NBA: Jordan still superior to James

LeBron James (left) on May 25, 2017, and Michael Jordan (right) on Oct 12, 2001.
LeBron James (left) on May 25, 2017, and Michael Jordan (right) on Oct 12, 2001.PHOTO: AFP

Cavs' star closing gap, but this Finals series will shape a clearer comparison between duo

The best sports leagues in the world have one thing in common: rich histories, containing plenty of "folklore".

Tales of sustained success, astonishing feats and magical games are what draw fans to the leagues, as they marvel at the teams and the players who starred in these heroic sporting acts.

Basketball heroes abound in the National Basketball Association's (NBA) 71-year history - from the bespectacled George Mikan in the league's infancy in the 1950s, to Bill Russell's 11 title wins with the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, to the 1980s rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson that propelled the league to mainstream success.

So where do LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry fit in the NBA's history books?

Undoubtedly the biggest stars of the first-ever "Trilogy" - the same two sides competing in the NBA Finals for three straight seasons - they are already providing new folklore for the league, raising the bar for rivalries and sustained play-off excellence.

Yet, their respective standings among the pantheon of greatest NBA basketballers will be shaped by whether they win the all-important rubber series of the Trilogy which starts tomorrow (Singapore time).

For James, his legacy is already secure: He is probably in the top five of any basketball fan's list of greatest players, an explosive scorer with enough basketball brains to lift his team-mates to NBA title success.

Many have cited his seven straight Finals appearances from 2011 as his greatest feat. Arguably, it isn't - an even more jaw-dropping act is guiding two teams with two completely different squads of team-mates to four Finals each.

That is the epitome of an all-round team player, undoubtedly James' greatest trait.

But when he overtook Michael Jordan's all-time play-off points record last week, a minor rumbling surfaced amid the world of NBA folklore: Is James a better candidate than Jordan for the greatest basketballer of all time?

Cue the debate among fans. Pro-Jordan ones feigned outrage that someone who has only three NBA titles to Jordan's perfect set of six titles from six Finals, who has significantly fewer last-gasp winners than Jordan, who is never as single-minded when it comes to beating everyone, can be considered the greatest of all time.

Pro-James fans, however, argue that he is the better team player, understanding the nuances of team success better than Jordan did. Add to that his seeming indestructibility - rarely injured, built like a tank - and his lengthy list of achievements seem valid to be considered the greatest.

James himself said of the current debate: "It's great for barbershops, but for me I'm just trying to put my mark on the game and leave a legacy behind."

Right now, I believe Jordan still reigns. But James is far from being done yet. Let's wait until he retires before making such a comparison.

Nevertheless, he can go a long way in making a case for being the greatest, if he leads the Cavaliers to beating the best team in the NBA - the Golden State Warriors - for a second straight Finals.

To do that, he needs to overcome not one, but possibly two future NBA folklore heroes, in Durant and Curry.

Durant's career mirrors James' early and middle periods. Like James, he spent his formative years carrying a struggling franchise (Oklahoma City Thunder) to respectability, before taking his talents to a genuine title contender in the Warriors this season, just like James did when he joined the Miami Heat.

With his long limbs and calm demeanour, Durant is a versatile scorer and an underrated defender. And like James, he is a great team-mate, seamlessly blending in with the close-knit Warriors.

Yet he lacks the talent to take over big games and win them on his own terms, like James and Curry, because he still lacks a unique trait that sets him apart from the deep talent pool of NBA stars.

Curry can depend on his long-range excellence to decide games on his own. His gift to basketball is making the pull-up three-point shot - one of the lowest percentage scoring methods - into a deadly weapon.

Yet, he was unable to stem the Warriors' collective collapse in the last Finals, albeit because he was hampered by injury.

Remember, it was his errant behind-the-back pass that set off the final act in the Cavaliers' Game Seven win.

No doubt, Curry seeks redemption. If he leads the Warriors to victory in this Finals, he will be remembered as the most successful sharpshooter ever.

If not, well, he could become the footnote as James' greatest rival. Even that's not bad when it comes to folklore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'Jordan still superior to James'. Print Edition | Subscribe