Just after his rejection of a driving Victor Oladipo kept the game tied for the final possession (it wasn't called, but the league has retroactively admitted it was goaltending), LeBron James did away with any controversy. Even if his opponent's layup had counted as two points, the ensuing pull-up triple from the top of the key would still have allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to emerge from Wednesday's Game 5 with a 3-2 advantage in this competitive first-round series:
That bucket was the feather in James' cap during a night that saw him record 44 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, one steal and one block* on a 14-of-24 shooting display also featuring a 15-of-15 performance at the charity stripe. It was the latest exclamation point from a series filled with individual heroics as the future Hall of Famer has willed his lackluster running mates into the lead. It was a shot we'll see replayed time and time again.
But it's not going to push James past the ghost he's been chasing in the GOAT race.
Michael Jordan remains the only enduring test of James' greatness, and catching him is an unachievable, Sisyphean task in the minds of myriad basketball fans. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar can never erase his Finals losses. He probably won't catch Jordan's collection of rings. He doesn't inspire that same level of fear on the biggest stage—perhaps a testament to the quality of the opponents he's been forced into facing the last few years—even as he carries with him his own air of inevitability.
One clutch jumper against an Indiana Pacers outfit led by a struggling Victor Oladipo isn't going to change that. That legacy-boosting bucket may have served as a quality simulacrum of "The Shot" Jordan once drained in the first round against, ironically enough, the Cavaliers. But it's only three points. It didn't even win a series, much less a title.
And that's fine.
James doesn't have to be the greatest performer in basketball history for his career to be a success. After all, he's already the best player we've ever witnessed. And over the last decade-and-a-half, we've all been witnesses.
'Greatest' vs. 'Best'
These two concepts are not one and the same. Nor are they mutually exclusive. Depending on the sport, the same player can occupy both roles, or you could have two entirely different people staking their claims, as is the case for the NBA conversation.
In tennis, Roger Federer and Serena Williams take both honors among men and women, respectively. Tiger Woods is the best golfer we've ever seen, but he's not a runaway favorite for the title of greatest when compared to Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and other earlier legends of the sport.
And since any conversation centered around James and Jordan is inherently divisive, let's go ahead and double down: While Barry Bonds is the best hitter in baseball history from a statistical standpoint, the steroid allegations put a serious damper on his ability to also serve as the sport's greatest figure.
"Best" revolves around sheer capacity for playing the sport. Jumping back to basketball, we're looking at the innate ability to dominate a game in a number of different areas, thriving on both ends of the floor and producing unprecedented feats with the orange sphere.
Wilt Chamberlain is more "best" than "greatest," and he may well be one of James' closest competitors in this category because of his overwhelming ability against other legends populating his era. Bill Russell is the opposite. You can engage in any number of granular debates on this topic, ranging from Chris Paul and Magic Johnson at point guard to Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett at power forward.
The best player is the one you want running the show while you're trying to win a single contest—not necessarily a championship, but a single game against an unnamed opponent. He's the ultimate basketball player. In the simplest possible terms, he's the best at his job.
"Greatest" is only slightly different, but the term ushers in legacy components that are—at least partially—beyond a player's control. This is the category bolstered by the RINGZZZ argument. It's where we give Jordan so much credit for his perfection on the sport's greatest stage, which allowed him to become the preeminent modern-era champion and the measuring stick for any new-age studs.
Would Jordan have enjoyed the greatest career in NBA history if he weren't permitted to play alongside Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and a host of other premier talents? We'll never know. But he did enjoy a stellar supporting cast—objectively a far stronger one than James has seen—and no one can take that away from him.
On the flip side, might James have accumulated a more sterling record in the NBA Finals if he hadn't been tasked with toppling historically excellent squads such as the dynastic Golden State Warriors and the 2007 San Antonio Spurs, who were so vastly superior to his dragged-to-the-end Cavs? We'll never know. But he did face tough opponents—objectively a far deadlier collection of foes than Jordan battled—and no one can change that.
These are legacy-driving cases that help us evaluate who the greatest athlete might be, but they're largely beyond a player's control. James admittedly tried to change the strength of his supporting cast by serving as a de facto general manager and sparking the creation of a Big Three with the Miami Heat. But can we be certain Jordan would've remained in the Windy City if he'd not been granted the luxury of enjoying a contemporaneous career with Pippen?
Unless you have the ability to hop between multiverses, you can't guarantee anything.
Ultimately, those subjective discussions are irrelevant when trying to figure out who's really the best at playing basketball. That's a simpler conversation, and it's one that favors the do-everything James.
LeBron the BOAT
This is not meant to discredit Jordan. That's by no means the intent, even if the "embrace debate" era of modern sports fandom—as well as the 24/7/365 coverage—makes it so tough to prop up one player without denigrating another. We're already seeing that unfortunate trend take hold of the Donovan Mitchell vs. Ben Simmons debate, as if we can't simply appreciate the differing skill sets with which the two rookie standouts are thrilling us.
But objectively, someone has to be better. And though it may pain old-school fans of the game, that someone is James.
No one has more career win shares, and that competition isn't particularly close. Not a single player can match his lifetime combination of points per game and true shooting percentage, despite the fact that scoring has never served as his primary facet.
Even before including this season's numbers (he finished in the No. 1 spot through the first 82 games and is running away from the field during the postseason), he was already the career leader in NBA Math's total points added for the regular season and playoffs combined.
You can dive down plenty of internet rabbit holes breaking down the numbers between these two basketball deities, but this article won't add any further to that collection. That's simply not the point, and it's a process rife with complications. Do we only look at a player's peak rather than his full career? How long can a peak last? How do we weigh playoff performances against regular-season excellence? You can use season- and career-long metrics to inform your decisions, but there's a reason—plenty of them, in fact—why this remains a debate.
On the most basic level, James has the ability to swing the tides of battle in his squad's favor in more diverse ways than anyone else. See? No numbers needed.
Though scoring has always been a secondary focus during his professional career, he's become one of the greatest point-producers in the sport's history. His blend of volume and efficiency is literally unparalleled, especially now that he's added a working three-point stroke to his bag of tricks.
He never won Defensive Player of the Year, but he was a mainstay on All-Defense squads throughout his prime, frequenting highlight reels with his chase-down blocks and ability to lock up a wide variety of positions. He's arguably the best passer the league has ever seen, coupling Einsteinian understanding of the game with unparalleled vision and the requisite physical gifts necessary to squeeze the rock into the tightest of spaces.
Maybe you still think that's not enough to topple Jordan, who, despite his weakness as a long-range marksman, made a living lighting up scoreboards and has a DPOY trophy on his mantle. Even that knock against him might not be entirely fair, since the league was different during his reign of terror, and he could've developed a three-point stroke in a later era that demanded perimeter prowess from smaller players.
Perhaps you're on the Chamberlain train, blown away by his ability to lead the league in assists one year and compile eye-popping scoring figures in another. You might even push for the blend of physicality and finesse we saw from Shaquille O'Neal during his true prime (shoutout Elliott Kalb's fantastic book).
All of that is fine. It's encouraged, even. I'm not trying to persuade you into a homogeneous view of the historical hierarchy. But settling into your stance and refusing to so much as contemplate other perspectives is a myopic view of the conversation, already unnecessarily dooming too many generations who were unable to consider that a current standout could be superior to their childhood heroes.
James' versatility has just won me over. I've seen him thrive in too many areas for too long now, refusing to concede defeat and ensuring total domination over an entire half of the NBA regardless of who suits up alongside him. And as he continues to win the unwinnable battle against Father Time, even setting a career high in assists per game during his age-33 season, he's swaying a larger and larger swath of the basketball-watching population.
Unanimity is not required here. Conformity isn't coveted. Because just as has been the case for a while now with Jordan, present-day fans should fall into one of two categories: acknowledging that James is indeed the best we've seen or at least including him in the conversation.
Can James Become the BOAT and GOAT?
Probably not, because Jordan's perch here is unassailable.
Though Russell will always have a compelling argument due to the sheer volume of his jewelry collection (five MVPs and 11 titles), the Chicago legend went through a gauntlet of opponents during basketball's golden age and emerged with a perfect record on the biggest stage. That supersedes the first-round losses to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons and negates any imperfections he might've displayed between the lines, earning him the right to be called the sport's greatest champion.
And perfection is even tougher to regain than trust. Once you've lost it, it's quite impossible to get it back.
Even if James somehow bucks the odds—FiveThirtyEight's ELO model gives the Cavs a 3 percent shot at the championship, which leaves them behind six other squads—and wins the 2018 title before adding to his collection in future seasons, he won't be able to overwrite prior losses in the Finals.
He'll never be capable of undoing the criticisms that followed him to the Miami Heat when he refused to accept the incumbent supporting cast and craved a collection of supporting stars. He'll always be subjected to endless social media scrutiny over tiny holes in his game in a way you couldn't before the advent of League Pass.
Again, that's fine.
James will keep trucking along, attempting to topple one antagonist after another while questing toward more solo time with the Larry O'Brien Trophy. He might remain in Cleveland throughout the foreseeable future. He could join the Philadelphia 76ers this offseason to pair up with Joel Embiid and Simmons. He could even grace the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks with his presence and attempt to do the unthinkable by dragging a down-in-the-dumps franchise back into contention.
But this pursuit of a ghost might have an asymptotic feel, teasing the Akron native by allowing him to come tantalizingly close to his predecessor without ever matching his lifelong resume.
If that's the case, the NBA annals will have to accept the all-important delineation between "best" and "greatest." Perhaps that's the best way to maximize James' legacy without it coming at the expense of Jordan—the legend he hasn't surpassed but doesn't necessarily trail, either.