Ever since LeBron James completed a virtuoso Eastern Conference playoff run that ranks as the most impressive of his career, there have been three prevailing arguments for why this isn’t a good time to reassess his standing against Michael Jordan in the GOAT argument.
The first, of course, uses Jordan’s 6-0 record in NBA Finals as the conversation-ender over James, who is 3-5 and will be a rather significant underdog once again this time versus the Golden State Warriors. People who fall into this camp will never be swayed, and thus, will not engage in the conversation no matter what James accomplishes the rest of his career.
The second group claims that James’ place in history isn’t written yet because his career isn’t over and thus we don’t have the full perspective over his accomplishments, which is accurate but a cop-out given that we have been given the capability as humans of reassessing things in real time.
And the third group just wants us to avoid the comparison with Jordan altogether because, they claim, we should simply just sit back and appreciate James for what he is in the here and now, implying that somehow a sports argument takes away from our ability to enjoy what he’s doing in his 15th NBA season by making an eighth consecutive Finals.
To all of these folks, I have only one response: What else do you want us to talk about?
At a time when we’re about to watch the same two teams play in the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive year and that the 2018-19 season will start in five months with 25 of the league’s 30 teams effectively eliminated from championship contention on Day 1, what could possibly be more important or relevant than the possibility that the GOAT discussion has shifted in a significant way?
The NBA isn’t a parity league. It doesn’t give us big surprises or underdog stories. We don’t look back on seasons and championships like we do in the NFL or even baseball and wonder how it all happened. In the NBA, the personality-driven soap opera that lasts from free agency through an 82-game season merely sets the stage for a playoff that reveals the degrees of greatness we’re witnessing.
In other words, identifying the greatest basketball player of all-time isn’t just some unending argument you have at the neighborhood bar. In the NBA, it’s everything.
Though I remember bits and pieces of all six NBA Finals that Jordan won, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it became accepted with very little controversy that he was the greatest basketball player who ever lived. All I know is that it happened at some point when I was a teenager, forming the basis of how I would think about basketball as an adult and my understanding of what it meant to be a historically great player.
That’s really big stuff for anyone who lived through it, and it’s understandable why so many hold so tightly to the Jordan legend that they can’t even conceive of James surpassing him.
But one of the most disconcerting/illuminating aspects of covering sports in 2018 has been the realization that any elite, NBA-bound basketball player the last few years has no recollection of watching Jordan play in the NBA. With that sense of perspective comes a responsibility not only to portray the history accurately, but to be open-minded to the Michael-LeBron conversation and vigorously consider every factor that will define the LeBron James era.
And it’s why now is exactly the right time to have this conversation. If we’re not willing to revisit the rankings after James just carried this Cleveland team on his back, what are we even doing here?
Regardless of what happens in the Finals, this is one of the defining playoff runs of James’ career. Say what you want about the Eastern Conference, but never has he had to take on a heavier load or solve as many problems. Improbably, breathtakingly, he looks less like a basketball player at age 33 and more like an indestructible life force who is doing things we’ve never really seen before and may not again.
For some folks, that may not translate to moving him above Jordan. I understand. I wasn’t there until this series, when James over the last six games averaged 36.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists. Admittedly, coming to that conclusion at this exact moment is more about gut feeling than numbers or opponent. James has been right there for a while, and at least for me, it just feels like it’s time.
There may never be a consensus on James as the GOAT, but if you can’t acknowledge that the tide is turning, you’re not paying attention. And given that we sat here seven years ago in the midst of James’ Finals meltdown against the Dallas Mavericks wondering whether he was capable of this kind of greatness, that’s arguably the biggest narrative shift in the history of the NBA.
When we look back at the NBA 15 years from now when the next chosen one comes along from a group of players who will only know about James from YouTube videos and handed-down stories, that’s the whole deal: Was this era defined by the best NBA player of all-time or the second-best?
It’s not just appropriate to engage in that conversation now, it’s our duty.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter: @DanWolken