Ever since LeBron James put up 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists to drag a Cleveland Cavaliers team that was missing Kevin Love past the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday night, the debate has heated up once again whether LeBron or Bulls legend Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time.
Isiah Thomas, the Pistons legend who feuded with Jordan back during his playing days — a feud that was rumored to be the reason Thomas was left off the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” when Jordan allegedly refused to play if Thomas was his teammate — went on ESPN’s “Get Up” morning show Monday and put more gasoline on that fire.
— Get Up (@GetUpESPN) May 28, 2018
Said Thomas, “What I’m witnessing in LeBron James is a complete basketball player dominating this period of time. I haven’t seen anyone else do that in our league with the exception of two people. That’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell.”
As salt goes, that’s loading a squirt gun in the Dead Sea.
“But when you talk about just a basketball player, a complete basketball player, LeBron James is a much better basketball player than Michael Jordan,” he continued.
In the process, Thomas showed the talent for player evaluation that made him a legendary NBA executive who returned the New York Knicks to their former glory in the mid-aughts with his savvy drafting and smart free agent signings.
Well, that’s true if by “former glory” you mean the early 1960s, the only times the Knicks posted consistently worse records than they have over the past 15 years.
On the other hand, Thomas certainly has a point about LeBron’s dominance.
James has now gone to eight consecutive NBA Finals. He is the first player in league history to do that without either being Bill Russell or a teammate of Bill Russell.
He has also done this despite playing on some legitimately awful teams, especially in Cleveland; the 2007 Cavaliers had Larry Hughes as their second-best player, and the 2017 and ’18 versions of the team looked more like 20-win teams than 50-win teams without LeBron’s contributions.
Michael Jordan went to six NBA Finals and won all six of them, but for the first seven years of his career, he struggled to escape the dreaded “good stats, bad team” label. Jordan dragged some bad Bulls teams to the playoffs, but they routinely got smoked by Larry Bird’s Celtics and Thomas’ “Bad Boys” Pistons until Jordan and Scottie Pippen came of age as players and tore up the league.
LeBron catches flak for “only” winning three championships, but at best twice in his career (in 2011 against the Mavericks and 2012 against the Thunder) has he had the noticeably superior team playing alongside him. Three times, he’s lost to Tim Duncan and the Spurs. The other two losses came against Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and the rest of the Golden State Warriors during a run when the Dubs went a combined 207-39 in the regular season.
And Michael Jordan never beat a 73-9 team in the Finals practically by himself.
LeBron is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in playoff games when facing elimination at least three times in a career. In one “disappointment,” he scored 27 points — and got a triple-double, including 19 points and 10 assists — in Game 6 against Boston in 2010, the game where James angrily threw off his jersey after the game and took his talents to South Beach, sick of carrying such a wretched supporting cast.
Ever since that 2010 game, LeBron has been a Celtic killer; the Garden crowd in Game 7 Sunday got unpleasant flashbacks to Game 6 of the 2012 East finals, where the Celtics, up 3-2 in the series and trying to close out at home, saw LeBron score 45 points and suck all the air out of the building on a spring night in Boston.
Is LeBron better than Jordan? Maybe. He’s certainly building the resume for it.
But if he manages to strap the walking “Saturday Night Live” sketch that is the 2018 Cavaliers over the finish line, they might as well just fold up the league entirely, because there will simply be no mountains left for greatness to climb.
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