Oakland, Calif. — You cannot engage in a meaningful discussion or debate about the greatest player who ever lived without mentioning a team.
They are the gate-crashers of this exclusive party and the shot-callers, the wedge that nudges the verdict away from one player and in the direction of another. They are, quite simply, a better sidekick for Michael Jordan than Scottie Pippen ever was.
They are the Golden State Warriors, who ruin it for LeBron James. Or at least, so far anyway.
If not for the Warriors, talk show hosts and sports bars and folks at the water cooler who discuss these things would be forced to get their neck hairs up over another touchy subject. Anything but the GOAT. That would be settled.
Without the Warriors, LeBron would own more than three championships — everyone would most likely agree to that — and less competition from the immortalized player who went 6-0 in the NBA Finals. Even now, here in his first year with a new team, and astonishingly playing at MVP level just a week away from his 34th birthday, LeBron must deal with a persistent problem. For The King, the Warriors are this recurring kryptonite-mare.
Christmas Day will provide LeBron and the Lakers their first shot this season at the winners of the last two NBA titles and three of the last four, all done at the expense of James when he carried the Cavaliers. New team brings the same challenge and a clear sense of reality. LeBron knows he’s up against a wall that’s bigger than the one holding up Congress right now.
“We can’t measure ourselves against them,” he said, repeating the same thoughts he held on his first day as a Laker, when he said back in October: “We’ve got a long way to go to get to Golden State.”
That “long way” might require the Lakers to put someone else in the shotgun seat for the journey, and that mystery player — Anthony Davis? Kawhi Leonard? Kevin Durant? — is at least a year away, if that. The future, both near and far, involves too many issues and complications and factors, and all of those revolve around LeBron’s stare-down with Father Time.
A championship with a third team would weigh in LeBron’s favor against Jordan mainly because it would be accomplished in his mid-30s, at a time when the bodies of even great players begin to squeak. Such high-level consistency is juicing LeBron in the GOAT talk; right now he shows no slow-down with the exception of the occasional defense lapse, and is dropping 27.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.2 assists nightly. He’s a considerable factor, for the first time in his career, beyond the 3-point line, and he still attacks the rim with the intensity of annoyed Draymond Green.
Understandably, LeBron has lost three times to two other teams before in the championship round, although one comes with a disclaimer. It was to the peak-time Spurs in 2007 when LeBron was the definition of a one-man show. The next loss to the Spurs was somewhat understandable because San Antonio was solid that season against the Heat; the hiccup against Dirk-led Dallas was less forgiving.
It is the Warriors who’ve squirted mustard on the legacy, not because LeBron’s teams were better, but because they’ve beaten him three times. That puts LeBron’s Finals record at 5-6, though not totally his fault, but still cannot compete with MJ’s 6-0.
There’s the argument that Jordan never won a championship against anyone on the Warriors’ level; although it’s always tricky to compare eras and teams because of different rules (hand-checking, for one) and trends (three-point shooting, for another), LeBron faced Steph Curry and Kevin Durant the last two summers. Jordan had John Stockton-Karl Malone twice, Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp and Charles Barkley-Kevin Johnson once each. For what it’s worth.
That’s all in the past, which is beyond LeBron’s control. Now the discussion will be fixated on the next few years and what he can or cannot do to win a sixth title, which may once again be determined by the Warriors to some degree.
“He’s still LeBron James,” said Green. “He’ll boost any team he’s on and he’ll make them a contender. It’s a different look for him, more than what he’s used to, because of the makeup of the team, but they have him and so they’ll be a tough test. Any team with LeBron is a tough test for anyone.”
LeBron is bringing Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and also a batch of veterans to the Warriors challenge. It’s a bit daunting, especially since the Lakers have suffered some bad losses lately, to the Wizards, Nets and Grizzlies. Yes, Ingram and Rajon Rondo just returned from injuries. That’s all in the Lakers’ favor. Also consider that the Lakers you see after the All-Star break could be a more accurate version should the young players keep developing and trending up.
“We’re a team that’s trying to get better every week, better every month,” LeBron said. “We want to have championship habits.”
But will that make them better than, say, the Oklahoma City Thunder in a playoff series? The Nuggets? Trail Blazers? No one has stepped forth as a solid No. 2 team in the West, assuming the Warriors, despite their record at the moment, remain the clear No. 1.
That’s why LeBron’s best chance to repel the Warriors will happen with his next team, not this one.
The Warriors haven’t exactly stormed through the season’s first 30 or so games; Curry was hurt, Durant and Green had a spat and even wins against the likes of Dallas, Utah, Sacramento and Orlando were a grind. But for a team like the Warriors, the regular season just gets in the way. Also, at some point they’ll welcome All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to the mix.
Coach Steve Kerr said: “I really like where we are. I don’t think we’ve played great basketball for a while. I think we started out really well, 10-1, and the last five or six weeks we’ve been through an awful lot with injuries and with just trying to find a rhythm, a chemistry and a groove with the new groups that we put on the floor. So to not be there yet, but to still have the record that we do, I think we are in a good position. I think we are going to get a lot better.”
It’s a good time to get a first look at the player who only figured them out once in The Finals.
“We’ve seen him a lot over the last four years,” Curry said.
Another championship for LeBron would match Jordan’s win total and would liven up the debate. Surely the Warriors will factor in one way or another: their demise at some point, or continued choke-hold.