An arms race for the ages
This wasn’t hard to predict, so it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone when the prophecies came to fruition. Never before has the NBA seen the same two teams meet in three consecutive NBA Finals, but the Cavaliers and the Warriors have given us just that. We all will, quite literally from the opening tip-off of Game 1, be witnessing history today.
Yet, when the dust settles, the title to this three-part novel won’t be remembered as the “Cleveland Cavaliers-Golden State Warriors Rivalry,” because, really, there is no hatred among these two franchises. The narrative will instead be about the players, LeBron, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry — arguably the three best players in the league at that — and where the waves of their wins and losses will sail them in an ocean of NBA legends.
While I do not intend to take away any credit or importance from smaller, less-talked about roles, from players and coaches alike, on the Cavs and Warriors, without which neither team would be here, this series won’t be told in honor of them. The Klay Thompson’s and Kyrie Irving’s and Kevin Love’s and Andre Iguodala’s of the world won’t be the revered. They might have a monster game that tilts the series in their teams favor, or they might hit a game-winning bucket, but, in the end, the hero of the Gotham is always Batman, not Robin.
Unfortunately, for the LeBron’s, KD’s and Steph’s of the league, the criticism and praise comes with the territory of being an All-time superstar player, but is this widely applied train of thought warranted or even fair? In the midst of all the LeBron vs. Jordan debate orbiting the basketball universe, I’ll give my two cents and rationality behind my thoughts as to why LeBron does belong in the discussion.
The GOAT debate
The masses of basketballs fans ingest history as if events happen in a vacuum. Context matters not to the mob-mentality crowd. What matters to many fans are rings and clutch shots, and while those aspects of basketball are important, they are not of the only importance. There is so much more to the basketball and other ways to contribute to winning games that are brushed off by fans without the slightest of consideration. The rings and clutch shots POV is an incredibly flawed angle to view an NBA landscape from because it only shows a fraction of a players legacy.
In Los Angeles, it’s almost viewed as cardinal sin to criticize any one thing about Kobe Bryant’s legacy. Lakers fans would rather live and die the same agonizing day over and over before they even entertain the possibility of LeBron being better than Kobe was. And their first act of defense, similar to those who defend Jordan, is to point to the rings. What fans fail to acknowledge, however, is Kobe was never the focal point on Phil Jackson’s first Lakers squads. He never won Finals MVP during the Lakers three-peat; he was in fact, the Robin to Shaq’s Batman for three of his five championships. That isn’t to say that Bryant wasn’t a great player in his early years, and surely the Lakers would not have won without him, but if we’re going to dissect LeBron’s career play-by-play, let’s call a fair ballgame.
LeBron has never been the second best player on his team, and statistically he blows Kobe out of the water. And I mean OUT OF THE WATER. As in, Out. Of. The. Water. Like, #outofthewater. But since folks like to join LeBron and Kobe into the discussion with Jordan as the greatest of all time, we’re going to list some important statistics of all three players.
Let’s run down the stats sheet of career totals:
- PPG: Jordan – 30.1 // LeBron – 27.1 // Kobe – 25.0
- REB: Jordan – 6.2 // LeBron – 7.3 // Kobe – 5.2
- AST: Jordan – 5.3 // LeBron – 7.0 // Kobe – 4.7
- FG%: Jordan – 49.7 // LeBron – 50.1 // Kobe – 44.7
- FG3%: Jordan – 32.7 // LeBron – 34.2 // Kobe – 32.9
- Player Efficiency Rating (PER): Jordan 27.9 // LeBron – 27.6 // Kobe – 22.9
- Box Plus-Minus: LeBron is first all-time in BPM, Jordan is second all-time, Kobe is 35th
- Value Over Replacement Player: LeBron is first all-time, Jordan is second all-time, Kobe is 16th
- Win Shares, “which attempts to divvy up credit for team success to the individuals on the team,” per basketball-reference.com: LeBron – 205.4 // Jordan – 214.0 // Kobe – 172.7
- Win Shares per 48 minutes, which accounts for a players offensive and defensive efficiency as well as their points produced: Jordan is first all-time, LeBron is sixth all-time, Kobe is 57th
When critics can’t attack LeBron statistically, they fault him for his 3-4 Finals record; a record with which context pays great dividends when examining. In LeBron’s first Finals runs he got swept by Popovich’s Spurs in 2007. The 2007 Spurs carried the firepower of a prime Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, and arguably the greatest coach in NBA history in Greg Popovich. That Cavaliers team was lead by LeBron James, Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Illgauskas. That alone should be all that needs to be said. The 2006-2007 Cavaliers is arguably the worst team in the history of the league to make it to the NBA Finals, and without LeBron the only way Cleveland would have sniffed Finals air that year is if Make-A-Wish Foundation had suddenly began catering to sports franchises. But rather than praise a then 22-years-old LeBron for carrying a franchise, which clearly did not belong in the Finals, to the Finals, fans use it against him.
This brings us to LeBron’s most recent Finals loss, just two years ago to a 67-win Warriors team, who he took to six games without his Robin, winning games two and three to take a 2-1 series lead while Irving and Love watched from the sidelines. Undoubtedly a Finals performance in which LeBron should have been the second player in league history to helm the Bill Russell for a losing team. Instead, the Finals MVP went to Andre Iguodala largely for his defensive efforts on LeBron. Indeed, Iguodala “held” James to 35.8 ppg, 13.3 reb and 8.8 ast that series, but hey, he stopped LeBron I guess. Again, fans hold that series against James despite his disastrous, inevitable odds.
If we give LeBron the benefit of the doubt for those two loses, it brings him, theoretically, to a fair 3-2 Finals record.
LeBron has never lost a first round series in the playoffs. Jordan lost in the first round of the playoffs his first three years, two of those years he got swept, to bring a combined playoff record of 1-9. Jordan lost in the playoffs for six straight years before he even reached the finals; falling in the first round, then in the semifinals, then in the conference finals. But fans would rather have their icon come in 15th place, or 10th place, or 4th place, where they can lose quietly, in front of less spectators and in a smaller spotlight, than to come in 2nd place and within reaching distance to the championship.
Domonique Foxworth embodies the mindset the RINGZZZ crowd embraces. Foxworth was a guest on First Take the other day, and the topic of LeBron belonging in the GOAT discussion came up. Foxworth told Max Kellerman, “LeBron is in the conversation with Jordan [as the best of all time], if he loses this [NBA Finals to the Warriors], he loses that conversation.”
If LeBron loses in these NBA Finals, he shouldn’t and wont lose his place in the conversation for GOAT, as Foxworth claims he will. That is absurd. Will a 3-5 Finals record look disastrous on paper? No doubt. But what LeBron has accomplished and done throughout his career, throughout his dominant current 7 straight Finals runs has not been seen since the likes of Bill Russell. LeBron has controlled the Eastern Conference for nearly a decade and he has had some hard falls in the Finals, but he has catapulted teams from washed out misfits to relevance and championships. James has seen a run of success these last 7 years that has only been matched by one or two players in NBA history.
The current Warriors team, on paper, is arguably the best team ever assembled in NBA history. They have the two previous league MVP’s, four All-NBA players, a former Sixth Man of the Year (who has again come top three voting for Sixth Man this year and who may win the award), and one of the better benches. It comes as no surprise that they are the best team in the league and the favorites to win the championship. The Warriors are the favorites to win the championship and, if they lose to Cleveland, it will likely go down as the most disappointing team in history. Yet, somehow if LeBron does not beat this Warriors team, the masses will push him off the Golden Gate Bridge for it. “You consider LeBron the best when he couldn’t even beat the most talented team in history?” Human logic in 2017 is astounding.
At the end of the day, these basketball debates are fun — really, really fun. They are thought provoking and debating such topics is some of the best parts about being a sports fan. I can’t comment on Michael or Kareem or Wilt being the GOAT because they were either before my lifetime or I was only a toddler at the time of their prime. I mentioned Jordan in the conversation above because he is widely considered the greatest ever, so it is relevant to include him as such. When it comes to my lifetime, however, LeBron James, for me, is the best basketball player since MJ.