LeBron James hasn't done much wrong lately, but he did err by telling the media on Friday that championship rings won't define his legacy.
LBJ didn't offer his thoughts on his place in the game's history unprovoked; he was responding to Michael Jordan's recent statement that he'd take Kobe Bryant over James because of the former's superior ring collection.
According to ESPN.com, Jordan said: "Five beats one every time I look at it. And not that (James) won't get five. He may get more than that, but five is bigger than one."
After exhaustive research, I can confirm that MJ is correct; five is more than one.
But the truth about NBA legacies is really a combination of the positions that Jordan and James espouse. On the one hand, greatness shouldn't be measured in hard math. If James managed to accumulate four championship rings, it's not like some mathematical formula would still dictate that because five is bigger than four, Bryant was a superior player to James.
And what if James won two? How about three? Seven? What then?
There'd be more to consider.
How much help did each guy have? What was the competition like? You know, stuff like that.
At the same time, James isn't exactly right, either. For context, let's look at a more detailed version of LBJ's response, via Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports. Said James:
He said he would take Kobe over me because…five rings are better than one and last time he checked five is better than one. But that’s his own opinion. At the end of the days (sic), rings doesn’t always define somebody’s career. If that’s the case, then I would sit up here and say, I would take Russell over Jordan. But I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t take Russell over Jordan. Russell has 11 rings, Jordan has six...It doesn’t matter to me, I go out and I play for my family, I play for my coaching staff.
James is getting caught up in the numbers game that Jordan's comments started. What he should be concerned about instead is the reality that—fair or not—great players who don't collect rings are viewed as inferior to those who do.
So, if King James, currently regarded as the best player in the league by just about everyone, finishes his career with only one championship, he'll probably be viewed as having failed to maximize his potential.
Granted, his one ring will always elevate him above the likes of Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing (ringless, to a man), but without multiple O'Brien trophies, most people won't see James the same way they see Bryant, Jordan and Bill Russell.
It's shortsighted and intellectually lazy for Jordan to make the blanket statement that the sheer number of rings determines basketball superiority. But it's also naive for James to think that he won't be defined by the aforesaid shortsighted and lazy criteria.
I mean, how does he think sports arguments work?
When it comes to things like legacies, it's almost impossible to avoid subjectivity. So James' mistake, ultimately, is his failure to appreciate how myopic and reductive sports fans (and apparently Hall of Fame players like Jordan) can be.
Instead of looking into the totality of the circumstances, people who define his legacy will focus on simpler ways to measure his greatness. They'll count rings, for example.
In that sense, James is wrong. To a large extent, his legacy will be defined by how many championships he wins. Whether that's a fair way to judge him or not is a more complicated question for another day.