When American sports radio shows get stuck on a topic, they find it hard to let go. The current favourite is arguing about who is the best NBA player ever. Is it Michael Jordan or LeBron James? There are endless discussions as to what criteria best define greatness and what boxes need to be ticked before someone can be called the best there has ever been. No one thought anyone could compare with Michael (a sign of greatness is being referred to simply by your first name) until LeBron (see?) came along, and that’s ignoring the cases of Magic (Johnson), Kobe (Bryant) and Wilt (Chamberlain).
The two leagues that dominate the US sports landscape are both heavily influenced by the real star players. The NFL is a quarterback-dominated league with pre-game shows touting “Brady and the Patriots”, “Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers” and “Russell Wilson’s Seahawks”. It’s as though the opposing quarterbacks, who are never on the field at the same time, have a personal duel with a few mates thrown in to do the leg work.
The NBA is superstar-driven league. To a UK observer it seems as though these players are more important than the teams they represent. Is it more important that LeBron cements himself as the greatest or that his Cleveland Cavaliers win? Some would argue that LeBron is the Cavaliers and that without him they would not be in the NBA finals, which begin tomorrow. And they would be right, LeBron James is so good that the Cavaliers are nothing without him. The proof is in the statistics: when he left Cleveland to join Miami in 2010, the Cavaliers went from winning 60 of their 82 games to winning just 19. When he rejoined in 2014 they went from being a 30-win team to being NBA finalists. If ever there is a definition of a Most Valuable Player then LeBron is it.
Last season Cleveland overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA championship in seven games, avenging their defeat by the Warriors the year before. Now the two will meet again in what is being billed as basketball’s answer to Ali-Frazier. The Warriors are less reliant on their stand-out superstar, Steph Curry, because there is greater depth in their squad, including Kevin Durant. Curry was last season’s unanimous choice of MVP, a decision that infuriated LeBron’s fans and looked a little premature given the result of the Finals.
So now they go at it again, chapter three of Cleveland v Golden State, LeBron against Steph. The argument over the next seven games, if the series goes the distance, should be about which is this season’s best team and that is what will matter to fans in Cleveland and the Bay Area, but the talk shows will want to discuss how the result affects LeBron’s case to be the greatest. It’s a great and unresolvable debate, but one team or other will win the title and will be able to call themselves the best.