LeBron James, Michael Jordan and how an LA Lakers NBA title puts an exhausting debate to rest
LeBron James hadn’t even had time to don his goggles and pop the champagne yet.
The purple and gold confetti commemorating the LA Lakers’ 17th championship hadn’t settled on the court, the fresh merchandise hadn’t been taken out of the box, the final buzzer hadn’t finished ringing.
In the wake of a fourth personal NBA title and his first with the Lakers, no formality could stop the re-emergence of the NBA’s most painful rhetorical question — who is better, LeBron James or Michael Jordan?
Out come the statistical cases, the contextual arguments, the highlights clips. As it has been for years now, reflecting on James’s career can only be done through the lens of Jordan, illuminating or invalidating it at your mercy.
While chasing the ghost of Jordan, James suddenly found the same ghost chasing him. It was an unwinnable race and a pointless debate, but it was too pervasive to not affect LeBron as he steadily stockpiled greatness in Miami, Cleveland and now Los Angeles.
The bid to be number one in all aspects of his life drove James at times to controversy, most notably in his initial move from the Cavaliers to the Heat, but eventually to heights few in basketball’s history have even contemplated.
A switch to the Lakers looked to be a continuation on the theme. In the game’s biggest market, at one of its most storied franchises and in its dominant western conference, LeBron was top dog again.
Only now can we see how the last two years in LA have changed LeBron James, and how a bitter mix of tragedy, misfortune, rebellion and eventual triumph saw him leave the ghost of MJ behind once and for all.
Stepping back to step forward
History probably won’t waste time remembering it, but James’s first season as a Laker was a disaster.
On a poor team with an ill-fitting roster, James battled through visible frustration for most of the campaign, until the most serious injury of his career put him on ice early and the Lakers missed the playoffs by a mile.
James is not used to losing. Even in his early days in Cleveland, with about as mediocre a supporting cast imaginable, the young revelation that was LeBron drove that team to the playoffs, and even one finals appearance.
So in mid-2019, action was inevitable and, as it turns out, decisive. Operating as a de facto GM, James helped bring in Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans, sacrificing a number of the very players he felt had let him down the season before.
James had played with superstar calibre players before — Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love at the Cavs — but at this late stage of his career, he recognised the dynamic needed to shift.
Davis was a generational talent, but swam in a small pond in New Orleans. He had next to no playoff experience, and certainly had never felt the pressure that comes with playing for a team like the Lakers.
So, somewhere along the way, James decided he no longer needed to be number one. In fact, it would be better for everyone if he wasn’t.
He committed himself to mentoring and guiding Davis through his maiden LA voyage, slowly filling his confidence and raising his stature until he was ready to take over. In a pivotal western conference finals game against the Denver Nuggets, it was Davis who took and made the winning three after the buzzer.
When Davis made yet another crucial late three in game four of the finals, James unleashed a triumphant roar — it seemed that in that moment, he knew his plan had worked and his Lakers title was assured.
That’s not to say he would ever completely step away from the limelight. James was still named as the Finals MVP — again — having racked up effortlessly brilliant stat-lines across the six games.
In games five and six in particular James was astounding, and his battle with Miami’s Jimmy Butler was the highlight of the series. His soon-to-be-famous proclamation made while accepting his MVP trophy was telling, both in the order he James chose and in the power of its ultimate full-stop.
“We just want our respect. [GM Rob Pelinka] wants his respect. Coach [Frank] Vogel wants his respect. The organisation wants their respect, Laker Nation wants their respect.
“And I want my damn respect too.”
To understand why James was so prepared to commit and sacrifice for the team, in a way he’s never been asked to or really needed to before, you need to rewind to January, 2020.
The entire NBA changed when Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash in California. For the city of Los Angeles and particularly the Lakers community, it was a crippling blow.
If it hadn’t already, and after days and weeks of heartache that clearly still hasn’t subsided, Kobe’s death solidified James’s commitment to team. The only acceptable tribute to his idol, opponent and friend was a Lakers title.
Then coronavirus happened, and LeBron’s single-minded focus was threatened by a shutdown, the potential cancellation of the season and eventually the creation of a bubble at Disney World in Florida.
Even after the season restarted and moved into the playoffs, an incensed playing group staged boycotts of matches in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin. James — whose social conscience and off-field work is rapidly threatening to eclipse his basketball accomplishments — and the rest of the Lakers were at the forefront of a brief push to call the season off entirely.
As the NBA’s bubble experiment has gone on, results have gotten progressively weirder. The Milwaukee Bucks, having led the entire league through the regular season, bombed out of the playoffs early, while the LA Clippers, with Kawhi Leonard at the helm and considered the Lakers’ only other title threat, blew a 3-1 lead in the second round.
But throughout the post-season mayhem, still the Lakers remained. They ticked every box, moving through the west in five games each, needing only one extra in the finals. The role-players played their role, LeBron took over when he needed to and Davis became the unsolvable puzzle for opposition teams.
Running his own race
All of which brings us back to Jordan.
In another year, in a different time, the LA Lakers winning the 2019/20 NBA championship would be a juicy piece of ammunition in the Great James-Jordan GOAT-Off.
But things have changed now, and so has LeBron. That’s not to say he still isn’t driven by the doubters, or that the voices in his head have stopped proclaiming the downfall of the “washed king”.
When MVP voters chose Giannis Antetokounmpo in overwhelming numbers, James followed closely in Jordan’s footsteps and chose to take it personally.
But if nothing else, James now seems to be entirely comfortable in his own skin. Rankings be damned, his legacy is secured and growing, and will no doubt continue to do so after his playing career as he continues to be one of his country’s most powerful social voices.
This title is one for the new LeBron James — the one who didn’t do it for himself, but for Kobe and AD and the city of Los Angeles and his hometown of Akron and for every black person hurting in America today.
For that, he is incomparable.