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The MJ vs. LeBron debate is one of the most polarized conversations in all of sports, but Shaq offered a path for King James to become the G.O.A.T.
“We look at stats,” Shaq said. “He already passed Kobe and Jordan in points…he’s going to creep on Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] too. I think he’s looking to pass Kareem.”
O’Neal mentioned that stats matter, but he eventually navigates the conversation towards winning.
“I think LeBron is looking to tie Kobe and tie Jordan with championships,” Shaq said. “If he tied Mike, I think people will probably lean a little bit more towards LeBron being the best player in the world.”
LeBron is just coming off his fourth championship and third title as MVP with a different team (a feat no other player has accomplished). With that considered, it seems unfair to settle the G.O.A.T conversation based off of winning. After all, this is a team sport with 14 other players on any given roster.
Yes, Jordan and LeBron are expected to elevate their teammates, but there are way too many other factors to consider.
What Shaq is ignoring
In LeBron’s case specifically, he was drafted at 18-years-old and asked to turn a laughing-stock Cleveland Cavaliers organization into a winner. Jordan was also drafted to an underwhelming Bulls franchise, with a major difference maker to prepare him for the task.
He was coached by Dean Smith at North Carolina.
While Jordan spent his late-teens with his hands on his knees as a Tarheel developing, LeBron was in the huddle with coach Paul Silas, who had a career .442 W-L record.
One thing LeBron did that bothered most fans of the NBA is that he used free agency to his advantage. Jordan spent his early years losing with inferior teammates, so his front office could eventually bring Pippen and and Rodman aboard naturally. The aftermath of this patience was that he was more determined to make it work where he was drafted, rather than skipping town to join the Bad Boy Pistons or join forces with Barkley in Phoenix.
That’s a fair criticism for LeBron to embrace, but I think it’s also necessary to address how long James offered Cleveland to improve their roster around him. Before the four-time MVP joined the Heatles in Miami, he played seven full season in Cleveland and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert did nothing with that time.
Proof of that? Antawn Jamison was the best player that Gilbert ever brought in as a sidekick and no one ever made an All-Star team as LeBron’s teammate during his first tenure with the team. That’s objectively embarrassing for a pass-first all-time great player like LeBron to never be rewarded with an All-Star teammate. He’s, by design, the style of player that would encourage his teammates (any scorer, really) to elevate their game to becoming an All-Star.
So, would Michael have left?
Seven brutal years of teammates and LeBron finally had enough. A choice Michael Jordan was never forced to make. What if Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, or Horace Grant never came? Would MJ have sat around in Chicago and watched the Cavs and Suns beat him down well into his 30’s?
If we’re being honest, probably not. And we should never have asked LeBron to do that, either.
Shaq is implying that LeBron has to both become the all-time leading scorer and win at the same clip as Jordan. O’Neal should know better than anyone of the impact teammates like “big shot Rob” Horry or Derek Fisher have on opportunities to cash-in NBA championships. It’s not all about the best players on the roster the way his “path” for James implies.
LeBron, barring injury, is likely to pass Kareem as the all-time leading scorer. But what about winning? Who knows if LeBron and his teammates put together a performance solid enough to defeat whoever’s on their plate? What we should be more focused on is that winning shouldn’t separate one great player from another.
In a previous article, I’ve made the claim that Allen Iverson was a better basketball player than Kyrie Irving. I feel most fans of the NBA would agree with that statement, but according to Shaq’s criteria, Irving is more “accomplished”, so he’s the better player.
If you believe Michael Jordan was a better basketball player than LeBron, make it about MJ’s mid-range game and on-ball defense, not Steve Kerr’s ability to help him win an end-of-the-season tournament. LeBron’s argument will always be that his point guard abilities combined with eventually being the leading scorer all-time is a combination no one could match.
The LeBron-MJ debate will never be satisfying, so let’s try and enjoy both players, instead. Thanks for re-opening the wound, Shaq.