With LeBron James playing in his fifth straight NBA Finals and vying for his third NBA title, it’s only natural to compare his greatness to the greatness of those who came before him. Michael Jordan, in particular.
While some say James is well on his way to surpassing Jordan as the greatest player of all time, Sekou Smith says no. In fact, Smith isn’t sure if it’s even much of a debate.
“For a long time, I thought it was a generational thing,” the NBA.com writer and editor said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “But I happened to put (the topic) on my Facebook page and guys I went to high school with, my dad, a couple of my cousins who are older than me, they were like, ‘What do you mean LeBron can’t pass Jordan?’ I’m like, ‘Did we all watch the same NBA the last 30 years?’”
“Michael Jordan was beyond unbelievable,” Smith said. “It was a nightly course of this is the most competitive, unbelievable basketball player that we’ve all ever seen. And for people to forget that so shortly after he played was kind of stunning to me. I think LeBron is a fantastic player and by every account the most unbelievable player of his generation. Nobody would question that. He’s going to be on the Mount Rushmore of the NBA when his career’s over at the rate he’s going. But this guy has crumbled in the Finals before – literally fallen apart. Michael Jordan never ever stumbled on the big stage like that. Once he got there, it was lights out. Every year, he made it to the Finals. To discount that would be a disservice to his career.”
Indeed, Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals. James, so far, is 2-3. He lost his first two Finals to the Spurs in 2007 and the Mavericks in 2011. James was a bit passive in those series; since then, he’s become arguably the most clutch player in the game.
“Yeah, without a doubt, he’s grown from it,” Smith said, “but to act like those series never happened – more so with Dallas. He was overmatched against the Spurs. Nobody would argue that in ’07. But against that Mavericks team, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion – they took the Heat apart in the Finals. I covered Dallas every game from the start of that year until they finished Miami off. And I’m telling you: In their first-round series, when they almost got popped by Portland, they were not what you would think a championship team would be. So they evolved over the course of that playoff. The Heat had nothing for them when they got to the Finals. Literally had no answers. LeBron hadn’t been on that stage before in that capacity, and he had superstar help in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to a lesser extent. They couldn’t overcome that Mavericks team.
“Jordan was never overwhelmed on the Finals stage like that,” Smith continued. “That’s all I’m getting at. We’re not dealing about what if and what if this guy played with that guy? We’re dealing strictly with the reality of who and what they are and what they did in the moment. And nobody that I could think of has topped Jordan. Every time he was on that stage, he delivered.”
It’s hard to argue with that. After all, you can’t top perfection. You can equal it, but you cannot surpass it.
If that is the case, could James at least become the second greatest player of all time?
“Yeah, and I guess second in that category is like who cares?” Smith said. “Because Magic could lay claim to it. Wilt Chamberlain could. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson – there’s all these guys you could make strong cases for. I don’t know if it matters once you get up to that level. You just want to be in the conversation. To me, that’s the thing. Get in the conversation and let your game speak for you. Let your legacy be whatever it is you do from now until the end of your career to make your case. I think players of today’s generation have spent so much time worrying about legacy and where they fit. That’s the stuff that Jordan never had to worry about. He was always able to go out there and play free and play without the inhibitions of worrying about where he fit in the larger landscape. His career really has made that a component for all of the guys that come after him. I hate it for them because you don’t want to have to measure up to somebody else’s standard, but he set the bar so high. I don’t know how you overcome it.”