currently out of the playoffs.
Sure, Kobe’s putting up career numbers, but his reputation as a winner has taken a hit as he and his “old damn team” full of Hall of Famers struggles to win games. Skip Bayless has partially shifted his ire in the direction of Kobe, rather than LeBron. Some experts are starting to go through the numbers and realize that Kobe does not have a single Win Share season in the top 100 all-time (Jordan has 10, James has 4). The selfish stigma has returned again to the conversation of Kobe’s play.
But, just like the LeBron comparison to MJ was quickly extinguished by the Jordanites, Kobe’s supporters have circled the wagons and reminded us all of what the Black Mamba has done and can still do. They reminded us that we can still count on Kobe. That’s why the ad campaign works, because there is still something there. He is growing old, and the end is near, but right now he’s still Kobe. Despite what the pessimistic flip-flop commentators say, many believe Kobe will eventually take over and lead the Lakers to where they need to be. Kobe is alive and well.
What also is alive and well is the mystique of Kobe. If anything was going to bring a disappointing end to a terrific career, it would be this dismal season with LA. Yet he remains as this generation’s hero. He grew up watching Jordan, but Kyrie Irving grew up watching him. As he slowly fades into the twilight of his career, and LeBron and Durant become the young bloods’ favorites, my generation holds on to that stepback jumper to the very end. At the end of the day, he has five championships. That lives on.
And Kobe will remain alive and well long after he retires. Right now, his logo (the sheath) is empty because he is still in the midst of battle. But when the sword returns to the scabbard, and the Mamba sheds skin that’s a little more wrinkled, Kobe is still going to be a relevant part of basketball and the history of the NBA. Despite only one MVP award and an overall lack of accomplishment in the advanced statistics, he is going to finish his career as….
The second best player in NBA history. Well, 2A actually.
Bringing This Together
Kobe, the second best ever? The debate right now is, “Is he top 10?” Let me explain how I got here.
NBA players are compared to each other in the “Who is the best?” sense much more than NFL players (ever heard a real answer from anyone on who the best at a single position is? Or who the best football player of any position is?). Still, although player to player comparisons are more common in basketball, ballers are generally grouped when talking best of all-time. Wilt Chamberlain is possibly the best statistical player ever (averaged 30 points and 23 rebounds for a career). We don’t even know how many blocks he had because they didn’t keep track. Yet, despite his complete dominance, his greatness is reserved for the best big man conversation. The same goes for Bill Russell, a name that has returned as of late because of the “Rings=Legacy” debate, in which case he is the greatest ever. Chamberlain, Russell, Kareem, Mikan, and Shaq are all measured as centers, rather than as plain basketball players. As far as that debate goes, the current agreed status is:
1. Michael Jordan, in his own echelon
2. Magic and Bird
3. The Big Men
4-50. A host of rebounding specialists, floor generals, volume scorers, and steady-eddys.
What it will look like in ten years:
1. Michael Jordan
2.LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, in the same tier as MJ
3. Magic and Bird
How do I get to this conclusion? Follow this logic: MJ is the best ever. Kobe came close to being MJ, but ends his career as the poor-man’s Michael Jordan. LeBron James will have a career that puts him right at Jordan’s status, but not beyond it. Kobe is tied with LeBron for best player of the 2000’s. Some say Kobe is still better.
So, if LeBron is less than or equal to Michael, and Kobe is less than or equal to LeBron, Kobe is less than or equal to Michael Jordan.
Or try it this way: MJ was MJ. Kobe attempted to be MJ after MJ retired. LeBron started trying to be MJ before Kobe was done trying to be MJ. LeBron will finish alongside MJ, while in Kobe’s shadow for most of his career. So, although Michael Jordan will remain number one, LeBron is right there, but by association, so is Kobe.
Together, Kobe and LeBron are as close as you can get to being Michael Jordan. Kobe has the aura, the intangibles, the moments, and the rings. LeBron has the athleticism, the versatility, and the unstoppable dominance. If either had the other’s best traits, they would surpass Michael Jordan. The fact that neither can do it on their own is a testament to the greatness of MJ. And although he may not be as recognizable to young kids as he once was, and even if the initials of the day are KD and not MJ, Jordan will live on in the legacies that Kobe and LeBron leave behind. We who watched those two will say, “Dang, those guys were so good and not even they could reach the greatness of Jordan.” And when our children see highlights of them and marvel at the way Kobe steps back and shoots or the way LeBron soars to the rim for a ferocious dunk, we will say, “Yeah, those guys were good, but not even they were as good as Michael Jordan.”
The three of them will leave behind three different players that kids can aspire to be. More than any sport, kids growing up playing basketball choose a player that they want to be like. They want to be the best, face the best, and beat the best. A kid can be MJ, the ultimate champion. The superstar who knows it. The awe-inspiring artist. Or they can be LeBron, the gifted, fun-loving, friendly, and versatile destroyer of opposing teams. Then there are the Kobes, who work hard, keep quiet, and always win in the end and don’t care what other people have to say.
And one of those kids on a playground or in a gym playing the game they love will be really really good. And he will be really really athletic. He will have an unmatched will to win. The next Chad Ford will see him from a mile away. He will get drafted number one, win Rookie of the Year, and go on to have a dominant career. And then his contemporaries will judge him by the standard that has been set. Could he do it all? Was he a finisher? Did he win? But more importantly:
Is he Kobe? If he is, is he LeBron? If he is, is he MJ?
And he’s going to hear at least one no. He will not achieve the greatness that Kobe and LeBron came up just short of.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t try.
Soccer is the beautiful game, but basketball is the spiritual game. I could write about it for days and days (and I will once the playoffs start). Like, comment, subscribe, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the Saturday List. Thank you for reading, and ball hard my friends.
Soli Deo Gloria