How LeBron James' 4th NBA Title Impacts the Michael Jordan Debate

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 12, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) celebrates after the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 103-88 in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Moments like Sunday night are not new for LeBron James.

The ease with which his fourth NBA title was clinched, in the Los Angeles Lakers' 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat, counts as a change of pace. But, well, this is still his fourth NBA title. And this was his 10th—10th—Finals overall. And he now has four Finals MVPs to go along with his four Larry O'Brien Trophies. 

This championship is a matter of firsts only because of how many teams he's piloted. No one has won Finals MVP at three different stops aside from him

Presenting a championship, any championship, as a been-there, done-that feat seems counterintuitive. It feels wrong, cruel, deprecating. Winning titles is hard, incredibly so, under any circumstances. There is no such thing as an insignificant championship.

And yet, in the context of LeBron's career, and how everything he does is viewed through the lens of the Michael Jordan debate, this particular title is complicated. It is at once impressive and blurring, an important triumph but not the most important triumph, making it difficult to assess its impact on the greatest-of-all-time discussion.

Such is the gravity of LeBron's career that a championship can seem inconsequential—not easy, not purposeless, but the least monumental. And this isn't meant as an insult. Relative to the rest of his chips, the stakes were just different.

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Championship No. 1 dispelled the notion that he wasn't a winner after he went 0-2 through his first two Finals appearances, even if his most devout critics saw minimal value in securing hardware with the Big Three-era Miami Heat.

Title No. 2 cemented his place on the all-time ladder, perhaps not as the consensus second fiddle, but as a stone's throw from that unanimity, a place in which there would be only him and Jordan. It also put Miami in position to three-peat, on the verge of entering the dynasty discourse.

Can anything beat out championship No. 3? It was an actual fairy tale. The Cleveland Cavaliers trailed 3-1 and completed the comeback, the first of its kind in the Finals, against probably the greatest team ever assembled. That it was the franchise's first title only makes it sweeter. That the Cavs were LeBron's first team, his hometown team, potentially renders it impassable.

Each one of LeBron's first three championships served to noticeably bolster his all-time standing. If he wasn't overturning perception, he was making history, elevating his legend in a way that felt both necessary and revealing.

This latest title is...different. It is not revelatory. Not for him. The Lakers have an incredible one-two punch with him and Anthony Davis, and LeBron is so far ageless. Neither is breaking news. They are knowns.

In hindsight, this may be LeBron's most likely title. It did not seem so during the regular season, but a more convenient path fell into place by the playoffs.

The Lakers didn't have to go through the Los Angeles Clippers, a team so often deemed their superior on paper. The Houston Rockets were neither the healthiest version of themselves nor able to micro-ball the Lakers into oblivion. Los Angeles didn't have to face the Milwaukee Bucks, a regular-season world-beater, in the Finals.

And while the Bucks may have shown themselves to be more steppingstone than equal, the Lakers didn't pull an alternative matchup who put their championship stock in doubt. The Heat deserve acclaim for pushing the series to six games, but Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, two of their three most important players, both missed time and weren't anywhere near normal upon return.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The circumstances under which LeBron and the Lakers arrived here is the counterpoint to everything. These are unprecedented times. The coronavirus pandemic foisted a full offseason's worth of time off upon the league midstream. When play finally resumed, after four months away, it did so in a bubble, without fans, away from families, amid the absence of key players—including the Lakers' own Avery Bradley.

Others will be quick to cite the deaths of franchise icon Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, a tragedy the entire league needed to overcome. Overemphasizing this point borders on exploitive, but it matters. The Lakers ended team huddles with a tribute to Kobe, and LeBron was open about how much the loss of Kobe and Gianna affected him.

On top of all that was the players' push for social justice. They were asked about it at almost every turn. They spoke about it, not just during downtime, but following giant performances and pivotal games, without much time to gather their thoughts in those moments. Postseason contests were rescheduled because the players were reemphasizing the focus on racial inequality.

"It's the toughest championship run for me," LeBron said at the start of the playoffs, per USA Today's Mark Medina. "From the circumstances of just being in here."

Declaring any of this performative is bad form. This was a uniquely trying situation, one without a worthwhile comparison. If LeBron thinks this is the toughest title push he's faced, then it's the toughest title push he's faced.

Still, the meaning it ascribes to his resume probably won't totally reflect that. If he wasn't your No. 1 player of all time already, this is not the championship most likely to tilt you in a different direction.

Count-the-rings culture is real, reductive though it may be, and four remains less than six. And though many will view this as LeBron's hardest championship course, the asterisk slant is coming. It might have started by the time you arrive here. Get ready.

Meanwhile, none of the other numbers that can be thrown around are especially likely to bend holdouts. They're not even worth discussion right now.

LeBron's longevity and stat lines aren't met with indifference, but they're givens, these entrenched bullet points on a resume that neither needs nor can readily find much more padding. And really, more than anything, that's what his fourth title does: It suggests LeBron has room for more.

No, the West isn't getting easier. The Golden State Warriors will be healthier next season. The Clippers should be less disjointed. The Rockets and Denver Nuggets aren't going anywhere. Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks are coming—if they're not already here. One of the up-and-comers could go boom over the next couple of seasons. Maybe the New Orleans Pelicans or Phoenix Suns or another team throws one more hat into the contender's circle two years from now.

LeBron himself isn't getting younger, insofar as that matters. Next year will be his age-36 season. Free agency comes after that (player option). The Lakers have to sustain and tinker simultaneously, perhaps at some point having to accommodate an actually aging LeBron.

This is all fine. The Lakers' drawbacks are, as of now, purely theoretical. This was Year 1 of the LeBron-AD partnership, and they won a title. They have time to get more. They may not even need peak LeBron to do it. Davis is just 27 and has shown more than occasionally he can be the most valuable player in lineups that feature his elder running mate.

Next year specifically feels like an inevitable opportunity, even with the Warriors possibly exiting their gap year. LeBron is still LeBron—and, mind you, just led the league in assists per game—and the Lakers have the full non-taxpayer's mid-level exception at a time when an overwhelming majority of the league isn't working with anything extra.

Sussing out ring-chasers and bagging high-impact players might prove cheaper, which is to say easier and more realistic, than it has for any of LeBron's other teams that have already housed him for multiple years.

Expecting LeBron to reach five or more titles, to satisfy the fundamental argument against his GOAT case, seemed farfetched roughly a year ago. His new dynamic with Davis would take time. The West is hard. Getting from three to four profiled as a lengthier process, maybe even unlikely.

Suddenly, on the heels of title No. 4, another doesn't seem so far out of reach. Perhaps earning two more isn't even an astronomical ask.

Let's be clear: All things LeBron needn't come back to Jordan. He can and should be appreciated on his own, independent of this singular debate, for his longevity, for his sheer breadth of table-running and, yes, for his quartet of championships.

There will also always be people who refuse to soften their stance. ESPN's The Last Dance only reinforced the Jordan mystique. LeBron has never been treated as more myth than man and won't ever be. MJ's perfect 6-0 record in the Finals is part of that contrast, but more than that, LeBron headlines an era that doesn't lend itself to the occult.

Social media has changed the way the league is covered, abetting an overflow of information and access. Everything is collated and calibrated, in permanent ink, with so little lost to history or oversight. If that hasn't made LeBron's march up the all-time ladder more grueling, it is at least a stark contrast to Jordan's own career, rendering it difficult to construct effective comparisons—particularly when measuring championship success.

Do 10 Finals appearances and four titles edge out six rings? Does LeBron winning with three teams help him? Hurt him? How important is the futility of the Eastern Conference during LeBron's reign? And, most important, what will it actually take for him to overthrow Jordan? Is five really that different from four? That much closer to six? It feels that way, but why?

"They're all special in their own right," LeBron said on the broadcast after Game 6 when asked about winning his fourth ring. "One is not less than the others."

But one can mean something more than the others. And title No. 4 hasn't so much tangibly changed his GOAT case or path to dethrone Jordan as it has extended its shelf life.

With this latest ring, LeBron's own championship window has shifted, lengthened. Time isn't a friend in his pursuit to sway the consensus in his favor, but it's no longer working against him, either.

              

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.