The comparison has existed since before LeBron James entered the NBA. Would The Chosen One supplant Michael Jordan as the greatest of all time?
The LBJ vs. MJ evaluation picked up steam when James won his first and second NBA titles with Miami, then kicked up another notch last summer when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors and give Cleveland its first major sports championship since 1964.
The city, bruised by decades of heartbreak, finally had a two-word comeback for The Drive, The Fumble and Jordan’s The Shot. When James appeared from nowhere to swat the layup attempt of Golden State’s Andre Igoudala in Game 7, The Block entered NBA lore. That single play highlighted James as the most physically dominating player of his era.
I recall having blurted, “LeBron is the best ever.” It was an instant reaction to an otherworldly act, but also the result of having watched a 31-year-old reverse the aging process by looking younger in each game against the Warriors.
Then Sunday night happened. James stunk. And I paused. How can James be called the best? As in Game 7 against Golden State, my reaction was to a single performance. Except this time the GOAT played more like a goat.
In contrast to The Block, James vanished in game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, scoring just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting, including 1 of 9 in the second half. James also had six turnovers as Boston rallied for a 111-108 victory after trailing by 21 points in the third quarter.
The disappearing act was all the more startling because James had been so dialed in during the first 10 games of the playoffs, averaging 34.3 points and 8.5 rebounds with a 56.5 shooting percentage.
“I had a tough game, period,” James said. “I didn’t have it.”
Is that allowed? Did Jordan ever not have it? Yes. Several times. In 1989, Jordan attempted just eight shots in game 5 of Chicago’s conference finals loss to Detroit, finishing with 18 points and four turnovers.
Six seasons later, having returned from a failed attempt to hit the curveball, Jordan struck out in game 1 of the 1995 conference semifinals against Orlando, finishing with 19 points on 8-of-22 shooting and committing eight turnovers.
Few of Jordan’s bad games can be classified as total clunkers. Regardless, the so-called best player ever had his moments as Err Jordan. It happens.
Kobe Bryant went AWOL in game 6 of the 2008 Finals against Boston, a 39-point, series-clinching win for the Celtics. Wilt Chamberlain attempted only one shot in the second half of Philadelphia’s game 7 loss to Boston in the 1968 Eastern Division finals, allowing the Celtics to become the first team to win after trailing 3-1.
A better way to compare players across generations is to target the transcendent — focus on their best playoff performances, not their worst. For Jordan, that means game 1 of the 1992 Finals against Portland, when he had 35 points — by halftime — and shrugged an “I can’t explain it, either” after making his sixth three-pointer.
For James, it is hard to beat his first signature playoff performance in the 2007 conference finals, when he scorched Detroit for 48 points, including Cleveland’s last 25 points of the game. That was the moment comparisons to Jordan began to escalate.
Fast forward the The Block. And now, The Block It Out. How will James respond tonight in Game 4 in Cleveland? I’d say Boston is in trouble, because the best ever bounce back with a vengeance. Or they’re not the best ever.