Michael Jordan’s fourth championship was by far his most unlikely. While there were a number of external reasons for that, ranging from an overhauled roster to a new group of rising competitors, the real culprit was circumstance. Jordan retired after his third championship. The world didn’t know what kind of player he’d be upon a return. It didn’t know when he would return. It didn’t even know if he would return. The NBA in 1993 was faced with the sobering possibility that it had seen the last of Michael Jordan as the world’s greatest basketball player.
The story has a happy ending. A brief tryst with baseball reinvigorated his competitive spirit and love for basketball. Three more trophies fill the cases at the United Center. Jordan’s place in NBA history was confirmed. He cemented his status as the greatest basketball player of all time.
And now, decades later, a saddening symmetry is developing between Jordan’s quest for that elusive fourth ring and that of the greatest challenger to his throne. LeBron James didn’t surrender his immediate chance at No. 4 as Jordan did, but circumstance might take it from him all the same. With his Los Angeles Lakers sitting at 49-14 and coming off of back-to-back wins against chief championship-rivals in the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA suspended its season amidst a coronavirus crisis far bigger than any sport.
There is no telling what kind of basketball we might see if the NBA returns. There is no telling when the NBA could return, either. There’s not even a guarantee that it returns at all in time for a 2020 champion to be crowned. The circumstances couldn’t be more different, but just as Jordan’s legacy once hung precariously on a basketball-less thread, so, too, does James’ now. And purely in basketball terms, the challenge ahead of him appears substantially more difficult.
Putting aside the enormous real-world implications of COVID-19 and how they could drastically change the way basketball is played and consumed in the coming years, the ticking clock that has quietly scored James’ past few seasons has never been louder. At 35 years old, James was already the NBA’s oldest All-Star. LeBron has played more total minutes than Jordan did in his entire career. He suffered the first major injury of his career only 15 months ago.
James might have another several years as the NBA’s best player. He might not have another several games. The margin for error where Jordan is involved is overwhelmingly slim. In the rings-obsessed basketball discourse, Jordan’s 6-3 advantage and unblemished Finals record holds significant weight. Time was never LeBron’s friend. He doesn’t exactly have dominant seasons to spare.
That is especially true in the context the roster Lakers GM Rob Pelinka built around James last summer. The Lakers handed out only short-term deals in July, and that could come back to bite them in the offseason. Only five Lakers have fully guaranteed salaries next season: James, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker. Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo have player options. Dwight Howard will hit unrestricted free agency. The notoriously load-management-averse James might have just expended 60 games and 2,000 minutes worth of mileage in an effort to build chemistry with a roster he’ll never take into the postseason.
Even if the season is salvaged, it has been flipped entirely on its head. There is no telling how fit players would be upon returning, or if the league would grant them time and games to get back into game shape. Health will be a major question as players are forced to rehab preexisting injuries without access to team trainers or facilities. Four rounds of seven-game series could be reduced significantly, perhaps even to a single-elimination tournament. There are too many variables to count.
In his way, Jordan overcame similar ones. Though he wasn’t quite defying the aging curve as LeBron has, Jordan was hardly a spring chicken when he made his way back to the Bulls at 32. His teammates’ fitness was not in doubt, but he needed to transform his own body from one designed for baseball back into the basketball terror it once was. The roster turnover between the two Bulls three-peats is astounding to this day. Only Jordan and Scottie Pippen played for both.
But the self-inflicted nature of Jordan’s obstacles is emblematic of the standard James has been held to, and, frankly, has set for himself. “My motivation,” James said in an interview with Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins in 2016, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”
LeBron shouldn’t have to clear the accidental bar Jordan once set, but a combination of the tragedy facing the world right now, the pressure that the basketball-viewing public has foisted onto him and the excellence he demands from himself may force him to if he ever plans to catch that ghost. The uncertainty facing the entire world right now may ruin any chance he ever had of doing so.
While trivial in the face of the larger issues facing a world battling a pandemic, it is both the most disappointing pure basketball development of what could be a lost season and a terribly unfortunate parallel to the doubt that gripped the NBA in 1993. History lost almost two years of Jordan’s prime. Who knows how much of LeBron’s will follow. Who knows how much was left of it in the first place.
It’s not as though challengers for the “greatest of all time” title come around all that often. Where the two actually stand in relation to one another is almost irrelevant. Even with most minds made up on the subject, the NBA is inarguably a more compelling league when one is improving his case against the other. James’ best chance to do so is on a hiatus that could last weeks, months or, for all we know, years.
But if the negative symmetry between the two holds, perhaps the positive will as well. Jordan’s story got a happy ending. For a basketball world that deserves a better resolution than the one this pandemic has presented, LeBron is hopefully at least given the chance to craft one of his own. The saddest season in NBA history couldn’t ask for a happier ending.