By the end of last season’s NBA Finals, there were no more worlds left for LeBron James to conquer. Like Alexander the Great after defeating the Persian empire, LeBron was a 31-year-old at the height of his powers who had bested every challenger. He had cracked the code to beating the greatest regular-season team of all time, becoming the first player to ever lead both teams in the Finals in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. LeBron had been chasing Michael Jordan’s ghost his entire career, and after winning his third ring, matching Jordan’s six titles seemed in reach. There were no threats to the Cavs on the horizon in the East, and he had Finals victories over the three best teams out West: the Thunder, Spurs, and Warriors. Everything changed last July 4, though, when Kevin Durant announced he was signing with Golden State.
The outcome of this year’s NBA Finals, which concluded Monday with a 129–120 loss in Game 5, had been all but assured ever since. The Cavs were better than ever in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but they never had much of a chance against the Warriors. Not only does Golden State have four of the best players in the league, including two MVPs in the prime of their careers, but all their talent fits perfectly together. The best team in the league didn’t have anyone named to the All-NBA first team this season, largely because playing on such a stacked team depressed the stats of its star players. Yet it’s possible that the Warriors’ Lineup of Death could conceivably win a series against the best remaining players on any All-NBA team. A huge number of factors had to come together for Golden State to put this team together, and the only things that may stop it are off-court issues like infighting, injuries, and luxury tax payments.
LeBron’s dream of catching Jordan is probably over. The Warriors are the team he thought he was putting together when he linked up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010. Wade’s body was already breaking down by the time the Heat came together, and his inability to shoot and reliance on athleticism meant he would decline faster than most other great players. Nor was there the same type of adjustment period in Golden State as in Miami, since the elite shooting ability of Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson meant they would be able to play together seamlessly from Day 1. The presence of Draymond Green gives the Warriors four All-Stars instead of three, and they also have a much better infrastructure around their star players than the Heat, who aged quickly and were never able to surround LeBron with much young talent.
However, even in a world without Golden State, LeBron would never have caught Jordan in the eyes of most observers. In the popular imagination, Jordan’s career has been turned into a retelling of the Hero’s Journey, an archetypal storytelling structure defined by Joseph Campbell that became the basis for the original Star Wars trilogy. Jordan was Luke Skywalker in sneakers, with the Bad Boy Pistons as the Empire and Phil Jackson as Yoda. LeBron isn’t chasing a man. He’s chasing a myth.
The comparisons between James and Jordan have never been particularly rational. When the Cavs lost Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston last month, many people criticized LeBron for doing something (giving an underdog a chance to breathe in a series) Jordan never would have, forgetting the Bulls’ losses to the Sonics in Games 4 and 5 of the 1996 NBA Finals when they were up 3–0. There’s no way to win an argument about hypotheticals either way. Everyone just ends up talking in circles.
The only competition any athlete has are the players from their era. Whether or not they get to test themselves against other historical greats is up to chance. The tragedy of Jordan’s career is he never had a rival who could push him to the limit. There was no Magic Johnson to his Larry Bird, no Bill Russell to his Wilt Chamberlain. He never even played in a Game 7 of the Finals. Jordan spent most of the ’90s inventing slights and conjuring up doubters to keep himself motivated. He was as single-mindedly obsessed with basketball as any player in league history, yet he walked away from the NBA twice. The story of the second half of Jordan’s career was of a man who could never find anyone to challenge him, so he took his ball and went home.
Jordan, like Jerry Seinfeld, is a ’90s icon remembered fondly because he left on top, with people wanting more. But Seinfeld could always come back to do stand-up comedy. Jordan had a smaller window of time to perform the craft he had dedicated his life to perfecting. If he hadn’t missed playing the game he loved, he wouldn’t have come back a second time to play for the Wizards. While Jordan has stayed around the sport after his final retirement, he has never been able to capture the thrill of competition at the highest level. His ego prevented him from being a second or third option on an elite team in his late 30s, à la Jason Kidd on the Mavs, but playing in the NBA is more fun than not playing. LeBron doesn’t have to make the same mistake.
No matter what happens from here, LeBron’s legacy is secure. He has won as many championships as Larry Bird, as many NBA Finals MVPs as Magic Johnson, and as many regular-season MVPs as Wilt Chamberlain. He’s the first player to ever build his own championship team in free agency, and he gave his hometown its first major professional title in 52 years. LeBron killed a potential Thunder dynasty in the cradle in the 2012 Finals and knocked off all-time great teams in the 2013 and 2016 Finals. He has an unparalleled combination of size, speed, and passing ability, and he’s arguably the most versatile player to ever play the game. He has already played in more games than Jordan has, and he can walk away tomorrow with a career as impressive as any in league history.
Now, for the first time in his career, LeBron doesn’t have the burden of being the favorite. He can just play basketball without the expectation of winning a championship. In comparison with Golden State, Cleveland will slip under the media radar next season. Durant already seemed to bristle under the spotlight in his first season in the Bay Area. Wait until he sees what happens next. He has spent his whole career drafting in LeBron’s shadow, avoiding most of the absurdity that typically surrounds players of their stature. Everything the Warriors do going forward will be of historical importance, and everyone will be waiting for the slightest opportunity to tear them down. America is a nation of haters; Skip Bayless will have to start trashing Durant instead of LeBron in order to boost his ratings.
The Warriors are the best thing to happen to LeBron. For as long as they stay together, and as long as LeBron has the physical ability to hang with them, he will have the opportunity to knock off one of the greatest teams of all time, and no one can reasonably hold it against him if he fails. Golden State gives LeBron a late-career challenge worthy of a player of his stature, something Jordan never had. James has a goal he can work toward, one where success is at least a concrete possibility instead of a hypothetical.
Even if LeBron had managed to win six championships, people would still have come up with reasons why he wasn’t as good as Jordan. No one can say anything if he somehow defeats these Warriors in the coming seasons. It won’t be easy, but at least LeBron won’t have to resort to playing baseball to give himself something interesting to do. How much fun would it have been to watch Jordan face Durant and Curry? No offense to John Stockton and Karl Malone, but they didn’t present quite the same challenge.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, existentialist philosopher Albert Camus reimagines the ancient Greek tale of a man forced to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity, only to see it roll to the bottom every time he reaches the summit. Camus argues his fate is a blessing, not a curse. Sisyphus has a purpose in life, no matter how absurd it may seem. LeBron has one too: "I think it’s just part of my calling to just go against teams in the midst of a dynasty," he said before Game 4. A thousand years from now, no one will care who the greatest basketball player of all time was. Who was the greatest chariot racer in Roman history? The best Mayan to ever play pitz? All any of us can do is find some meaning in our striving, some goal to get us out of bed every morning and go to work. LeBron James has the Warriors. One must imagine him happy.