Perhaps the best way to express LeBron James' updated spot in the greatest-of-all-time conversation is this: We have to be less and less careful about qualifiers.
With a third championship ring and a third Finals MVP further cluttering his trophy collection, James is making hardware headway. Those arguing his primacy in league history have less need than ever for additives such as "of his era" or "through age 31" when stating their cases.
In the immediate aftermath of his third title, it's hard to think of him as anything less than the best player we've ever seen, even if "best player ever" might mean something slightly different.
True, some of that is emotional. The storybook promise on which he delivered—returning to bring a title to a city that hadn't won one for over 50 years—gives James a narrative peak few past greats can touch.
That he did it against the best regular-season team ever while outplaying a unanimous MVP and almost single-handedly saving his squad from a 3-1 death sentence only swells the sentimental appeal. He punctuated the achievement with ridiculous highlights and preposterous numbers. And then he cried tears of joy while the city he redeemed went mad.
No wonder observers got caught up in the moment and handed out superlatives:
Given the emotion and the recency, it's hard to be careful when praising James. Perspective is always elusive in times like these.
Let's try to find some.
If you're a Ringzzz Truther, James' resume is wanting. Bill Russell has almost four times the titles James does, and Michael Jordan's six double up LBJ's three. But the mighty John Salley (four) and the immortal Jim Loscutoff (six), among many others, also outstrip James in the ring count.
If your view of James' place in history is jewelry-centric, he's never going to be the best. Also, you're kind of nuts. Rings aren't everything, and moreover, the ones from 50 years ago aren't like the ones from today.
Eras matter for a couple of reasons.
First, Russell won many of his championships in an eight-team league of near-amateurism—in which players often worked other jobs during the offseason and had a rudimentary grasp of professional physical training. Those are differences worth appreciating.
Second, the current epoch of NBA basketball represents a pinnacle. The athletes are better than they've ever been; the sophistication of the game is drawing in economists, biometric experts, mathematicians and brilliant minds from a vast array of disciplines. The game evolves. It progresses.
Logically, then, it is always getting better. Dominating the game now, with competition and quality of play at its apex, means more. Who cares about rings when James is the best player of the best era? Insert him into Russell's NBA of the '50s and '60s, and he'd be a god on earth. That he sometimes seems that way now says something, too.
But we're delving into the subjective. And everybody hates the comparing-eras argument.
Numbers and Narratives
James and Jordan are the only ones with at least three Finals MVP awards and four regular-season MVPs. In terms of full-season and big-stage dominance, James has one peer: Jordan.
And he has already logged more time on the biggest of those stages than MJ or any of his other semi-contemporary competitors, per Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com:
Not only has James already been to the Finals more times than Jordan, but he's also been more compelling there. MJ can't touch LeBron's storybook narrative from this season, and because so much of Jordan's legacy is defined by mythic elements, it's only fair to view James and his transcendent tale the same way.
Bethlehem Shoals explained in GQ: "This title for Cleveland doesn’t just define LeBron’s legacy. It makes a full-blown hero out of James, a man who came home to deliver a region from over half-a-century of prolonged suffering. It’s a timeless, valiant tale, one that instantly resonates with people who could otherwise care less about basketball."
Jordan doesn't have this. And even if it's hard to quantify how James' happy-ending homecoming factors into the conversation, it must count for something.
It's easier to catalog numbers, and James stacks up well against Jordan if we compare them over their first 13 seasons, per Basketball-Reference.com:
More versatile, more efficient and, by some measures, better in the clutch as well. James' record in postseason elimination games is 10-8, per ESPN's Jorge Sedano. Jordan's was only 6-7.
At age 31, James has reached the Finals more times (seven) than Jordan (six) ever did. Given the strength of the current Eastern Conference and James' latest reminder of his dominance, we should expect that advantage to increase.
A Few Miles to Go, Plenty Left in the Tank
If James hasn't already made the G.O.A.T. conversation a two-player affair, he'll do it with his next deep playoff run, per ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton: "But with another peak James postseason, at the very least this much can be said: There's nobody but Jordan who clearly ranks ahead of him in NBA history. And if and when we vote for all-time #NBArank again, James will be No. 2 on my ballot."
Expecting James to continue the level of play he showed against Golden State is theoretically dangerous. He's 31, an age that generally signals decline. He's also played more regular-season minutes than anyone his age ever has (38,478), per Basketball-Reference.com.
That's not including an additional 8,383 postseason minutes—also more than any other 31-year-old has ever played.
But if James' career has been defined by anything, it's durability. He has never missed a playoff game, and the sudden return of his peak athleticism in the postseason should keep us from scrutinizing his step-slow regular-season shape. James simply appears to be holding back until the games really matter, as NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris opined:
In the end, maybe it's still too soon to say James has had the best career of all time. However, he's almost certainly had the best career to this point.
As his reign continues, James will probably make that last stubborn qualifier disappear—just as he has so many others.