After Michael Jordan hung 63 points on the Celtics in a playoff game at the Garden in 1986, there was no doubt: he was the greatest basketball player in the world. Incredible and credible sources echoed the sentiment. Larry Bird famously remarked following the game, “He is the most exciting, awesome player in the world. I think it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
For the next decade, Jordan’s title as greatest player in the world (and heavens) wouldn’t face serious challenge, even during retirement from the game. In an era full of stars, Jordan outshone the basketball galaxy and dimmed any debate.
After Michael Jordan hung up his Air Nikes for the second time as a member of the Chicago Bulls, the debate over who was greatest player in the world finally flickered again.
For the last decade, easily more than a half dozen players have fought over the title, with none able to hold a firm or convincing grip for very long. If you’re reading this, well, then you can names the names.
Shaquille O’Neal. Allen Iverson. Tim Duncan. Kevin Garnett. Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash. Dirk Nowitzki. Dwyane Wade. Chris Paul.
And the list goes on. O’Neal and Duncan are the two most dominant and accomplished post-Jordan players. If bloggers could re-award individual honors – and who’s really stopping us? – Shaq would absolutely have more than a single MVP to his name. And there’s no steadier superstar than Duncan in the 2000’s. But their similar greatness always made the top player question hotly debatable, and neither is a prime suspect today anyway. While they’ve both won titles recently (O’Neal in 2006 and Duncan in 2007), neither fetched Finals MVP honors, after both were three-for-three in previous championships in this regard.
No post players today are close to vintage O’Neal or Duncan, with all due respect to Dwight Howard. Instead, Bryant is the current chic choice as hardwood’s hero, fresh off his first MVP award and just a few seasons removed from wowing the world by scoring 81 and 62 points in two respective games – in the same month, no less. His resume also includes three titles, and the inevitable and impossible early-career Jordan comparisons.
Oh, about those? After the Celtics’ unexpectedly sank the Lake-show, they’re like the Boston Tea Party: history. That’s for the best, because as the second best player on three championship teams, Kobe was more Pippen in the first place. But unfair Jordan comparisons (and by nature, they all are) aside, how can we give a pass to the “greatest” going into the Finals as a clear favorite and losing handily? At the very least, it draws into question who exactly is the greatest player in the world.
So, are we left to argue for yet another decade?
On the contrary.
A new number 23 in America’s heartland will win his first MVP as he enters his mid-twenties, just as Michael Jordan did in 1988, though the performance won’t be a replica. And while I’m taking clairvoyant notes, he’s also going to lead Team USA to gold in a short time from now.
Yes, lead. Because King James is the most royal of all to proudly wear the red, white, and blue in Beijing, a fact only sometimes blurred by Dwyane Wade’s brilliance thus far. The windmill dunk here, and no-look pass there were expected, but the blocks and steals everywhere have marked James as a defensive force in the tournament that Bryant dubbed himself the Doberman.
And yes, gold. Not to be a brash American, because I know it’s been eight (gasp) years. But LeBron straight-up just doesn’t lose to teams he should beat, and frequently slays superior teams. That’s the crux of the argument here. He’s not only a statistical champ, though he is that too, as John Hollinger and the guys at 82games show. LeBron more than doubled the Cavs’ wins as a rookie from the previous year. Since then, he’s trashed the more talented Wizards thrice. And the memory of 2007 still haunts the Pistons’ reverie.
For now, the Celtics are the top team, because a series of playoff games clarified that. We don’t have a similar formula to decide who is the greatest player in the world. Yet, for the first time in a decade, there is clearly a correct answer both now and going forward.
By the end of the upcoming NBA season, this debate won’t be so contentious, and the heap of contenders won’t be quite as close. The answer to the question though, will it be a nail-biter?