LeBron Jamesí six-game streak of 30 points or more on 60 percent shooting in each game has many wondering aloud if heís the greatest player ever. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Houston — Are iconic players overrated or underappreciated when compared to players of today?
That's the question that had the NBA buzzing in recent days. Michael Jordan's 50th birthday has coincided with LeBron James' historic stretch of efficiency, sparking various conversations, with opinions and emotions all across the board.
Jordan, when asked about the comparison between James and Kobe Bryant, chose the player who most resembles himself, Bryant, a five-time NBA champion.
"Five (titles) beats one every time I look at it," Jordan told NBA TV's Ahmad Rashad. "And not that (James) won't get five. He may get more than that, but five is bigger than one."
Jordan's six titles are indeed the standard of which all great players are judged, and Bryant comes close, even though it doesn't appear he'll equal or top Jordan's mark — and don't think Jordan isn't smiling about that.
James' six-game streak of 30 points or more on 60 percent shooting in each game has many wondering aloud if he's the greatest to ever do it. In his 10th year, he's at the peak of his powers, physically and mentally, likely to win his fourth Most Valuable Player award.
While it's considered sacrilege to speak against Jordan as a player (his front office resume leaves much to be desired, though), James did well to speak up for himself, although one can't argue against ghosts — especially ghosts who are undefeated in the NBA Finals (Jordan was six for six, with six Finals MVPs).
"(Jordan) said he would take Kobe over me because ... five rings are better than one, and the last time he checked, five is better than one," James said. "At the end of the day, rings don't always define someone's career. If that's the case, then I'd sit up here and say I would take (Bill) Russell over Jordan. But I wouldn't. I wouldn't take Russell over Jordan. Russell has 11 rings, Jordan has six. I wouldn't do that."
It places a supremely talented overachiever (Jordan) against arguably the greatest all-around physical talent this league has ever seen in James.
It brings out nonsensical arguments on both sides, acting as if one has a spotless resume and the other's is tarnished by circumstances beyond their control.
Jordan, despite his perfection in the Finals, benefitted from a watered-down league with other flawed superstars who couldn't match his intensity, drive and overall talent. But he forgets many crowned him as the greatest well before he reached six rings, and well before his first retirement.
The number of rings wasn't the defining thing; simply becoming a champion elevated a player into a certain strata back then, because titles were so hard to come by.
Stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were on the tail ends of their respective primes, and Jordan's greatest test as a champion came in the form of Karl Malone (1997 and '98 Finals), perhaps the most flawed superstar of his time.
For James, while he can say championships aren't everything, he sure left Cleveland in search of that elusive championship, landing in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. His point is well-received, but you can't have it both ways.
While it's unfair to solely base greatness off championships, there's something to be said about climbing the mountain, repeatedly, because no two title teams, no two seasons, no two challenges are the same.
Time and perspective
Jordan was the ultimate competitor and wanted to obliterate his competition. He sees that in Bryant, while some still question if James is on that level.
"It's something we all know. In terms of winning championships, it's the most important thing. That's what it all comes down to," Bryant said. "That's why we all make sacrifices. That's what I knew coming into the league. You have to win titles to sit at that same lunch table as Magic and Michael and so forth. LeBron knows that, and it's a challenge he's willing to accept."
It's also why legends like Jordan have begun to respect Bryant on a deeper level in recent years, because he's crossed the threshold from young talent to wily veteran, finding ways to get it done.
It's why the older players cringe when hearing of James' exploits being treated as if greatness never occurred before he laced up his Nikes in 2003. It's almost as if they're saying aloud, "Don't you know your history?"
The generation that stands up for James sees more difficult competition from the top, and view his two NBA Finals failures as referendums on the teams he played with more than mental flaws within James himself.
Unfortunately, there's no room for nuance and constructive conversation when emotion rules an argument.
While both sides have their respective points, the age old question remains, without an answer. It's great to have discussions such as these, but both sides should remember there's holes in even the best cases.