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

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Lebron in action

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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