Another NBA season has come to an end. It’s pretty much the same story every year. LeBron James takes a poorly put together team to the Finals and, more often than not, he loses. This year, it was at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, who was simply the better team.
You know, a team? It’s one of those things that has 8 or 9 solid players that contribute 100 percent of the time. One of those things LeBron James has never really had, because they focus on surrounding him with only two other “superstars”, but have been burned by the depth of other teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors because that equation simply does not work. But I digress.
Once again, with his fifth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, King James is under scrutiny for where he stands in NBA lore. More specifically, it comes down to, yet again, Michael Jordan versus LeBron. MJ vs. LBJ. Well, I already explained my stance over a year ago. You can take a trip down memory lane with Space Jammin’ on the King if you forgot.
Defining greatness in each of the four major sports is unique. Baseball is based on stats, but stats that are measured differently in each person’s eyes. That started with Roger Maris and that pesky asterisk because people wanted longer seasons, but they didn’t want people to do so well that they broke records with those longer seasons. It hasn’t ended over 50 years later, as now stats that were accumulated during the Steroid Era are thrown by the wayside. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Unless you want to dump everyone under the steroid umbrella — even those like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Jim Thome who’s names seemingly never came up — then the stats matter. Is Barry Bonds the biggest d-bag of his era? Probably, but he was also one sick player.
In hockey, well, quite honestly, I have no idea what defines greatness. Part of being my age is the fact that in the NFL, NBA and NHL, my generation witnessed the greatest era of each of those sports. Were there greater players before Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey upended the NHL? Of course, but there hadn’t been a dynamic like that until then, and there really hasn’t been one since. Maybe Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but even Sid the Kid hasn’t come close to that kind of greatness.
The NBA? It’s all about Eras. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain — on paper — were pretty much then two greatest players to put on those legendary short shorts. But we have all heard the argument that they wouldn’t hold a candle to the big men of the 80s and 90s, like Shaquille O’Neal for example. The Dream Team Era (i.e. the era of the Showtime Lakers and the coming of the MJ Age) was the best of all time, so correspondingly they showcased the most of the greatest players to ever suit up. It doesn’t matter how many championships you won, because in the NBA, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Isaiah Thomas and Tim Duncan had made it nearly impossible for anyone to do so for the past 30 years.
In football, it’s all about the titles. Seriously, the fact that Peyton Manning is not widely and unanimously considered the best quarterback ever is the prime example of that. Who is? Tom Brady? He is a very good quarterback, but he is also the face of the biggest powerhouse of this millennium, and that certainly helps his reputation. Joe Montana? He’s not in the Top 10 of all time in any stat but passer rating. He took the helms of a team that was full off All Pros and Hall of Famers, manning an offense that had never been seen before, while throwing to a guy who had the best hands and pass running routes in the history of the game. I’m not taking anything away from either of these two, but Peyton Manning is in a league of his own, and he always has been.
King James and Peyton are the same person. They are surrounded by immense talent, but their teams are not built for success. LeBron’s teams have struggled, as I have said, from poorly put together teams. Both in Miami and Cleveland, a bulk of the money was spent on signing a Big Three combo, with little attention paid to the rest of the team. In both cities, LeBron was burned by injuries to those star sidekicks and lacked anyone else to step up. You know who the reigning NBA Finals MVP is? That’s right, the guy who started the Finals as a sixth man. You don’t have depth, you don’t have rings, it’s that simple.
Manning had the same problems. He was always surrounded by top wide receivers and tight ends, but there was very little focus on the running game or defense. When he finally had those defensive pieces in place in Denver, they got smoked in the Super Bowl. Why? They weren’t as deeply rounded as a team like the Seahawks, or teams like the Patriots who don’t have many superstars, but at least solid players everywhere around the field.
They both put up numbers that most athletes can only dream of, but at the end of the day successful role players like Robert Horry and lucky quarterbacks like Peyton’s baby brother Eli have more rings.
Look deeper into the comparison. Both started their professional careers in the midwest. Both moved on to bigger markets who had at least one championship underneath their belts. Both lost their first chance at a title with their new teams to teams that everyone viewed as inferior. And both may very well never win a title again.
Like Peyton Manning, Bron is going to eclipse the most heralded records in his respective sport’s history. If he keeps up his current pace, he’ll shatter the scoring record and also like Peyton, he will probably have the most MVP Awards in his sport’s history by the time he hangs up the ol’ basketball sneakers.
And unfortunately for King James, LeBron is always going to have to live in the shadows of, yes MJ, but even some of his contemporaries. Is Kobe Bryant better? Is Russell Westbrook set to become the best player in the NBA? If that guy can finally get back to staying healthy, he very well could.
Manning and James are both Hall of Famers. They will both be remembered for eternity for their accomplishments, both on and off the playing field/court, because for the most part, they are both pretty standup guys. But both will be haunted by the fact that they couldn’t nail down more titles. If they each had two or three more titles under their belts, this conversation would never be happening. But until they do, I’ll keep on writing away!