It might be time to reopen the GOAT debate

In the midst of a global pandemic, Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” documentary put a period on the GOAT discussion, reinforcing the lasting image we have of him as this undeniable force, the perfect amalgamation of athleticism, skill and competitiveness, a champion with an unblemished record in the NBA Finals. Yet, here we are, four months later, and LeBron James is once again punctuating that narrative with an ellipsis.

At what point do we concede that Jordan’s GOAT status can be threatened? Is it merely the six rings and six Finals MVPs in six title shots? If that were the case, then Bill Russell should be undisputed. It has to be the totality of Jordan’s career, the championships, the awards, the scoring titles, the testimony of his peers, the eye test, the feeling we got watching him, the inevitability of his greatness when a moment called for it.

And James is threatening it all with each unprecedented accomplishment, each defeat of Father Time.

All time did not stand still in 1998. We must accept that there is a tipping point, where a successor unmasks the Jordan mystique to reveal a higher order, one that can then be challenged by the next anointed. James continues to push the limits of that point, and to deny that now is to believe eclipsing Jordan is impossible.

James will make his 10th Finals appearance when the series opens on Wednesday, matching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with four more than Jordan and two fewer than Russell. He is the favorite to become the first player in history to lead three different franchises to titles. We can agree anything less, including Anthony Davis winning Finals MVP, would be another strike against James’ legacy by comparison to Jordan, in addition to his 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks and the willingness to jump ship for a better crew.

LeBron James knows his greatness is not measured in Finals appearances. (AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
LeBron James knows his greatness is not measured in Finals appearances. (AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Should James win a fourth title and fourth Finals MVP, there will be those who will refuse to accept anything less than two more rings and two more trophies before entertaining the thought that he may be greater than Jordan. Even that would not be enough for some people. The arc of Jordan’s career is so fantastical, right down to The Last Shot, that we crop his failures upon returning from retirements out of the picture entirely.

The story of James’ career is still being written, and it requires far more nuance to tell. It is easier to cast his six Finals losses in the shadow of Jordan’s victories than to appreciate the accomplishment of reaching so many at a time when the depth of talent in the league has never been greater. James’ first Finals loss came at age 22, five years earlier than Jordan made his Finals debut. Three more came opposite the Golden State Warriors, arguably the greatest team in NBA history, and a fifth came against a San Antonio Spurs dynasty.

If you want to equate the Finals histories of Jordan and James, then all basketball analysis is pointless. The Warriors were no better than the Utah Jazz, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry no better than Karl Malone and John Stockton, and to bring the debate to its logical end, Klay Thompson no better than Jeff Hornacek.

It is the 2011 loss that will always haunt James. He was a 26-year-old two-time MVP, and he wilted against Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, ill-prepared to assume the reins as a pantheon-level player. We accept that Jordan’s Eastern Conference finals loss at age 26 was merely another obstacle to overcome on his path to immortality, because what came after was a much cleaner storyline to follow, especially once you frame the second-round loss in 1995 and the dissolution of the Chicago Bulls three years later as beyond his control.

As much as 2011 was a stain, 2016 is the standard. No Jordan championship compares to what James accomplished against the 73-win Warriors. A ring with the Los Angeles Lakers at age 35 will match what Jordan did with the Bulls in ‘98. Everything after will be fodder for a conversation about the importance of longevity that does not fit neatly into a documentary. What came before is the stuff of sports radio dreams.

The narrative of James’ “Decision” to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat is easily dismissed as a ring-chasing pursuit of shared superstar responsibility. His return to the Cleveland Cavaliers and exodus for the Los Angeles Lakers can be written into the same script. It is far harder to consider that Bulls history could not be told without Scottie Pippen, an all-timer, or that Jordan failed to reach the Finals in a post-baseball stint between the star presence of Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman.

James has long since passed Jordan’s statistical marks, both regular season and playoffs, and he could unseat Abdul-Jabbar as the game’s all-time leading scorer with two more seasons like the one he just had. It is practically inevitable for James to conclude his career with more than 40,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 10,000 assists, 2,000 steals and 1,000 blocks, inarguably the greatest statistical résumé in the sport. But numbers are contextual, unless you are talking about championships, in which case they are absolute.

It is the only argument left against James as the greatest player to ever live, and he is peeling layers from that facade with each passing season. How many rings does he need to make everything else he has done matter? Does a fourth get him closer than two shy of Jordan? There was a point in the GOAT discussion where we accepted that the totality of Jordan’s career was greater than Russell’s 11 titles or Abdul-Jabbar’s six. James is fast approaching that same milestone, and there is no reason to believe this is his last dance.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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