There’s no doubt that when he ends his career, LeBron James will be considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He’s garnered almost every individual accolade that a professional basketball player could hope for while bringing a championship to every team he’s played for.
Now, ‘King James’ has finally broken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s regular season scoring record, something that was once thought to be impossible. This could potentially be the final feather on James’ cap, because another NBA title is a long shot, so it’s a fitting time to talk about his legacy.
Whether he likes it or not, that legacy will always be tied directly to the man that made the number 23 famous. This is especially because he said ahead of breaking the scoring record that he felt that he is the best basketball player that ever played the game.
Since James willingly put it out there, let’s talk about whether he matches up to Michael Jordan, who James has referred to as the ghost who played in Chicago, and whose greatness he’s chased for his entire career.
Jordan was the one who brought the game of basketball to the global stage, building up on what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did in the ‘80s to make the game explode worldwide in the ‘90s. Like James, I was one of those kids that wished I could be ‘like Mike.’
While Jordan blazed the trail for all of the NBA greats after him, especially in the realm of how much money a star player can earn, he also cast an inescapable shadow that was impossible to live up to. Even while he was still playing for the Chicago Bulls, the world was already looking for the next MJ, which put pressure on an entire generation of athletes to live up to a mythic figure. Players like Vince Carter and Grant Hill had to deal with that, and while they built long careers of their own, none of them lived up to the hype. Hell, Harold Miner struggled just because he was given the nickname ‘Baby Jordan’.
None of those guys ever approached Jordan’s greatness, while James is the one of the few people that actually has a case for challenging for that top spot.
The Kobe Bryant situation
Unfortunately for James, he didn’t just have to contend with Jordan’s legend. As he began to reach his prime, James also co-existed with MJ’s carbon copy: Kobe Bryant.
The Black Mamba put together a legendary career of his own that ended with five rings, had a style of play that was carbon copy of Jordan’s, and even won all his rings with Jordan’s coach. He also did it while staying with the same team for his entire career, enduring tough times after Shaquille O’Neal’s departure and then after the new championship core with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum eventually fizzled out.
Bryant’s 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers allowed him to carve his own place in the NBA mythos, and after his untimely death, Bryant continues to be a key inspiration for the current generation of stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, and more.
We never had the privilege of seeing Bryant and James face off in the finals, though, because Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic beat James in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, so we’ll never actually have the opportunity to argue about who beat who in their primes.
His own legacy
That’s why it’s fair to say that the two people that James will always be compared to are Bryant and Jordan. As mentioned, Bryant built his own legacy, but he’s rarely compared to Jordan because Jordan was also Bryant’s mentor and they played the same position and had the exact same style of play.
James, thanks to his longevity, and especially because he now has the most points in NBA history (both in the regular season and combined with the playoffs), is the only one left in the current era to challenge for the title of Greatest of All Time.
In terms of individual awards, here’s how they compare.
Jordan vs. James
- Seasons played: 15 / 20 (and counting)
- NBA Titles: 6 / 4
- NBA Finals MVP: 6 / 4
- Regular Season MVP: 5 / 4
- All-Star Appearances: 14 / 19
- All-Star MVP: 3 /3
- All-NBA First Team: 10 / 13
- All NBA Defensive First Team: 9 / 5
- Scoring titles: 10 / 1
- Season Steals Leader: 3 / 0
- Season Assists Leader: 0 / 1
- Olympic Gold Medals: 2 / 2
- Career Regular season PPG: 30.1 / 27.2
- Career Playoff PPG: 33.4 / 28.7
Jordan achieved all those awards (except some All-Star appearances) during his 13-year tenure with the Chicago Bulls, while James has gotten them in the span of two stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers, one with the Miami Heat, and one with the Lakers.
If titles are the main criteria, as it is for many fans and media members, Jordan edges James in both record (6 of 6 against 4 of 10) and number of rings. The fact that Jordan never lost in the NBA Finals will always be held above James’ head, unless he manages to win a couple more in the twilight of his career.
There’s so many reasons that the comparison to Jordan is unfair, though, chiefly among them being the fact that James is a completely different player. James was more of the next evolution of Magic Johnson than the next Jordan, being a pass-first player who also had the tools to be a deadly scorer and a constant threat on the boards.
The two players also had vastly different leadership styles, where Jordan was an eternal hardass while James’ was always more accommodating and friendly to his teammates. They also played in different eras, and one could argue that the importance of the three-ball in the modern era, and James’ ability to develop a more consistent long-range shot, gave James an edge in breaking the record.
If you want to play the ultimate “what if”, you could imagine how many points Jordan would have scored if he played an additional five full seasons (to match James’ current 20) while averaging just 20 points per game, which was the mark he had in his final season with the Wizards and the lowest of his career.
Assuming Jordan played 70 games in each of those seasons – he only played less than 78 regular games thrice in any season, where he played 18 games after breaking his foot in the 1985-86 season, then came back for 17 games after his baseball stint, and then when he played 60 games in his first campaign in Washington, his regular season career total would have added another 7,000 points, bringing him up to 39,292 before the three-point revolution happened. He would still have the record today in that hypothetical scenario, but the crazy thing is James still would have beaten that mark by next season at the latest. That’s how powerful the three-point shot has been for players in LeBron’s era, considering Abdul-Jabbar set the record while only making a total of three shots beyond the arc his entire career.
At this point, the GOAT debate between Jordan and James will likely come down to whether or not people saw both of them play. For someone old enough to have watched Jordan, like me, Jordan is still the best to ever lace them up. Anyone born after the year 2000, on the other hand, will only remember watching James play and it’s not like he hasn’t built a legitimate case for himself.
There are so many other things that people will use as ammo to make their case against James, like the fact that he jumped ship to make a superteam in Miami and still lost his first NBA Finals with them against a less-talented Dallas Mavericks team. It’s worth noting though, that he also led the greatest NBA Finals comeback of my lifetime, where he beat a Golden State Warriors team that went 73-9 in the regular season after going down 3-1 in the series. That is, and may always be, the greatest achievement in NBA Finals history in my eyes.
Also, for as much shit as James gets for switching teams several times, it’s worth noting that he never forced a trade. He used free agency and short contracts to control his own destiny, and you can’t fault a man for putting himself in the best situations possible. Who wouldn’t go to a better job if you could choose your destination every time? James was simply always good enough of a player to make those short contract demands.
Yes, it’s also been clear the last couple of seasons that James has been obsessed with the scoring record, especially since his title aspirations have collapsed every time Anthony Davis went down with an injury. You could call it stat padding, but well, he still achieved his goal.
So, if we’re talking about legacy, James has his secured. He’s got his four rings, owns the scoring record, and is certainly one of the greatest of all time. There is also a legion of fans that name him as the GOAT, and even though there are plenty of others, like me, who will always believe that MJ is the top dog, the fact that James is in the conversation is a testament to the kid from Akron’s career achievements.
Now, having achieved the once-impossible goal of beating Abdul-Jabbar’s record, James can also rest easy knowing that once he retires, there will be at least one all-time record that will have his name next to it for at least the next decade or two.
When it’s all said and done, no one will remember that James broke the record in a close 133-130 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. What people will remember is that James broke the record in the third quarter and did it with a fadeaway – the shot that Jordan built the second half of his career with. He also did it at the age of 38, breaking a record that was set before he was even born. Abdul-Jabbar set it in April 5, 1984, and James was born on December 30 the same year.
The GOAT debates will begin in earnest once James finally hangs his sneakers up. For someone who was anointed the “King” before he even played his first NBA game, he’s done plenty well for himself.
Whether he’s your GOAT or not, LeBron James will forever be one of very best basketball players to ever graced the hardwood. He’s earned that.