The controversial GOAT debate first spiraled between Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan and the late Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. Soon after, LeBron James' emergence in the basketball scene eventually put him in a rightful spot to also vie for the elusive title of being called the game's “Greatest Of All Time.”
Unlike Jordan and Bryant, James was already put under the bright lights in the early stages of his career. His high school games with St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio were highly anticipated and hyped up among basketball fans. In his junior year in high school, he made history by appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, becoming the first high school basketball underclassman to do so as he was instantaneously dubbed as “The Chosen One.”
LeBron James' Championship Runs
His journey going from the high school ranks straight to the big leagues made him a more intriguing NBA prospect. Coincidentally, he also went straight to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, who selected him with the top overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.
At a young age of 18, James was already poised to be the savior of a sinking franchise who has yet to make it back to relevance ever since Jordan's era during the 90s. He miraculously took a team filled with role players and second-string swingmen to the 2007 NBA Finals, only to lose on a series sweep against a veteran-laden San Antonio Spurs.
He went on to gut it out in Cleveland for a couple more years when he received his first MVP honors back in 2009. James eventually realized that he needed more help in order to win, but no marquee free-agent would ever want to come to a small-market team like the Cavaliers.
The Ohio native then took matters into his own hands and decided to take his talents to the Miami Heat back in 2010. The trio he formed alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh received the media's scrutiny, as they were painted as the villains of the league. The superteam was hated in contrast to how Jordan's Bulls team was much-adored by fans for several years. Miami's situation towards the public made their championship runs harder because they have to prove doubters wrong and meet higher expectations.
After a Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, LeBron's Heat squad returned to the championship stage where they faced a young and inexperienced Oklahoma City Thunder and won the series on a 4-1 note. This moment monumentally shut down all “choker” and “Ringless King” memes found all over the internet during the time.
Riding on a championship momentum, James led his team to their third-straight Finals appearance in 2013 when he finally defeated his first tormentor in the Spurs in a span of seven games. Despite the success of the “Heatles,” they failed in their efforts for a three-peat and fell to the Spurs in disappointing 4-1 fashion in the following season.
The defeat prompted James to seek a change of scenery and decide to go back home and play for the Cavaliers again, where he formed a new trio with top overall pick Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
James led the Cavs back to the NBA Finals in the first season of his second stint with the team. However, he faced the surging Golden State Warriors alone after Irving and Love sustained significant injuries all throughout the season. The Cavs lost, but James still received serious consideration for the Finals MVP Award after averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the series.
He led his squad to another Finals appearance against the Warriors in 2016. LeBron and the Cavs found themselves on the wrong end of a 3-1 lead, but they conquered the odds and flipped the script altogether. The improbable comeback gave Cleveland's first professional sports title in 52 years, all while the Cavs becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit in the Finals.
The inspiring 2016 championship run turned out to be the greatest accomplishment of James' career thus far. Its impact was certainly felt by everyone, including the previously proclaimed GOAT himself Michael Jordan, who reportedly decided to finally release the clips of ‘The Last Dance' documentary on the day of the Cavs' championship parade.
His plans to rekindle the GOAT conversation shows that he was indeed threatened by the legacy that James was building at the time.
In 2017, James managed to surpass Jordan as the league's all-time postseason scoring leader during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. He managed to bring the Cavs back to the Finals once again and averaged 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists per game. He became the first player to average a triple-double in the Finals, only to be defeated in five games.
For his rivals in the Golden State Warriors to sign a perennial All-Star like Kevin Durant after a 73-9 season speaks highly of James' capabilities as a player. It took four All-Stars from the Dubs to dethrone him from his championship throne.
Having already fulfilled his promise to bring a title to his hometown, James decided to move to greener pastures and found himself in the City of Angels in 2019. The proud Los Angeles Lakers franchise had great expectations on their first season with James at the helm. However, it didn't go as expected, with James being sidelined with a major groin injury which derailed their playoff hopes.
The Lakers' missed appearance in the 2019 postseason picture ended the eight-year NBA Finals streak of James, which ran from 2011 to 2018. Coming to a city with passionate fans like Los Angeles is a tall task to face for any athlete, even for a player of LeBron James' stature. Purple and Gold fans don't care what a player previously did for other teams in the past. All they care about is what the player will and can do for their beloved team.
After successfully delivering the Lakers' long-awaited 17th title, James has certainly established himself alongside the storied franchise's all-time greats like Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson,and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Coincidentally, they have also tied their old-school rival Boston Celtics for the record of having the most championships won in the league.
Why LeBron James Is the GOAT
Going on a tough postseason run within a secluded environment in Orlando, Florida — along with a plethora of social issues swirling in the outside world — made the 2020 championship feat even more special for James. Heightened expectations were also set on the 2020 Lakers squad to deliver a championship in the same year that the world lost Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a tragic helicopter incident.
LeBron James now has a total of 10 trips to the Finals, which means that more than half of his playing years have been spent playing in the grandest stage of basketball. Critics may argue of his 4-6 record as opposed to Jordan's perfect 6-0 record in the Finals. However, it wasn't indicative of his weakness to deliver. Rather, it only shows his great leadership for being able to lead teams that were incomplete with holes on the roster or with injured players — especially during his days in Cleveland.
Looking at how most of his batchmates from the 2003 NBA Draft have already dwindled down and retired, James is still going strong at the age of 35 in his 17th year of playing in the league. Unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, he still hasn't shown any sign of slowing down anytime soon.
Over the years, James has also transcended along with the evolution of the game of basketball, which went from a hard-banging and physical style of play to favoring the 3-point shot as the first option on most schemes today. He made the necessary adjustments and worked to improve his shooting, knowing that it will be pivotal for his longevity of playing in the league.
Despite having countless basketball achievements, his legacy extends outside of the court, as he promptly used his platform to inspire the youth and help provide opportunities for them by establishing a school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. His vocal expression of his opinions addressing societal issues through social media indeed makes him more than an athlete and a champion for change.
Having eyes glued on his every action since high school could've made him crumble under the spotlight at a young age. However, he successfully lived up to the hype, remained committed, and never lost sight of his personal goal of eventually becoming the game's GOAT and surpassing Michael Jordan.
With a few years left of good basketball to be played, James is on pace to break almost every existing individual record in the NBA on the day that he finally retires from the league. Until then, we can't truly measure his greatness until we've seen his full capacity in the league. However, his fourth ring and first title with the Lakers truly cemented him as the greatest player to have ever played the game of basketball.