“My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.” – LeBron James, “LeBron James Chases The Ghost From Chicago and Basketball Immortality“
Nobody can deny LeBron’s greatness. I have him as the third greatest player of all-time. It should be enough that he’s even in the conversation with Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in that pantheon, but it isn’t. We want to crown him the greatest player of all-time. Part of it is recency bias and part of it is a generation that never saw Michael Jordan in his prime. I remember Jordan in his prime and I remember how smooth and how flawless his game was, but many fans today may have seen Wizards Jordan or they’ve watched YouTube clips instead of having the experience of seeing him play every night. I get it. There is a legion of fans that will argue to the death that Kobe Bryant is in that upper echelon of NBA greats (I have him 13th). They grew up with Kobe and even though his accomplishments don’t measure up and the evidence that LeBron’s skills are just better than Kobe’s, they will argue that Kobe is greater than LeBron. There’s other generations that would argue that Bill Russell is the greatest or Wilt or Kareem or Magic Johnson. When I think about this argument, I try to look at a player’s resume as if it were a court case: “Could I prove that LeBron James was the greatest beyond all reasonable doubt?”
There’s doubt. I’ve already mentioned the horrific 2011 NBA Finals, but think about this: LeBron is a rebound or a missed Ray Allen three away from being 2-6 in the Finals. What about in 2010 against the Celtics when he seemed to mentally check out of the series? Does it matter that he willingly left two teams in his prime to team up with other superstars: once with “The Decision” and joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in their prime, then the second under the guise of “coming home” to play with emerging Kyrie Irving and LeBron’s camp sent out signals that they expected Kevin Love to be there too? Should we feel sorry that he’s lost two Finals to the Warriors, who have been dubbed a “super team,” when LeBron James helped craft the defining super team in Miami that basically paved the way for how the Warriors currently play? There’s doubt.
We all have a tendency to overvalue what we see in the present and get bored with the things of the past. That’s why we buy new clothes or new furniture, want more seasons of our favorite TV shows, or need change in our lives. We’ve tried to diminish the Jordan-era like he played against a bunch of bums. During Jordan’s career, he had to get past Magic Johnson and the Lakers, Larry Bird and the Celtics, Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks, Julius Erving and the 76ers, a solid Cleveland Cavaliers team featuring Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Larry Nance, and at one time, Ron Harper, Shaq and Penny Hardaway’s Orlando Magic, and the late 90s Indiana Pacers with Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, and Rik Smits, Charles Barkley and the awesome 1993 Phoenix Suns, Clyde Drexler and the Trailblazers that made multiple Finals, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton in their prime with the Seattle Supersonics, and finally, John Stockton and Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz. These guys aren’t bums. Most of them are Hall of Famers and the great players of that generation. LeBron has played some great players too, there’s no denying that, but let’s not diminish the competition of Michael Jordan. That’s simply ridiculous.
What’s not in question is that LeBron James is one of the greatest players ever. He’s one of the most unique players ever much like Shaquille O’Neal was unique or Magic Johnson or even Michael Jordan. Certain players just have characteristics that will never been replicated. When will we ever see such a colossal force like Shaq again? When will we see a pure 6’9″ point guard that can literally play all five positions on the basketball court if needed? When will we ever seen another basketball player who’s skills were so perfectly honed and that had such a maniacal competitive streak that he literally obliterated any potential rivals? Likewise, when will we ever see a player combine the size of Shaq, the skills of Magic, and be a one man dynasty in this competitive age? My beloved Chicago Bulls weren’t chasing the Cleveland Cavaliers since 2003 or the Miami Heat since 2010. They’ve been chasing LeBron James and trying to overcome that one man. Wherever he goes, success follows. It’s not an accident. He’s an all-time great player and he’s earned that distinction. But that ghost in Chicago is just outside of his reach and always will be.
And that’s okay. Jordan remains on his throne as the best basketball player ever and LeBron will likely finish his career as the second greatest player ever. One day we’ll be able to look back and declare that we were all witnesses to the King of his era and his greatness.
Brandon Pence is the co-founder of B2 Hoops and the founder/editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.” Follow him on Twitter here.