Someone has to say this: Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball ever, fears LeBron James. And LeBron James, his closest rival for that distinction, is definitely gunning for him.
All the evidence one needs was the small media skirmish Jordan stirred up when he said he’d take Kobe Bryant over LeBron because “five beats one,” referring to the number of championship rings adorning their respective hands. He went on to point out that LeBron was indeed many years younger and may yet get five, but the unspoken subtext was, “Six.”
That’s Jordan’s count, and following the endless retrospectives for his 50th birthday, it’s not hard to see that his legacy as the GOAT has at least one serious challenger, and that challenger is not Kobe Bryant. His legendary petulance aside, his answer to that question reveals who he actually sees coming for his crown.
Kobe’s own legacy is already the subject of much debate, but it seems pretty cut-and-dried to me when comparing him to Jordan. For three of Kobe’s rings, he was not the best player on his team. Shaquille O’Neal was. None of those Lakers three-peat teams would have gotten past the more robust and seasoned Portland Trail Blazers or San Antonio Spurs with Kobe leading the charge. That’s virtually indisputable. Furthermore, it is not rumor, it is not legend, it is the truth: Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was rigged by the refs. This came out as part of the Tim Donaghy scandal. Had the Lakers not shot 40 free throws, including 27 in the fourth quarter that fouled out every center in the Sacramento Kings line-up, the Lakers would have lost the series (even with the scandalous assist they still only won that game by 4). So Kobe Bryant has four actual rings.
At any rate, a great talent though he may be, Kobe will likely end his career with four unless the Lakers engineer yet another preposterous Lakers-only trade to bring a Gasol or Howard-level talent to play with him (but, you know, one that works). No one will ever seriously make an argument that he’s better than Jordan. The stats bear this out completely.
The stats also bear out that LeBron James is a talent unlike anything the league has ever seen, including Jordan. It always depends on what matters more to you: scoring titles or PER, wins per 48 minutes or sheer clutch capability, eFG percentage or lockdown defense capability. However, even as talk of Kevin Durant for MVP began to surface this season, LeBron went on a tear that was positively superhuman. His white-hot streak of games scoring 30 points with 60 percent shooting “ended” when he “only” scored 39 points, added 12 rebounds, seven assists, and shot a dismal 58 percent to convincingly beat Durant’s Thunder, one of the league’s best teams.
As I said in a column last year, if he keeps up this level of play (and by that, I mean the level of last year, not this freakshow nightmare that suddenly ripped out of the skin of a lesser, weaker LeBron James this season), he’s going to be a serious contender to take Jordan’s place as the greatest basketball player to ever live.
The only thing standing in LeBron’s way is the number of rings he collects (and with those rings coming primarily because of him and not some late career role-playing).
And let’s face it, if you’re LeBron James you only have one distinction you’re chasing: whether or not, when you retire, people will make serious arguments that you were better than Jordan. It’s everything he’s playing for now.
And Jordan knows it.