LeBron’s Best Path To Besting Michael Jordan In The Eyes Of History Could Be To Destroy The Lakers

Comparing basketball players across eras is impossible to do objectively. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain’s accomplishments look a lot less impressive when you take the fact that they were playing against the era’s equivalent of Uber drivers working a side-gig to make some extra cigarette money; Kobe Bryant’s longevity looks less age-defying in comparison to Jerry West traveling the country on commercial flights and buses and playing games in sneakers made of papier-mâché and happy thoughts.

Things change so fast that even eras that are nearly adjacent temporally present questions that are impossible to answer. What would Allen Iverson have looked like had he played his prime in the illegal hand-check era, with shooters providing spacing for his drives to the rim? How would we remember Pistol Pete Maravich if his long-range shooting had been worth extra points? How do you credit or discredit players who grew up with no emphasis on three point shooting, or with no three point shot existing period, and therefore have games that through no fault of their own would not translate well to the pace-and-space era?

These impossible to answer — or at least impossible to answer in a standardized fashion across all fans and historians — questions aside, it is, by this point, generally accepted that the two greatest players of all time are Michael Jordan and LeBron James (apologies to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The order in which the two fall at the top of the list is a matter of taste. Jordan’s case hinges on the fact that, aside from his two baseball seasons and the not-as-disastrous-as-you-remember Washington Wizards comeback, he won the championship in his last six years, and as such he has an aura of absolute invincibility. There’s no way, Jordan proponents say, that Michael Jordan would have allowed the 2011 Heat to lose to the inferior Mavericks. Jordan in his prime simply could not be beaten.

LeBron’s argument, in contrast, is based in his sustained, uninterrupted eliteness. The headliner is the eight straight NBA Finals appearances from 2011 to 2018, a feat that has not been accomplished since the Celtics dynasty in the 8–10-team NBA of the 1960s. Perhaps as impressive is the fact that he has made First-Team All-NBA every year since 2007–08; until this year (most likely), he had made no worse than Second-Team All-NBA every year aside from his rookie season. He never left his team to play baseball, which is worth something. That combination of individual excellence and sustained team success is unprecedented in the modern era.

Championships aside (which is difficult to do but also require more context to parse than a debate this partisan would ever allow), what separates Jordan from every other player, including LeBron, is narrative. Michael Jordan’s career followed an easily digestible hero’s arc: fueled by being passed over in the draft following a championship junior year at North Carolina, he took a couple of years to figure out how to turn his individual brilliance (see: scoring 37 PPG.1 in 1986–87) into seem success (see: his team went 40–42 that season); took his lumps in the playoffs against a great villain (the Bad Boy Pistons); then finished his career wrapped in laurels, winning the championship in his last six full seasons with the Bulls, including the career-capping Finals-winning jumper in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals against the Utah Jazz. It hits every beat.

LeBron’s path has been more meandering. It starts out with the potential for a similarly perfect career arc: he came into the public eye as the anointed one, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior and generating talk about whether he might try to forgo his senior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary and enter the NBA Draft, setting up impossible expectations, before eventually being selected by his hometown(ish) Cleveland Cavaliers, the savior of one of the league’s sorriest franchises, and became an All-NBA performer by his sophomore campaign.

Then he started to hit bumps: he reached the Finals too soon, dragging a sorry 2007 Cavs squad to the doorsteap of a title before getting swept unceremoniously by Tim Duncan and the Spurs, giving him something Jordan never experienced: a Finals loss. Over the next couple years, his Cavs lost in the playoffs to the original Big 3, the Garnett-Allen-Pierce Celtics; to Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy’s ahead-of-their-twice Magic; and again to the Celtics, this time with James playing oddly uninterested ball in his last season before the infamous Decision lead him to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

From there he lost that 2011 Finals to the Mavericks, a series that may haunt his legacy forever, before wining back-to-back titles over the upstart Durant-Westbrook-Harden Thunder and a late Spurs dynasty era squad that would have to wait until the next year to introduce Kawhi Leonard as a force to be reckoned with and get their revenge in shockingly convincing fashion. The Heat’s aging core and lack of financial flexibility lead to James signing with Cleveland, who soon traded for Kevin Love to make a new Big 3 along with the young Kyrie Irving.

James’s second Cavs run coincided with the rise of the Steph Curry Warriors, but James cemented his legacy by stealing a Finals against them with a legendary comeback from down 3–1. The Warriors added Kevin Durant the following year and dispatched the Cavs easily in 2016–17 and 2017–18. With Kyrie Irving now in Boston and Kevin Love a shell of his former self, James again left Cleveland for warmer climes, this time Los Angeles, for perhaps the most storied franchise in NBA history. The difference this time was that he had brought Cleveland a championship, and with three in hand now, including one against the greatest regular season NBA team of all time, the argument that LeBron stood toe-to-toe with MJ was on the table.

Notice how long and messy LeBron’s career recap is, and how simple and tidy Jordan’s is. James may be more skilled than Jordan, or make his teammates better than Jordan, or have more career longevity and a longer time at the peak, but to the fan with a straightforward, old-school outlook, LeBron will never be greater than Jordan, because LeBron could be beaten.

This, perhaps, explains LeBron’s choice of the Los Angeles Lakers as seemingly his final team. Having already changed the way star players approach free agency with his short-term contracts maximizing leverage to guarantee both the highest possible earnings and flexibility, and having paved the way for stars like Kevin Durant to join forces with others for the best chance at winning titles, LeBron knows team success can’t take him any further historically in the minds of fans.

He’s no longer playing for the fan with a straightforward, old-school outlook. He’s playing for the fan raised in the internet’s irony generation. He’s playing for fans in the future who don’t value the easily packaged hero’s journey as much as they value chaos and schadenfreude. Fans who look more fondly on the likes of JaVale McGee and Nick Young than they do on better players who aren’t as accidentally entertaining. He’s making the long play to be remembered as the Greatest Of All Time because he did something that not even Michael Jordan could do: destroy the Los Angeles Lakers.

The calculus would work like this: more people hate the Lakers than any other team. James winning a championship only benefits fans of one team and of himself personally, though the utility it would provide those fans is extremely high. The bet might be that intentionally destroying the Lakers and bringing joy to everyone who hates them would do more good overall in the eyes of basketball fans due to how hated the Lakers are than winning another title elsewhere would due overall due to the relatively small number of people winning a champion benefits.

Ironically enough, this might be a lesson learned from another aspiring GOAT and Laker icon: Kobe Bryant. Bryant spent his entire career focused on catching Michael Jordan, modeling his game after him, clashing with Shaquille O’Neal over alpha dog status rather than being Shaq’s Pippen, and eventually focusing his legacy’s messaging on Ringzzzzz. Kobe followed this traditional path, very successfully, on the league’s premier team, and is still not considered nearly on Jordan’s level except by a cadre of very vocal fans. It is, simply speaking, not a viable path to GOAThood.

James signing in Los Angeles seemed like it was likely to follow the same model the franchise has followed dating back 50 years: sign the game’s biggest star, take a year or two to get things settled, win a bunch of titles. They did it with Wilt Chamberlain, they did it with Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, they did it with Shaq, and now they’d do it with LeBron James. It seemed to confirm that a franchise and fan base that believe they always deserve to have whatever they want and win just by virtue of existing that they are correct to believe that. However, the season that followed changed the franchise’s outlook considerably… for the worse.

The Lakers kicked off LeBron era by signing players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Armstrong, and JaVale Magree, guys whose veteran presence would theoretically help the team contend in the present while their young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma developed, but who have for years been more useful as derisive tweet fodder than actual NBA players. Things got worse from there. Despite their young trade chips, the Lakers were never really in the mix to trade for Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler; neither player expressed interest in staying with the team long-term, calling into question LeBron’s ability to draw talent to Los Angeles.

On the court, the Lakers struggled at first, and when they had turned things around, James suffered the first extended injury absence of his career. The only young Laker that seemed to have the potential to be a franchise centerpiece, Brandon Ingram, stagnated on the court next to James, as their skillsets overlapped. Lonzo Ball got injured. The bad veterans the Lakers had signed played like bad veterans.

On the team-building front, the Lakers found themselves at the center of Anthony Davis trade rumors when the Pelicans, locked into an expensive and middling core, got off to a rough start of their own and the newly signed Klutch client got restless. However, Klutch and the Lakers’ powerplay backfired, David ended up sitting out most of the remainder of the season so the Pelicans could preserve his value, and the young Lakers who had been dangled in trade talks never rallied back to winning form. LeBron began missing games for “load management.” The Lakers missed the playoffs.

On Tuesday night, in an impromptu press conference, Lakers legend Magic Johnson stepped down as the team’s president of basketball operations following the publication of an article in the Athletic that detailed all of the above and much more. The news was shocking, made all the more so by Magic repeatedly calling Lakers saying that Lakers owner Jeanie Buss is “like a sister” even though he did not tell her directly that he was stepping down, choosing to inform her at the same time as the rest of the world. Rob Pelinka is expected to follow soon, as is the coaching staff. Amid this embarrassing drama, there is little indication that any of the stars who might help James turn the Lakers into real contenders will join him this summer, as most of the buzz for top free agents surrounds the Knicks and the Clippers.

If that drama surrounding the Lakers prevents them from landing needle-moving stars this summer, and Davis decides he’s rather not be a part of it moving forward, then the Lakers are left with only an aging (but still very productive) James and a group of young players for whom the bloom may be mostly off the rose. In what is still likely to be a loaded Western Conference for years to come, the Lakers would have no path to contention until long after the end of LeBron’s contract.

What could matter in a historical evaluation, then, is intentionality. Did LeBron James, sensing a change in values in the generations to come foretold by a change in value in the basketball internet to which he pays so much attention (whether wants to admit it or not), sabotage the Lakers in order to deliver a cruel comeuppance for their history of hubris and good fortune? Did he make the decision that greatness in the eyes of basketball intelligentsia of 2050 and beyond lay not in team-building but in franchise-destroying? Will we someday remember LeBron James as the last great Lakers free agent signing before the team re-located to the Pacific Northwest?

Or are we witnessing the returns on James’s own hubris, a good-faith team-building attempt gone horribly awry, caused by an overestimation of his own powers both on the court and off? If it’s the latter, then the history of LeBron James is likely mostly written at this point. And most likely, it is the latter. But if it’s the former, we may be having far more interesting GOAT debates for decades to come. Maybe history will no longer be written solely by the victors. Maybe it will be written by the saboteurs instead.

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