He’s up two games to one in the NBA Finals right now, but I still have major doubts that LeBron James can win his third championship this year. Too many of his teammates are walking wounded; the two best Cleveland Cavaliers not named LeBron have suffered season-ending injuries. The Golden State Warriors are a very good team who need only to win three of the next four, and Cleveland’s barely fielding a full team. The odds are still long, with LeBron having to do damn near everything on the floor. As Barry Petchesky put it at Deadspin: “If the Cavs win this series, the Hall of Fame should probably just start working on a 100-foot-high LeBron James statue that breathes fire.”
Even if LeBron can’t finish this Herculean task, these Finals — in which he has scored more points than any previous NBA player in the first three games, 41 per — have cemented LeBron as a transcendent figure in the sport. He might be the best basketball player ever to breathe (fire, maybe?). It’s his misfortune, mostly, that he’s still not really a transcendent figure in the culture: He came along in a post Michael Jordan era, when everyone was hailed as maybe the next Jordan until we realized, are realizing, that Michael Jordan for all his supreme talents was rather dickish to his de facto subordinates as a player and even more dickish once he rose to manager and owner.
The way LeBron is accomplishing the impossible has sealed this: We should stop looking for the Michael Jordan of things. It was always lazy shorthand for “the best.” The Michael Jordan of whatever can’t simply be the dude you expect will win. He was also, to a large degree, a win-at-all-costs tyrant who in his post-playing life has revealed himself to be a petty nurser of grudges, a money-driven pitchman to the core, a universally hailed luminary whose ego has expanded to the point where it cannot share a stage with anyone else. Everyone loves the rings, but no one wants to work with that dude. Don’t recruit or hire a Jordan if you can snare a LeBron instead.
LeBron, now 30, shares many of the same traits as Jordan, and likely has more natural talent, if not all of Jordan’s honey badgeresque ferocity. He’s also accomplishing more with less than Jordan ever did, and it’s not the first time. LeBron’s first trip to the Finals came in 2007, with a Cleveland team whose non-LeBron starters — Mo Williams, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Sasha Pavlovic — together add up to Scottie Pippen with a hangover. Stop looking for a Michael Jordan of whatever you’re doing, unless you’ve got the rest of the Bulls to go with him — a star of stars to fit on a team otherwise stacked with alphas. More interesting by far: Who can you put with any ragtag bunch of mopes — the Pavlovics and the Tristan Thompsons and the gotta-die-sometime Matthew Dellavedovas of the world — and still threaten to topple the NBA’s best team?
The case for LeBron has always been that he makes his teammates better. That’s not precisely true; more realistically, he clears out enough space for his teammates to focus on what they do best. He lets Iman Shumpert do Iman Shumpert things, and that, suddenly, unexpectedly, turns out to be highly worthwhile. The value of a Michael Jordan is undeniable. But his teams were a supporting cast, and a supporting caste. What LeBron’s doing now is the more incredible feat by a mile, and it points toward a different sort of star system. It’s amazing what otherwise middling players can do when the transcendent talent is the one in the support role.