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Wait to decide LeBron James’ legacy

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Give the LeBron-Michael Jordan comparisons a break.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Comparisons pervade our culture. They are nearly unavoidable nowadays. You could basically find a top-10 list or a set of rankings for just about anything. It is only natural that comparisons and rankings seep into the sports world. One of the most obvious and commonly held discussions currently is the classic “LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan” debate.

The Background

Comparing the two makes sense. LeBron and MJ are both transcendent talents. They are both the most recognizable basketball player of their respective generation. It goes deeper than that, though. After all, James has been garnering comparisons to Jordan since before he graduated high school.

Guys like Harold Miner, Jerry Stackhouse and Grant Hill had already been anointed as the “next Jordan” in the world’s desperate search for another coming of Jordan. As those players experienced varying levels of success in the NBA, the search shifted its focus towards a high schooler in Akron, Ohio. With appearances on the covers of magazines like Sports Illustrated and SLAM and several nationally televised games, the buzz around LeBron was palpable, and he was quickly labeled as a can’t miss phenom.

An electrifying, young basketball player wearing No. 23 was bound to draw comparisons to Jordan, and James of course, did. Granted, James also brought some of these comparisons upon himself by openly speaking about how he admired Jordan and how Jordan was his favorite player. Fast forward 14 NBA seasons, eight Finals appearances and four MVP awards, and the LeBron-Jordan comparisons have not stopped. In fact, the debate has only heated up as James has racked up the accolades.

Where We Stand Now

When Kyrie Irving exploded for 41 points on 15-22 shooting in Cleveland’s comeback win over the Celtics in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals, a rather odd debate broke out in the NBA Twittersphere.

Discrediting LeBron because his running mate went off and carried the team while James was likely battling illness is unwise on several different levels. First off, it plays into the foolish idea that Jordan was infallible and that he won his six championships essentially by himself with no help from his teammates. One of the most common criticisms of LeBron is that he needed Dwyane Wade and Irving to help him win his three championships, and in all honesty, he did.

That should not take away from James’ Finals success, though. Let’s not forget that Jordan never won a playoff series without Pippen. If we look beyond just Jordan and LeBron, all-time greats typically come in twos. Magic had Kareem and vice versa. Kobe and Shaq had each other. Rarely does a superstar propel his team to a championship without help from another high-level talent.

Secondly, it diminishes just how good Pippen was in his playing days, but that’s a different topic for a different time.

With a three-pointer in the third quarter of the Cavs’ 135-102 series-clinching win over the Celtics Thursday, James became the all-time leading scorer in NBA playoff history. Of course, he did so by passing Jordan, and as you can imagine, that only added fuel to the seemingly never-ending James and Jordan discussion. The James detractors noted that LeBron needed 33 more games than Jordan to score 5,987 postseason points. Those arguing in favor of James retorted by citing that he was more efficient, taking 120 fewer shots than Jordan to reach that milestone.

This is the general script for most LeBron comparisons. He reaches a milestone, and his critics manage find a way to reduce his accomplishment while James supporters respond in his defense. It is a tired and stale debate at this point given that it has been going on basically since James entered the league 14 years ago. The dividing line has been drawn, and rarely does anyone cross over that line. Regardless of what James accomplishes, there will always be those that have Jordan and others ahead of him on their all-time rankings, and likewise, there are plenty of basketball fans that will cape for James in every situation.

Neither camp here is right, and neither is wrong. There is no single metric to determine who is the greatest basketball player of all time. Nor should there be. It is simply a matter of opinion, yet you would think otherwise based on the way some people constantly pit LeBron and MJ against each other.

Sit Back and Watch

Taking things at face value can be difficult. When we come across things we do not understand, the natural reaction is to find something similar to it in an attempt to understand it better. This is in part an explanation of why LeBron is routinely compared to Jordan and other all-time greats. There has never been another player of James’ size, speed, athleticism and skill level. Sure, there have been players that have been as big as LeBron, but they certainly did not move as swiftly as he does. Along with having similar builds, Magic Johnson and James both have incredible vision and the ability to make the pass that no one saw coming. James, though, has scored 11,080 more points than Magic did in his career.

All this is to say that LeBron is the first (and possibly) only of his kind, which is why it is difficult for so many people to watch him without trying to evaluate him against another player. The problem in doing this is that it overshadows what James is actually doing. Instead of trying to qualify and quantify James’ accomplishments, we would be better off simply enjoying watching one of the best basketball players to ever lace them up.

Somehow, at age 32, James is still getting better. He is playing what is undoubtedly the best basketball of his career. In his 14th season, he improved his 3-point shooting, which has been one of the biggest holes in his game his whole career. He is shooting a playoff career-high from deep at 42 percent. The rest of James’ game is thriving as well. He’s putting up 32.5 points per game, his second highest postseason average, and he is doing so while shooting a career-high 56.6 percent from the floor.

James is the first player to have made seven straight NBA Finals since those on the Celtics teams in the ‘60s, and back when those Boston teams were dominating the league, there were only eight teams. Taking that into consideration, it is safe to say that James is the first to do this in the modern NBA.

Rushing to determine LeBron’s legacy while he is still adding to it takes us out of the moment. It is not good for anything other than filling airtime. If you want to compare LeBron and any other hall of famers when it’s all said and done, go ahead, but at least wait till his résumé is complete. Until then, however, it is best to just watch James do his thing because there will be a time when he is no longer the premiere basketball talent in the world. When that day comes, the picture may be clearer, and it may be easier to determine James’ place among the greats. Then again, it may not.

Either way, do not let that take away from what we are watching now, one of the single best individual performances in NBA history.