In his third straight Finals meeting with the Warriors, The King has a chance to do something His Airness never had to.

There will never be another player greater than Michael Jordan, simply because his accomplishments can’t be duplicated. He changed the way the game was played. He changed the way the game was sold. He is inextricably linked to the rise of not just the league’s modern era, but sportswear, sports programming, and all the advertising along with it. His career is now folklore; an inspirational story we all saw and still can’t believe.

There will never be another player better than Michael Jordan, either, because as with his arrival, he left at the perfect time—before the Internet, a ravenous news cycle, and every unsolicited opinion that spills out of it. Jordan wasn’t measured as mercilessly and incessantly as his successors are. He is the standard they are measured by. So, it would have been interesting to know who Jordan was rooting for during last year’s Finals: If the 73-9 Warriors won the championship, they would’ve replaced his greatest single season accomplishment. If LeBron James actually overcame a 3-1 deficit against such an opponent, it would’ve been something Jordan himself had never done.

Of course, we all know what happened. It was a coup for James, one set in motion the moment he announced his return to Cleveland. James knew he was never going to beat Jordan on the old terms; not on the court nor in the marketplace, for the man was gone and the industry he built remains. In returning to the Cavs, James saw an opportunity to tell a better story.

Now, entering his seventh consecutive Finals, all LeBron has to do is the impossible. Again. Not to validate himself; it seems practically ungrateful to ask anything more of the man. But to force us to reevaluate both Jordan and ourselves. After three straight seasons of being dispatched by the Detroit Pistons in five, six, and then seven games, Jordan swept the back-to-back defending champions for his first Finals appearance. Detroit lost in the first round the following season, disbanded, and the franchise didn’t make it out of the first round for another decade.

It only took five games for Jordan to beat Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in that first Finals appearance. The Lakers, already outmatched, were missing two starters during that series. Magic Johnson retired the following season, and the franchise didn’t make it out of the first round again for six years. Jordan then stared down the New York Knicks on the way to his second and third titles, a team in the mold of those Bad Boy Pistons that lent itself more to a compelling narrative than competitive basketball. They never beat him, but they’re still included in the legend just for sparring with him.

This is the theme of Jordan’s spotless career: No one ever really challenged him. Not the Trailblazers, who lost in the first round three straight seasons after the 1992 Finals; not the Suns, who lost in the second round two straight years after the 1993 Finals; and not the Sonics, who also lost in the second round two straight years after the 1996 Finals. There was no defender to deny him, no scorer that could match his output, no will to reflect his own.

There were undoubtedly Hall of Famers in his path, yet they were still beneficiaries of his excellence. The two most notable examples being Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, who both received MVPs due to voter fatigue of Jordan, only to be outworked and outwitted by him in their respective Finals. Granted, Jordan had no option but to play whoever was in front of him. But whether we’re finally able to admit it or not, in order to make his stranglehold over the ‘90s interesting, we had to pretend whoever was in front of him was better than they actually were.

Ironically, we chided LeBron for avoiding competition when he joined Miami and chortled when he lost the 2011 Finals to Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks. Because Jordan never would’ve done that. But since then, LeBron has earned our respect by overcoming a 3-2 deficit against the 2013 Spurs, our admiration by single handedly taking the Warriors to six games in 2015, and finally, our encouragement in the upcoming Finals due to his comeback in 2016. He is doing things Jordan never could, because these specific kinds of challenges weren’t in place.

Yet there are still questions of whether the Warriors and Cavaliers meeting in a third straight Finals is good for the league, and we’ll likely be asking the same questions again next year. They’re silly questions, of course. Each preceding era in NBA history is fondly defined by the dynasty that ruled it. The same questions were asked then. Such generational sovereignty was not only good for the league, it established how the game was played, with every new iteration expanding its possibilities and enriching its history. History which its successors are measured by.

That’s the point in a way; of the sport, of the league, of all the parlor games we play along with it. Not just to know who will win in any given season, or even who’s better, but to see what is possible on a long enough timeline. To see if we are advancing history or merely witnessing its aftermath. For twenty years, we’ve compared players to Michael Jordan to know if new feats are still possible. LeBron James is showing us that there are. If he does it again, we’ll have to accept that the only true choice between them is forward.


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