Once LeBron James beat the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals (with help from the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers, of course), the murmurs became audible. What had only ever been projection or a hot take kept to a whisper for fear of backlash began to be openly discussed by reasonable people.
Has LeBron James passed Michael Jordan to become the greatest basketball player of all-time?
Many aficionados will still laugh you out of the discourse for claiming that LeBron is now the G.O.A.T., but it has become a more open debate in a way it never has for any player since MJ’s retirement. This isn’t to say that LeBron has reached Jordan status — we’ll get to that — but he is the first player since Jordan to legitimately enter the conversation.
Players who preceded MJ remain in the conversation. Some suggest Bill Russell. A few bring Wilt Chamberlain to the table. I’ll offer up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Others may make a case for Oscar Robertson and the Bird/Magic era have their devotees, as well. The general consensus for G.O.A.T. status through Jordan’s era is firmly Jordan.
LeBron is challenging that.
The problem is that while this generation of sportswriters, fans, players, and T.V. personalities is having the debate, we will not decide the debate. That’s for basketball’s next generation, and they’ll do it once LeBron’s career is actually over; not while he’s still competing for championships.
We can argue about whether Jordan’s six rings in six Finals are more impressive than LeBron’s seven (and counting) straight conference titles. We can debate the value of LeBron’s superior rebounding, shot-blocking, and passing vs. Jordan’s preternatural scoring ability. We can quibble about clutch shooting, assessing new standards to old data, and diving deep into the semantics of what actually constitutes crunch time. We can meme Crying Jordan and Cramped LeBron and everything in between.