It’s time. I’ve been putting it off in my head for a few years now, but after yesterday’s coast to coast, fadeaway off glass, game winner to send Toronto home a loser yet again, I have to admit it. LeBron James is at least the equal of Michael Jordan, and maybe even better.
There I said it. I’m not a LeBron fan. Not even a little bit. I don’t care for how he has anointed himself an important social figure in today’s society; how he responds to adversity by blaming coaches and teammates; and don’t like how he’s orchestrated putting himself in position for titles by using the free agency system and the modern day superstar buddy system to surround himself with talent that make titles almost a foregone conclusion.
Full disclosure I didn’t like MJ much either. But that was different. As a Knicks fan I had to watch Michael Jordan rip our hearts out on an annual basis. We went the entire Patrick Ewing era without a title, and it is all because of His Airness (and for one year Hakeem Olajuwon plus a series of misfires from John Starks). So while I didn’t like Mike during his unbelievable run of titles in the ’90’s, it was more out of selfishness — a bitter Knicks fan hoping for a result that I knew deep down just was’t to be — than anything Michael actually did to earn my dislike (although to this day I believe the “flu game” against Utah in the 1997 finals was a made-for-TV moment orchestrated by MJ and league commissioner/mob boss David Stern).
It’s akin to how I felt about Derek Jeter all of those years as the Yankees piled up world championships and the Mets…well the Mets…didn’t. As a result I couldn’t stand Jeter (or Mariano, or Bernie, or Andy, or Posada for that matter), but I couldn’t help but respect him.
With Jordan it was different. Not only did I respect him, I always felt that when he was on the floor he could somehow, on-demand, will his team to victory. It was that iron will, along with his other worldly skills that made him the Best Player I’ve Ever Seen In NBA History.
Jordan literally did it all. Scored at will, played shut down defense on the other team’s best (non-big) player, racked up assists and even could rebound (especially during a game’s most crucial moments). Most importantly, he raised the play of those around him enormously. Horace Grant? Paxson and Kerr? Bill Cartwright? All of them achieved more by being his teammate than they could ever come up with on their own when playing outside Chicago. He had one “superstar” running mate in Scottie Pippen (no, Dennis Rodman doesn’t count), and I would argue that Jordan gifted Pippen his legacy, as without MJ and those great Bulls teams Pippen would have been a good, occasionally great, NBA player, but not an all-timer.
Notice that every one of the skills I just mentioned, skills that elevated Michael Jordan above and beyond the rest of the NBA for so long, are also skills that LeBron possesses. Plus he’s just so darn big. For awhile I’ve tried to hold his enormous size and strength against him when I compare the two players, but at some point you have to give the big man his due. He doesn’t get hurt (MJ did lose one season early on to injury), runs the court, doesn’t sit down in big games and is the de facto point guard at this late stage of his career. And now he’s taking on that air of invincibility, which was always the difference-maker in my anointing MJ as the GOAT.
Before going too far into the weeds on this discussion, it’s important to put in appropriate context my personal evolution of opinions regarding the greatest NBA player ever.
I’ll start with an irrational claim based on growing up a Knicks fan — my favorite player all-time is Walt Frazier. Of course, “favorite” doesn’t mean “best,” and many would argue that Clyde isn’t even the Knicks all-time best player (Patrick makes a strong argument, but that lack of a ring…sorry, Patrick — blame MJ). And given my personal preference for all things Clyde, I feel it necessary to reference the “Willis Reed” game — Game 7 of the 1970 finals — that will live on forever in Knicks lore. Willis limping out of the locker room on one leg just prior to game time, hitting the first two shots of what would become the clincher of the Knicks first-ever championship, is simply an iconic moment.
Not only is Willis my second-favorite Knick all-time, I get emotional watching that clip to this day. But he came out of the game immediately following that frozen moment and Clyde took over from there (and far too few people ever bring that point up!). All Clyde did that night, after being properly motivated by Willis dragging himself onto the court, was torch the Wilt/West/Baylor/Goodrich Lakers for 36 points, 19 assists and 7 boards. In a Game 7. For a team that had never won a title. In New York City. Okay, enough said, as I digress.
So Clyde is my favorite, but early on this stat-fascinated kid couldn’t get over Wilt Chamberlain’s numbers on the back of his basketball card (50 a game??!!). From an early age I always felt that air of invincibility on the teams anchored by Wilt in the middle (probably had something to do with that 33-game Lakers winning streak) even though the only title they won during my memory as a basketball fan was on that incredible 1971-72 team that authored the winning streak.
After Wilt there was a lull. Kareem was awesome, but never eclipsed Wilt in my head, as the sky hook was cool, but not best-ever material. For a year and a half Bill Walton was the best player on the planet, but never approached best-ever status. Dr. J was out of this world great, but playing his best years in the ABA kept him out of the best-ever conversation. Fast forward to the Bird-Magic years, and for a time I felt Magic was approaching that elite distinction, but Bird (as annoying as his continued level of excellence was to this Knicks fan) too often seemed every bit Magic’s equal. Great years, but no best-ever.
Then Michael came along, and that was game, set, match for me (sorry Kobe fans, but to me he’s never even been in the equation for best-ever, more of a selfish stats accumulator who had the good fortune to be on a couple of outstanding teams with tremendous supporting casts).
Until now. I’m not ready to declare King James “better” than Michael, because I still struggle with that whole “makes everyone around him better” piece of the puzzle. Then again, I look at that highly mediocre squad he has squarely on his back this postseason and I have to pause. Let’s see how this one plays out. If it ends with LeBron earning yet another ring over the monsters out west, it may be time.
As much as the LeBron admission pains me, this next one cuts to my core.
Strike me down as I type this, but we may be witnessing the best Yankees team yet (at least in my lifetime). They are freaking scary good. The fact that Yankees fans are concerned about Neil Walker’s performance (arguably their 12th best non-pitcher on the roster) and wonder how long Jordan Montgomery might be out and how that will impact the season (news flash — Jordan Montgomery is 7-12 with 4.98 ERA if he were to put on a Mets uniform) tells us all you need to know about how good this squad is.
Yeah, the starting rotation isn’t best-in-MLB caliber, but they roll out a guy capable of giving you, at minimum, a quality start every night. And there are arms in reserve (20 teams out there would have Chance Adams as their number three starter right now) that will keep them in games until Cashman makes the inevitable trade for a front line starter this July, utilizing his league best farm system to make that happen without coming close to mortgaging their future.
Because in addition to being off the charts good right now, they are so damn young, too. Gleybar Torres (I think he’s 20??) hitting the game-winner this afternoon pretty much put me over the edge. And lost in the hysteria of their latest young phenom going deep for the win was the fact that today’s starter, Domingo German, pitched six no-hit innings with 9 K’s (and he’s a fill-in starter for crying out loud!).
As a Mets fan it’s painful to think about Aaron Judge (the new Jeter in my life) ultimately passing Barry Bonds as the All-Time Homer King (although it will be good to get that steroid-infested loser out of the record books), and his outfield-mate Stanton will probably cross 600 dingers without ever breaking a sweat. And God forbid Greg Bird finally gets healthy and becomes the first modern-day .400 hitter. It’s going to happen, right? Yeah, probably. Do we need to include Miguel Andujar in this discussion? Really? Pencil him in for 60 doubles a year out the 7-hole in the batting order until oh, about 2030.
Yanks win 110 this year? It’s not out of the question. Then a couple of short playoff series with all that power and the fire-breathing bullpen waiting for their first one-run lead? It is early-May and I’m already waving the white flag, while trying to think of who might have the type of elite starting pitching capable of getting hot and somehow stealing a series from them when the calendar turns to October. The Indians? Sure didn’t look like it this weekend. The Nats? They have the starting pitching, but they are in Washington. Next. The reigning champion Astros? I’ll pin my hopes on them for now, but that’s more out of hope than confidence. Could be a long year in a string of long years for us Yankee-haters.
Man…tough day swallowing these painful truths.