The NBA game is constantly evolving on-and-off the court - three-point attempts are taking over, and contracts are getting larger; the game is the biggest it has ever been in its nearly 75 years of existence. However, three things will remain constant for the next couple of decades in the ever-changing landscape: ridiculously high-scoring games, the age of player empowerment, and the LeBron-MJ GOAT debate.
The overwhelming majority believes that Michael Jordan is the undisputed GOAT, especially after The Last Dance. However, pundits aren't counting LeBron out just yet since he is still playing today and has the chance to win a few more championships before he hangs it up. One former player and current TV analyst made his feelings about the debate known, saying that he doesn't believe there is much to debate at all.
"Jordan... In fairness, I don't even put LeBron past Kobe, let's get that out of the way. LeBron has stacked his teams, let's be realistic. The struggle is part of your legacy."
Charles Barkley, HBO's Back on the Record with Bob Costas
To put Jordan ahead of LeBron is common, but Barkley believes that LeBron does not even exceed the late Kobe Bryant in the conversation of the greatest basketball players of all time. Kobe Bryant won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and is fourth all-time in scoring, behind LeBron James. Sir Charles does not cite skill or talent as the reason for his ranking of James but claims that LeBron's accomplishments came easier than those of Kobe and MJ when he says, "the struggle is part of your legacy."
Barkley is certainly not alone in his opinions of LeBron James' legacy, with many fans and pundits still choosing to scoff at his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami, then moving on once the franchise is no longer a contender. Fair or not, it is nearly impossible to judge intent, and the assertion that LeBron always stacks his teams is far from fact.
LeBron James has been to the Finals ten times and has won four while losing six. But contrary to Barkley's statement, James' team has only been the favorite three out of those ten Finals appearances. It is a fact that LeBron has competed with strong teams since leaving Cleveland in 2010, but when it comes to winning championships, the odds seldom favored him. Getting to the Finals is difficult enough, and one could argue that it is easier to get there with multiple stars in the Eastern Conference.
Still, nobody seems to count conference championships anyway, which makes it a moot point in the argument Charles Barkley is trying to make. Naturally, LeBron haters piled onto the comments section to agree with Barkley, but another former player chimed in with the one sensible comment on the post.
"In all fairness Chuck is right. LeBron didn't get drafted to a team with Shaq like Kobe. Cavs never found the Pippen in Bron's first 8 years because he was too good they never drafted that high. Ps... Charles got drafted to a team with Dr. J, Moses Malone and 2 other Hall of Farmers. I see his point though."
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Richard makes the point that players from the 90s and earlier refuse to acknowledge. MJ and Kobe didn't have to "stack" their teams because their GMs did that for them. You can't really complain about support when Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoč, Shaquille O'Neal, or Pau Gasol are on your teams. If the team was not good enough to compete for a championship back in the day, the front office and ownership group needed to figure it out.
LeBron changed that and ushered in the era of player empowerment, where teams have to live up to the same standards they require of their players, which is to do everything possible to build a winning team. Not all franchises are created equal, and some are more competent and attractive to players than others.
Cleveland was surely not that high on the list of preferred destinations, making it much harder to land a Shaq-Kobe as the Lakers did back in the 90s. During this first stint in Cleveland, the biggest star that LeBron played with was an aging Shaquille O'Neal, who had very little left to give and retired a year after his stint with the Cavaliers. One can argue that putting three stars together was overdoing it, but the fact of the matter was that ownership could not build a true contender around LeBron, so he decided to do it himself. Who could forget the time that Cleveland refused to trade JJ Hickson for Amare Stoudemire? If that isn't indicative of a lack of competency or commitment to winning, I don't know what is.
We all know that the GOAT debate does not really matter at the end of the day. It's just a way for us to look at the big picture of the game's history that ends up in a "my generation was better than yours" type of argument, and Barkley knows that. To say that LeBron has had it easier than the great players of the past is not an indictment of LeBron James and today's NBA, but underneath it all, it seems that it is a sign of envy from scorned superstars from the past. Thanks to Michael Jordan, players like Barkley are viewed on a tier below superstars with championship rings, which is wrong. However, what truly disappoints guys like Barkley is not that they didn't win, but that they could do very little to try and change that.