At some point this week, perhaps right out of the gate on Monday night, LeBron James will fall to 2-5 in NBA Finals, falling further behind Michael Jordan in the race for G.O.A.T. status.
Should this disparage his legacy? Absolutely not. James is an all-time great, a basketball unicorn who actually lived up to the hype after appearing destined for stardom as a teenager.
Is it disparaging his legacy? Well, that’s a different story. It’s impossible to say it hasn’t. Jordan had Allen Iverson and then Kobe Bryant come nipping at his heels. Neither got away with calling him names the way the Warriors have in these Finals.
If LeBron were wearing a cape, Golden State has stepped on it, ripped it while tearing it off his back, then collectively stomped on it. On the court and off of it, James has been antagonized by the Warriors.
Combined with the 2-5 mark in the NBA’s championship round, this disqualifies him from the conversation as the best to ever lace up his sneakers to play pro ball.
While the final answer inevitably lies in the eye of the often stubborn beholder, the case is closed as far as I’m concerned. Say what you will about the era Jordan played in, often disparaged for being worse than the Magic/Bird renaissance that preceded it in addition to being considered inferior to the current game, but the fact is Jordan clutched a trophy at the conclusion of all six NBA Finals he played in.
He may not have won as often as Bill Russell or scored as many points as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Jordan still hasn’t been surpassed and probably won’t be in our lifetime Plus, no one ever called him an expletive and got away with it. Kobe Bryant threatened the throne, winning five titles while losing just twice, falling to Detroit with Shaquille O’Neal and Boston without him.
Still, the fact his Lakers sputtered down the stretch at the back end of his career kept him from getting six rings, which ultimately left him short of catching his idol. Bryant surpassed Jordan’s 32,292 points and finished as the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer with 33,643, but it took him 274 additional games to do it, the equivalent of three-plus seasons.
For the game’s current top No. 23, it’s no longer about surpassing Jordan. That ship has sailed, even if James plays at a high level for seven or eight more seasons and catches Abdul-Jabbar as the No. 1 all-time leading scorer at 38,387.
Even then, he’d have to win titles every other year just to match Jordan’s ring collection. If all of this sounds a bit trite, like comparing the brilliance of two obscenely large diamond rings, then you’ve missed out on all the discussions that have been part of the basketball world over the past two decades.
Pursuing Jordan has driven the sport. Like Mike.
LeBron won’t ever be that guy, which is a disappointment regardless of how many billions he’ll make going forward. Between contracts, endorsements and a hand in shaping the future of the league going forward, his goal of being the G.O.A.T isn’t just dying. After this week, it’s dead.
Stephen Curry has inched right up next to him in terms of popularity. Whether it’s because more people can identify with him or because he’s now a two-time reigning MVP and champion, the fact that the 31-year-old James now has company does make it seem like we’ve arrived at the back-nine of his career.
Don’t expect a drastic downhill spiral, but don’t expect a renaissance either. As things stand now, James has said that this postseason has been the best he’s felt in years, and even while averaging nearly a triple-double through the NBA Finals first four games, he can only do so much in terms of dominance.
Having pledged his future to Cleveland, he’s painted himself into a corner where he’d further tarnish his legacy by quitting on the city again. In fact, I was of the belief that if he really wanted to end his career elsewhere, he’d have had to deliver on a title against these Warriors in order to realistically be able to leave.
To win big again, he’ll have to recruit players to join him in Northeast Ohio, then seal the deal against a Western Conference champion that is seemingly always going to be more battle-tested.
He may be able to pull it off once, but the “not three, not four, not five…” declaration at the Miami Heat pep rally following his arrival is taking on a different meaning as the years pass, even with him no longer in South Florida.
He’s fallen short, and it looks like we’ve reached the point of no return in terms of him catching Jordan. Right now, Curry, the guy no one saw coming, actually has a better shot. That speaks volumes.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].