Evaluating Greatness

Eddie Goldsmith

With a week-long break before the finals, the longest in NBA history, news is fairly slow and all sports media outlets are certainly grabbing at straws in their attempts to keep people entertained (see Riley Curry). This year’s NBA finals will see the overall number one seed, the Golden State Warriors, take on number two from the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers. A clash between baby-faced assassin Steph Curry of the Warriors and basketball cyborg LeBron James of the Cavs seems inevitable. That said, I don’t want to present a preview of the finals; I do, however, want to discuss how we view basketball’s legends and use seemingly arbitrary statistics to evaluate their greatness.

Throughout his entire career, LeBron James has been touted as the next best thing since his Royal Airness Michael Jordan. I think at this stage it’s pretty safe to say that he has lived up to and even surpassed all the hype. That’s pretty staggering for a man who has ‘The Chosen One’ tattooed on his back. LeBron is heading to his fifth straight finals appearance, a feat that hasn’t been achieved since the days of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy in the 1960s when the Celtics dominated a league with far fewer teams (most of Russell’s 11 championships came at a time when the league had around 10 teams). In the modern NBA it’s absolutely absurd for a player to lead his team to 5 straight finals.

In many people’s eyes, LeBron needs to win 4 more NBA titles to even be considered one of the greatest of all time. Hypothetically, if he were to win 4 straight right now, he would be 6 for 9 all time in the finals. Does that mean he was better than Jordan? It’s still up for debate. The NFL has seen a similar discussion, pitting Tom Brady (currently 4 for 6 in the Super Bowl) against Joe Montana (4 for 4 in the Super Bowl) for the title of best Quarterback of all time. Hypothetically, had Tom Brady not made it to the Super Bowl in 2007 and 2011, the only two times he lost, would that 4 for 4 record make him the greatest of all time compared to Montana’s equally impressive 4 for 4 record? I don’t think so.

If LeBron was to lose this finals series, and I think he probably will, will it negatively affect his legacy? Often, one of the statistics people use to compare Michael Jordan and LeBron James is number of championships. LeBron has 2; Jordan has 6. Now, of course, it’s a bit unfair to make this comparison until LeBron’s career is over as he seems far from hanging up his shoes. However, people will make another comparison: if LeBron does lose this series, he will be 2 for 6 in the finals compared to Jordan’s 6 for 6.

To help explain my issue with using stats like these to compare players, let’s look at Magic Johnson. Magic played 13 seasons in the NBA, heading to the finals in 9 different seasons and winning the championship 5 out of 9 times. This gives him a win percentage of around 77% when he made the finals. Now, is Michael Jordan’s 100% win rate in finals really that much more impressive than Magic reaching the finals 9 times in 13 years? No, it’s not. For years, earlier in his career, Jordan would lose in the playoffs to the ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons or the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics, teams Magic Johnson was beating for some of his rings. By age 30, Michael had been to the finals three times before heading to an early ‘retirement’; at the same age, LeBron has now been to the finals six times. I understand it’s hard to make this comparison since LeBron came straight out of high school at 18 and Jordan played college and came to the league when he was 21, but, at age 30, LeBron has now made the playoffs the same amount of times as Jordan had at the same age.

In the modern NBA it’s absolutely absurd for a player to lead his team to 5 straight finals.

Some argue had Jordan never had an early ‘retirement’ he could have made 5 straight finals, but they forget he played in the 94-95 season, albeit starting late, and got knocked out in the conference semi finals by a young Orlando Magic with Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway.

What I’m trying to suggest is that while Jordan’s 6 for 6 record in the NBA finals is immensely impressive, so is Magic’s 5 for 9 and Lebron’s 2 for 5. It’s impressive that they were even able to get there in the first place. Surely if finals appearances matter so much then conference finals championships should matter a tiny bit? However, you have people complaining now that the Eastern Conference is better than the Western Conference, and vice-versa depending on the decade. The statistic of finals made and won is a silly way to compare the greatness of players when there are so many other methods to make arguments for and against who is greater.

I guess I feel that making it to the biggest stage in the NBA is an achievement in itself. At this rate, LeBron will go to a few more finals before all is said and done. Am I saying that LeBron’s achievements are better than Jordan’s? No, not at all; I’m advising against the use of these kinds of statistics to compare the players, as it’s a grossly unfair comparison. Why is not making it to the finals suddenly better for your legacy than making it?

The following are some examples of every other LeBron vs. Jordan discussion ever:

‘Michael faced tougher competition. LeBron’s coasted to the finals.’
There is quite a bit of truth to this, especially when looking at this graph:

source , shout out to redditor /u/Macias17 for the find

source, shout out to redditor /u/Macias17 for the find

‘LeBron had a weaker supporting cast for much of his career.’
LeBron carried a team whose starting point guard was Larry Hughes...

‘Jordan never choked on the biggest stage.’
In 2011, had Miami actually won that finals series against the Mavs, Dwayne Wade would have been Finals MVP, yet another blemish that people could have used against LeBron. For some, however, the fact that he lost that series actually benefited his legacy.

‘LeBron makes all of his teammates better.’
This would require another 2000 words, so just take my word for it if you’re new to the NBA. I agree that Jordan made his teammates better too, just in a more ‘if you miss this shot I’m going to burn your house down’ kind of way.

Ultimately, the best thing about arguing who is or was the greatest is that it’s all a bit subjective. At the moment I still think it’s Jordan, but I will continue to enjoy arguing about it until Hassan Whiteside proves to be Bill Russell 2.0 and leads the Miami Heat to 10 straight championships… right?!

Real life Bond villain Eddie Goldsmith has a passion for photography, movies, basketball and speaking in third person. Like most other sleep deprived 20-somethings Eddie's managed to find a balance between calm and collected to being one coffee cup away from never sleeping again. Writer, Editor, Generous Lover, Photographer and part time funny man I'm always looking to try my hand at something new.