I should follow my own advice and stop defending LeBron's greatness

October 12, 2020

Zach Lowe is one of the best NBA writers out there, and after the Lakers won this season’s championship on Sunday night he published an interesting assessment of the “LeBron vs. Jordan” debate, insofar as there’s a debate to be had. Lowe knows better than to come out and say whether MJ or The King is the greatest of all time on ESPN.com, but does an admirable job establishing a framework for how one might compare the two.

I’ve already written a lot about Michael Jordan and how his stans influence discussion of NBA players today, but I want to add a little bit about the wider NBA context, which Lowe briefly referenced, and proffer another explanation for why so many people still dismiss James’s greatness despite what appears to be an unimpeachable résumé.

To start, I don’t think enough people understand just how different the NBA is today than it was three decades ago. Click the link above for a description of how the rules encouraged specific styles and strategies that wouldn’t really work today, but another thing a lot of fans forget about the NBA in the late 1990s is that the league had expanded dramatically over the previous decade. Starting with the 1988-89 season, the NBA added six new teams over the next seven years: the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat in 1988, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic in 1989, and the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995.

The league had gone from 23 teams to 29, and the upshot was that there were suddenly a lot more roster spots for players who, previously, weren’t good enough to land NBA jobs, at a time before the international pool was as well-developed and well-scouted as it is now. Lowe mentions Kevin Pelton’s work on the subject, and though he didn’t link to anything specific, he might be thinking of the 2018 ESPN article in which Pelton estimated that the NBA seasons in which James had played to that point were, on average, about 12 percent better than the NBA seasons in which Jordan played.

In comparison, the NBA expanded in 2004, LeBron’s second season in the league, and hasn’t expanded since, even though the player pool has continued to get better, too. I don’t have data to back it up, but I suspect that with the rise of international players — about 25 percent of the league has been foreign-born in recent years, compared to a little more than 5 percent in 1998 — combined with improved dedicated training for elite athletes, the bottom reaches of NBA rosters are much closer to superstars’ talent level than they used to be, even if superstars are just as far ahead of rotation players as ever. That could be part of why the public perceives superstars as being “not as great” as the stars of yesteryear, even though today’s players are more athletic and talented, as a group, at all levels of the game, and even though there are a few superstars still putting up incredible numbers relative to their peers.

There’s another knock-on effect of a deeper player pool that affects how people perceive James. Whereas in previous eras*, having one of the league’s 12 superstars was enough to be in the title conversation, and having two was a huge step up (see: Utah Jazz, 1990s), now James is the only superstar where “in the title conversation regardless of teammates” applies, and having two superstars, or one superstar and multiple supporting stars, is a near-prerequisite for title contention.

In a league where the pairings of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook are all variations on the “two stars form the basis of a contender” formula, it should be obvious that one superstar and a bunch of solid role players isn’t good enough to win a championship without the single greatest superstar of his era, a ton of luck, or both. LeBron hasn’t deigned to waste his time on conquering that mountain, like it’s some kind of video game accomplishment, when he could simply pair up with another star or two and try to win championships.

But the thing I wish more people would grapple with is the notion that the best player in a given NBA playoff series necessarily is on the better team, or that his team ought to be better because he’s the best player. It might be one of Jordan’s most lasting legacies that because he was the best player on the best team for so long, an entire generation of basketball fans internalized that as the natural order of things.

Looking at his contemporaries, LeBron James is the undisputed best player of his generation, though at a few points during his career there have been plenty of people who (very reasonably!) thought Curry was better, maybe Harden had his partisans, and I’m sure there are a few people who would rather have Giannis right now than LeBron. But the main point is that since 2007, LeBron has been the consensus best player in every game he’s played, and yet in his 10 Finals series, his teams have been favored only three times.

This year, the Lakers were favored in every one of their playoff games, but that means in nine previous trips, LeBron’s team was favored only twice: In 2011, when he played terribly and his Miami Heat were upset by a Dallas Mavericks team with Dirk as its only superstar and a raft of excellent supporting players; and then in 2013, when the Heat and Spurs went toe-to-toe for seven games. I feel like, because the LeBron-era Heat had three stars and garnered an inordinate amount of attention from national sports media, it’s lost to history that the 2012 Thunder, with Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, were betting favorites, and that the 2014 Spurs were favored over the Heat. Of course, the Cavaliers were never favored in any of their Finals series, since they were going up against Prime Tim Duncan in 2007 and then the Golden State Death Star from 2015-2018.

In that framing, by winning four titles despite being favored only three times, LeBron has outperformed expectations. Then again, that’s just how it is with LeBron: even though he’s been in the national spotlight since he was 16 years old, remains one of the two or three best basketball players in the world well into his thirties, by most accounts appears to be as well-adjusted a celebrity there is, and all along has performed on the court better than even the most optimistic projections, still people look for reasons to downplay his accomplishments**.

I think LeBron is, in total, a better player than Jordan was, and I tend to think that if LeBron does not win three more titles as the best player on his team Jordan stans will refuse to cede any ground on the question. But at the same time, I also think one of the greatest tributes I, and people who think like me, can give to LeBron is to not give a damn about other people’s ranking of all-time NBA greats. It's hard! I just broke this rule! But leave it to certain Gen Xers and Boomers (and spiritual Gen Xers and Boomers) to fume about how not enough people respect the icons of their youth. That’s their game.

Follow LeBron’s example. His greatness doesn’t need defending or justification. It simply is.

(Photo: “Hang Loose” by Joey Gannon. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)

*I’m not prepared to go into it, but I suspect there’s a way to show that the Bill Russell-era NBA, with nine teams, had enough stars to go around for the whole league, but an even shallower talent pool and therefore a wider gap between stars and role players than later eras. I don’t know.

**To those people: Nothing’s going to change your mind. I love listening to Bomani Jones, but he got asked directly, what could LeBron do to make him think he’s surpassed Jordan? Jones is the best possible person to ask this, and I perked up for what would surely be a fascinating answer, yet… he evaded the question.