A champion for our times.
With his fourth ring — earned with his third team in his 17th season — LeBron James has inched that much closer to matching Michael Jordan, his only other rival for GOAT status. Depending on how you are scoring at home he may have pulled even or got his shoulder past basketball’s ultimate icon. There are strong cases for both men, the defining players of the modern era — the years following the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.
Jordan will always have his clean sheet: six NBA Finals appearances; six titles and six Finals MVP awards to go along with five league MVP awards — and there should have been more.
James has his fourth Finals MVP — and counting — and having made his 10th Finals appearance can challenge not only Jordan’s peak performance but will likely retire – if and when he ever does — with the longest prime of any basketball player ever. Already James has been as dominant as Jordan for as long as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a six-time champion who won his sixth MVP award at 33 in 1980 and his last Finals MVP five years later at 38.
Jordon vs. James is a lively debate, with plenty of room for parsing and comparing. Is Jordan’s perfection more impressive than James taking three different franchises from the high lottery — where the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Lakers were residing before their No. 23 arrived — to an NBA title?
But what’s not up for argument is that at this moment, after this most bizarre season, buffeted by historic events with global reach, James was the right person at the right time as he led the Lakers to their record-tying 17th title with a dominant performance in a dominating Game 6 win over Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat Sunday night.
Concerns about the mental and emotional toll of being isolated from friends, family and the simple comforts of home have been legitimate as the NBA hunkered down on campus at Walt Disney World resort for what ended up being 101 days — James said he had a calendar and would check off his time served in velvet-lined confinement. Even with five-star service, the isolation was enough to undermine the hopes of teams with less fortitude. The Los Angeles Clippers, for example, were widely projected to be the Lakers’ most likely rival to come out of the West but their collection of hothouse flowers withered.
James wasn’t immune but seemed to get stronger as bubble time went on. And the Lakers followed his lead.
“I think you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have ups and downs in the bubble,” he said while enjoying a post-championship cigar. “At times I was questioning myself, should I be here? Is this worth sacrificing my family? So many things. I’ve never been without my family this long. Missing the days of my daughter being in kindergarten, even though it’s through Zoom. Missing my son’s 16th birthday, which we all know is a big birthday if you have kids. Seeing my middle child continue to grow and be who he is.
“Absolutely, I’ve had ups and downs throughout this journey. For some odd reason, I was able to keep the main thing the main thing. When I talked about all the stuff that I missed, they understood that, too, and that made it a lot easier for me.”
As his fourth title came into focus, James got better still. With a chance to close out the series in Game 5, he turned in an epic performance — 40 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists for a GameScore of 39.1, the 10th-best in his 260 career playoff starts — that fell short only when Danny Green failed to convert James’ pass into a series winner.
In Game 6 James signalled his intentions early by putting up 11 points and nine rebounds in the first half alone as the Lakers sprinted out to a 64-36 lead. He finished the night with his 11th Finals triple-double with 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in a blowout win. It’s a tribute to his single-mindedness that even with the possibility of returning home a brightening light in a long tunnel, James’ focus was unshakable.
“It’s a growth mindset,” he said. “You just figure it out. I kept the main thing the main thing, and everything else took care of itself.”
Almost no one has ever done it better. Less than three months before his 36th birthday, James’ Finals line reads like he was 25 again as he put up 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists on 59.1 per cent shooting while connecting on 41.7 per cent of his three-pointers. His average GameScore — a bundled stat from Basketball-Reference.com expressing overall performance — was 27.5, the third-highest Finals mark of his career. His ability to astonish has never aged.
“I have always believed in LeBron James,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen, and if you think you know, you don’t know, okay? Until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group. You think you know; you don’t know.”
But when the credits role on James’ fourth title to add to his bulging on-court resume, it’s what the best player of his generation and quite possibly any generation has come to stand for off the floor that makes him so perfectly suited for a year when it feels like the world is teetering on a razor’s edge and the centre is barely holding.
In response to the social unrest that became a unifying theme following the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, James not only lent his defining baritone to the cause, but even before the NBA re-convened he had committed to action, lending his name and organizational heft to More Than a Vote — an initiative aimed at combatting voter suppression within the Black community and otherwise rallying political support behind progressive causes.
Once he arrived in the bubble, he didn’t stop.
“Being here and having the opportunity to talk about these issues and continuing to understand that this world is not just about basketball, even though we live in a small piece of the game of basketball,” James said earlier this week. “There are so many bigger things and so many greater things going on. If you can make an impact or you can make a change or you can have a vision, it just helps out so much not only in your community but all over the world.
“I know I do my part, as much as I do, on continuing to create change, continuing to educate, continuing to enlighten my community and communities all over the world that listen to me and follow me throughout my journey.”
What would Jordan have done?
It’s probably not a fair comparison, given the difference in time and place, but it’s hard to avoid making it.
Jordan was determinedly apolitical. His focus was purely on being both the greatest basketball player of his time and creating a new standard of business savvy and brand-building for a Black athlete, taking the opportunities afforded him by an earlier generation of trailblazers to their logical conclusion.
“I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player,” Jordan said in his documentary The Last Dance. “I wasn’t a politician. I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft.”
“Was that selfish? Probably,” Jordan added. “But that was my energy.”
Jordan’s position — at least as a player — was best defined by an off-hand joke he made about why he wouldn’t publicly endorse Black democratic senate Harvey Gantt in North Carolina in his effort to defeat Jesse Helms, a Republican with a checkered racial record back in 1990.
“Republicans buy sneakers too,” was Jordan’s line.
Keeping his business interests front-and-center worked for him. In addition to his on-court dominance, Jordan amassed a nearly unrivalled athlete’s fortune, enough to become the only Black majority owner in the league when he purchased the Charlotte Hornets.
Their divergent political and social justice efforts during their respective playing days don’t necessarily settle any GOAT debates, but that James can still comfortably dominate on the floor while acting as an umbrella under which so many other crucial interests can gather makes him indisputably the man of the moment.
“I will not shut up and dribble,” James said at the 2018 All-Star Game when Fox News tried to chastise him for wading into the political arena. “I mean too much to my family and all these other kids that look up to me for inspiration and try to find a way out.”
Be it his early support of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 or opening his life-changing I Promise School for at-risk children in his hometown of Akron, Ohio in 2018, James’ example resonates, and there is no reason to expect his influence to diminish any time soon.
In Anthony Davis he has a teammate who can nearly match his on-court brilliance and given Davis is 27 and James’ seeming agelessness, there is no reason he and the Lakers won’t have a couple of more cracks at adding to their shared championship legacy. The fire still burns.
“Personally, thinking I have something to prove fuels me,” James said, while standing on top of the mountain once more. “It fueled me over this last year and a half (with) the injury [a groin strain that limited James to a career-low 55 games in 2018-19]. It fueled me because no matter what I’ve done in my career to this point, there’s still little rumblings of doubt or comparing me to the history of the game and has he done this, has he done that.
“So, having that in my head, having that in my mind, saying to myself, why not still have something to prove, I think it fuels me.”
For that we should count ourselves fortunate. True greatness is usually fleeting, with age, injury or other circumstances eventually catching up to even the very best. James’ ability to extend his brilliance across nearly two decades is a gift to anyone watching.
For everyone concerned the hope can only be that his next title will be earned in a more familiar environment — in a packed arena, followed by a parade — and in a gentler, calmer time for everyone.
But that this one came this way — with the world upside down, the NBA gathered in a bubble for months on end and the pandemic and the fight for social justice almost washing the season away before it could ever finish — makes James the perfect winner.
Once more the right man for the job.