In the shadow of Magic Johnson’s retired jersey and in the building Kobe Bryant made famous, LeBron James made his case for immortality. An 18-foot fadeaway jumper late in the third quarter on Tuesday officially established James as the greatest scorer in NBA history, and as the celebrity-sprinkled, sold-out crowd roared its approval, many would admit: they were acknowledging the greatest player the league has ever seen, too.
The G.O.A.T debate will always be a subjective one, fiery conversation for barrooms and barbershops. Michael Jordan supporters are entrenched in their position. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, faces of an earlier era, have plenty of advocates, too. Each has a compelling case. Russell’s championships, Jordan’s perfect Finals record, Wilt’s staggering season averages. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, seated courtside on Tuesday, mastered a seemingly impossible shot. In 20 NBA seasons, though, James has done more.
Four NBA championships. Four MVPs. More points in the playoffs than any player in NBA history. And now Abdul-Jabbar’s nearly four-decade reign as the NBA’s regular season scoring king is in the rearview mirror. Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring title was once considered one of sports’ unbreakable records, like Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak or Wayne Gretzky’s career points total. James, a self-styled pass-first playmaker, has eclipsed it, and there is no telling how much distance he will put between them.
“Impact?” asked Lakers coach Darvin Ham. “Man for man? I think he’s at the top of the list.”
Indeed, James’s statistics are astonishing. He has passed Abdul-Jabbar and is more than 11,000 points ahead of any active player behind him. Just last week he leapfrogged Mark Jackson and Steve Nash, generational playmakers, on the all-time assist list. He has more career rebounds than David Robinson and Ben Wallace. He ranks in the top-10 in steals with an outside chance to pass Clyde Drexler on the list later this season.
Jordan-backers will point to Michael’s sterling 6-0 Finals record, but before Jordan was beating up on Seattle, Utah and Phoenix in Finals series he was getting wiped out by Milwaukee, Boston and Detroit in the early rounds of the playoffs. Jordan’s Bulls were the betting favorites in each of their Finals appearances while James routinely went into them on the other side. That isn’t meant to marginalize Jordan’s accomplishments as much as acknowledge James’s 4-6 Finals mark is more impressive than it looks.
Critics will say James cherry picked rosters, that ping ponging between Cleveland and Miami before settling in Los Angeles somehow diminishes him. But Jordan didn’t change teams because Jordan didn’t have to. He had a Hall of Fame GM in Jerry Krause who identified the talent in Scottie Pippen and brought John Paxson, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman to the Bulls. He had Phil Jackson on the sideline and an offense tailor made for his talents. James has cycled through a handful of coaches, countless teammates and more than a few systems and has been the driving force behind at least one championship at each of his NBA stops. His five buzzer-beating playoff game-winners are the most in league history—two ahead of Jordan on that list.
James has played five more seasons than Jordan, which in the great G.O.A.T debate is often used as a cudgel. Perhaps James’s peak years can’t match Jordan’s but his twilight has far outpaced him. Jordan spent his late-30s in a Wizards uniform, racking up numbers for a team going nowhere. The Lakers have struggled this season but no one would dispute that with better health and a better roster James is still capable of leading a team to a championship. In a postgame interview James reiterated his intention to play “a couple” more seasons and there is little reason to doubt that James, 38, can’t play at a high level well into his 40s. He wore a white headband on Tuesday because “that’s where the journey started” and two decades in it appears far from over.
The debate isn’t settled because it will never be settled, no matter how many points James scores, no matter how many championships he wins. “I can’t take anyone over me,” James told reporters on Tuesday and most objective observers wouldn’t either. One of the NBA’s biggest winners who became one of the NBA’s best playmakers is now its all-time leading scorer. That’s great stuff. G.O.A.T stuff.