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How LeBron James can differentiate himself from Michael Jordan with a fourth championship

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Let’s be honest. No matter what LeBron James — or any other subsequent player, for that matter — does for the rest of his career, he will never supplant Michael Jordan as the best player of all time in the eyes of many. Jordan’s combination of success, mystique, and adoration will likely never be replicated. His timing, marketability, and his ability to capitalize on capitalism all worked in concert to create the perfect superstar storm. The lack of social media during Jordan’s era certainly played into that. Plus, by now Jordan’s career is viewed entirely through the lens of nostalgia, which is a powerful thing.

James is never hesitant to admit that he grew up idolizing Jordan and that he wears the No. 23 because of him. As a historian of the game, James is well aware that Jordan paved the way for the modern NBA superstar, as he has previously credited Jordan for globalizing the game.

“M.J. made the game global,” James said in December of 2018. “He made people all over the world want to watch the game of basketball because of his marketability, because of the way he played the game of basketball, because of who he was. He kind of transcended that era. We needed [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] when they came into the league. It was fitting. It was perfect timing for Magic to be with the Lakers and Bird to be with the Celtics and all the battles that they went through.

“And then when M.J. came in in ’84 and started to do what he did, he made the game global. And obviously that ’92 Barcelona run that the Dream Team had, it just solidified why he was the best athlete in the world to do as such. And then between M.J. and David Stern, they turned it into what it is today, and guys like Adam Silver and myself are just trying to keep it going.”

In terms of legacy and lore, James is competing against a living legend. A demigod. Given that fact though, James has done pretty well for himself. James has already scored more career regular season points than Jordan, recorded more career rebounds, assists, and blocks, and made more career All-Star and All-NBA appearances. James has also scored more postseason points than Jordan, or anyone else for that matter. By the time that he hangs up his signature Nike’s, he will be viewed as the most statistically impressive player ever.

The only glaring difference in the resumes between James and Jordan at this point — and the crux of most anti-James, pro-Jordan arguments — is the fact that James has been unable to match Jordan’s unblemished record in the NBA Finals. After going 6-0 in the Finals, Jordan established perfection as a standard, and is viewed as the ultimate winner because of it, while James’ career 3-6 Finals record isn’t nearly as impressive on paper. (It becomes more impressive with context, like when you consider the fact that James was just 22 years old when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first-ever Finals appearance in 2007. Or that he personally made eight straight Finals appearances from 2010 to 2018, and almost single-handedly led the Cavs to the title in 2015 despite the fact that they were missing their second and third best players — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — due to injury issues). But there’s certainly something to be said for making the Finals as an individual so many times, even if you only win a third of the time.

Even if James were to win four more titles to surpass Jordan, which is unlikely — albeit not impossible — at this point in his career, there will still be the detractors that pointed to those six Finals losses. To those people. James will likely never eclipse Jordan. To the unbiased observer though, James could differentiate himself from ‘His Airness’ and in turn cement a legacy that would potentially weigh evenly with Jordan’s on a balance scale by winning another title with a third franchise.

James has already won titles with multiple franchises; something Jordan didn’t do. Jordan won his six championships with one franchise — with one owner, one general manager, one coach, and one main sidekick. While Jordan won all of his titles under Phil Jackson, a man now widely accepted as one of the greatest coaches of all time after he won 11 total titles with the Bulls and Lakers, James won in Miami with Erik Spoelstra, who was a relative unknown at the time. While Jackson went on to win five titles without Jordan, Spoelstra hasn’t had such similar success since James left Miami to return to Cleveland in 2014. In Cleveland, James won his third title under the tutelage of Tyronn Lue, a first-time head coach who was fired shortly after James defected to Los Angeles in 2018.

That’s not to say that Jordan wouldn’t have had similar success elsewhere, or under another coach, but facts are facts. Jordan didn’t win at the highest level before, or after Jackson. He thrived on one team, under one coach, in one system. In the two seasons that Jordan played outside of Chicago — with the Washington Wizards from 2001 to 2003 — he failed to qualify for the postseason both times.

James, on the other hand, has found success with multiple teams, coaches and systems. James has elevated every team that he’s been on to a near-championship level, as evidenced by the nine finals appearances, and other deep playoff runs. If James is ultimately able to lead a third team — like the Lakers — to a title, he would cement himself as a different type of ultimate winner. The type that breeds success wherever he goes.

Very few players in NBA history have been the best, or second-best, player on championship teams for multiple franchises. James is already on this list. Outside of him, there’s Wilt Chamberlain, who won titles with the 76ers and Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won with the Bucks and Lakers, Bill Walton, who did it with the Blazers and Celtics, and Shaquille O’Neal, who helped propel both the Lakers and Heat to titles.

If James were to win another title in the next few years while he’s still near the peak of his powers, he’d be alone on the list of players that led three separate franchises to titles. That’s a different type of legacy, sure, but one that could ultimately be considered equally as impressive as winning say, six titles, with the same squad.

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NBA bubble observations: LeBron James narrative is a bit overstated

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A shortened season was advantageous to a number of older Lakers. Rajon Rondo is 34, Dwight Howard 34, Danny Green 33 and Markieff Morris 31. And it gave a stronger likelihood of injury-prone Anthony Davis staying healthy..

1. I am not here to place a Phil Jackson asterisk on the Lakers’ 17th championship like the Zen Master did on the lockout-shortened, 1999 campaign. But let’s not get carried away with the rhetoric that LeBron James’ fourth title is more worthy because it was done amid 100 days in the NBA bubble, away from family.

James underscored that theme after the Lakers topped the Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals last Sunday, stating: “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have ups and downs in the bubble. At times I was questioning myself: Should I be here? Is this worth sacrificing my family?”
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In fact, the elderly Lakers saw their chances of winning the title enhanced by the restart format. The season was shut down for four months, allowing James to rest his 35-year-old bones. James didn’t play a regular-season game from March 10-July 30. A total of 71 regular-season games were played in the season, 11 fewer than usual.

A shortened season was advantageous to a number of older Lakers. Rajon Rondo is 34, Dwight Howard 34, Danny Green 33 and Markieff Morris 31. And it gave a stronger likelihood of injury-prone Anthony Davis staying healthy.

The grueling travel for a West Coast team was eliminated. In The Finals alone, a six-game series would have required James’ Lakers to enter the Eastern time zone twice. Wipe out the five-hour flights to and from Miami and replace it with a five-minute bus ride to their Gran Destino resort, and that’s one factor why James looked fresh as a daisy.

Dwight Howard and LeBron James celebrate winning the NBA championship.Getty Images

This wasn’t the usual physical grind of an NBA season. Even on charter flights, air travel takes a massive physical toll. The Lakers’ average age of 29.07 ranked as second-oldest in the league entering the season.

2. It’s not his most important decision, but I hope commissioner Adam Silver changes the dress code for NBA head coaches next season and forbids the sweatsuit look. It felt too much like summer league. Bring back the more dignified jacket-and-tie look. Or at least the jacket.

3. BetMGM sportbook lists the Nuggets at 20/1 (tied for ninth choice) to win the 2021 title. From the Western Conference, the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors are ahead of Denver, which made this year’s conference finals. It’s a young team getting better. Guard Jamal Murray looked like the NBA’s newest superstar. Nikola Jokic is already there. And Michael Porter Jr., selected 14th by the Nuggets in 2018, is going to get there, which will make Knicks fans even more miserable after their team passed on him to take Kevin Knox with the No. 9-overall pick that year. Michael Malone is an elite coach. At 20/1, the Nuggets are a terrific bet.
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4. The 76ers had a miserable bubble result, but Doc Rivers is the right new voice to revive “Trust the Process’’ and get Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris thriving. If the Knicks only knew Rivers would’ve been available …

5. Silver got a lot of credit for shutting out COVID-19 positives, but Chris Paul, president of the Players Association, deserves as much credit for keeping the players unified. “Chris saved the season,’’ one NBA source said in referring to the pause of play after the Kenosha, Wis., shooting of Jacob Blake in August. Don’t think Knicks president Leon Rose didn’t notice the leadership of his former client.

6. With Davis expected to opt out and re-sign with the Lakers, the smart play would be pass on a long-term package and execute a 1-and-1 deal. That would make him a free agent in 2021. He still gets to defend the crown with James, but provides insurance in case LeBron finally succumbs to age in a normal 82-game marathon.
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Lastly, Davis may want his “own” team. James garnered most of the buzz after the Lakers won the title — pundits analyzing whether his fourth ring or “one for the thumb” 2021 journey will stack up against Michael Jordan. It will never be an AD championship as long as James is alongside. The Knicks were once on “The Brow’s” radar. They should have cap space in 2021.

7. The Nets may wind up regretting that they passed on Tyronn Lue, who will now helm the Clippers. As one person close to Lue said recently, “There are many great things you can say about Tyronn, but if you really boil it down to one thing, it’s that he has no ego. And that personality is key with Kyrie [Irving] and KD [Kevin Durant]. Kyrie overthinks. And Tyronn doesn’t think too hard — and that’s not in a negative way.’’

8. Some teams are deciding not to partake in the loosening up of draft-preparation guidelines that will allow scouts to fly to a designated city with other clubs and watch a Pro Day-like live workout. Usually those Pro Days feature meaningless 1-on-0 drills. Some 1-on-1 interviews will be granted but with no guarantees. Some teams believe the COVID-19 risk outweighs the reward. New York has protocols that require two-week quarantines after returning from many states. One executive from a club that won’t attend told The Post the best intel is watching a prospect at his college practice. “Doing your own homework and own background checks are more important,’’ the executive said.

9. Hats off to Nets owner Joe Tsai. Without any events at which to sell them, Barclays Center donated 14,000 pounds of food Thursday from its arena to City Harvest, Food Bank for New York City and The Campaign Against Hunger. During the pandemic, the Nets helped feed 30,000 New Yorkers in need.

10. Reality Check Insights conducted a survey of 1,400 Americans on “Racing and Policing” and included an NBA question to measure if the league has become political. The findings, their research team found, is very much so. The survey showed 75.9 percent of Republicans rated the NBA as either “unfavorable/very unfavorable.’’ Democrats voted the NBA as 13 percent “unfavorable/very unfavorable’’ Independents came in at 37.7 percent.

“The just 13 percent of Republicans who rate the NBA as favorable is very similar to the percent of Republicans who had a favorable opinion of Black Lives Matter,’’ the poll’s researcher Benjamin Leff said. “People’s view of the NBA might be closely tied to the league’s posture on social-justice issues. Just like many parts of our lives, the NBA is now a political issue.’’

According to industry sources, it has become an agonizing issue for Silver after the NBA Finals ratings’ collapse. Silver has talked about less messaging on jerseys and the court next season. One source said: “It’s a balancing act for Adam. When you’re balancing, sometimes you fall.’’

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