By Ron Johnson
If This Is It, Is LeBron Considered The GOAT? I’d Say No
“It would be an official stamp on the belief that LeBron James will never capture a fifth ring. It’s really that simple. This team is not good enough, and it’s not going to be good enough in the future without some tweaks.” (Rasmussen, 2023)
“If you really want to nitpick LeBron’s time with the Lakers, there are some points you can start with. But let’s be real: LeBron’s basketball legacy is safe. He could walk away tomorrow and still have a real ‘greatest of all time argument.’ If anything, even after it ended in a sweep, this postseason run probably helped the legacy.” (Bailey, 2023)
From both sides of the ball, one could make the assumption that this will go down as nothing more than a blemish on the historic career of LeBron James. Now while everyone is trying their hardest to cover it up, it has to be made clear: If this was his final game on the court, it was, while a brilliant recovery, a sad ending to an otherwise illustrious career.
And to be clear, I have never played basketball outside of PE in junior high…but I know a thing or two.
But to say the least, LeBron has had some good company in the realm of retirement. So first, let’s take a look at some that have been labeled GOATs and see how their final games ended, shall we?
Tom Brady (NFL)
Tom Brady has been labeled the GOAT for a very long time. In fact, that conversation started after his fourth Super Bowl win. But unlike James, Brady was not drafted early (Brady was drafted in 2000 in the sixth round with the Patriots’ 199th pick). Now that is not the only difference between the two, but it is where the differences begin.
Like James, Brady’s final game was a loss, a 31-14 to Dallas in the Wild Card Round of the 2022 NFL Playoffs. Originally, everyone figured that Brady was planning to retire following a Wild Card loss to the Los Angeles Rams the year prior along with former teammate Rob Gronkowski. Now while Gronk did indeed retire in the summer of 2022, Brady felt that the hunger was still in him for one more round.
During his final run, Brady managed to break and set a new record for touchdown passes (649), passing yards (88,214) and postseason passing yards (13,049). On top of this, he also set a new record for most pass completions in a single season. The original record was set the year before with 485…which was originally set by none other than Brady himself. He also broke Matthew Stafford’s record of pass attempts with 733.
Despite all this, people remember the fire that Brady displayed for the game. Even I cannot say that Brady is not the GOAT…and that is even realizing that the man himself has beaten my beloved Rams in the Super Bowl…twice.
Wayne Gretzky (NHL)
On April 18, 1999, Wayne Gretzky had played his final game as an NHL player. In a 2-1 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Ranger got the chance to wave goodbye to a packed house in Madison Square Garden. Ironically it was Jaromir Jagr, a player who would end up retiring many years later, that would end the career of player simply known as The Great One.
There is a reason you will not find many players sporting the infamous #99 in hockey. Like #77, a number made famous by Ray Bourque, the #99 is synonymous with the man who donned it. During his tenure, Gretz won four Stanley Cups, all with the Oilers, and set the records for most goals (894), assists (1,963), points* (2,857) and hat tricks* (50). The other reason you will not see many players donning at least those numbers: Out of respect for the game, and the men who paved the way for them to be there.
He is indeed considered the GOAT on the ice…but there will be those who want this to focus on the hardwood, right? Fair enough, let’s go back to the court.
In his final game as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, the man known as Black Mamba took to the court for one final show. On April 13, 2016, Kobe reminded us why we loved this game. On that day, it was not about the fame or the fortune; it was just about playing a game of basketball. On that day, Kobe finished his career with a 60-point performance and felt more alive than he could remember.
In Kobe’s era, this was just a normal day at the office, but for the rest of us watching it happen, it was the true reincarnation of the great Michael Jordan (who will be placed into this piece later). Between the performance during the game and game winning shot taken by Bryant, there were people who were in awe of this kid who grew up before them to become a man. For most of us who were around during the Jordan Era, we had not seen anyone like Kobe and expected that we never would.
During his time, Kobe amassed five NBA Championships (including a trifecta along with Shaq), multiple singles awards and a following only rivaled by LeBron or Jordan. There is never a conversation about the GOAT of basketball without Kobe’s name dropped in it. There are even some of us, myself included, who believe that only Kobe would rival Jordan in that category. And when it came time to figure out who was next to coach the Lakers Dynasty, Kobe would’ve been the first one on that list of candidates.
But tragically, we never got the chance.
Almost four years after his final game of his career, Kobe along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. His career left an immediate impact on not just Los Angeles but also the entire basketball community. There are many that to this day still acknowledge Kobe as one of the top five greatest players of all time.
When you talk about the GOAT, you cannot have that conversation without talking about His Airness Michael Jordan. Yes, Russell, Walton and Jabbar may have the title based on championships. But none of them have the title the way that Jordan has the title. Jordan took this to a level that was not seen back in his era. Even after his final game on April 16, 2003.
Back then, the greatest rivalry in the NBA was the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. People were talking about the war between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But in 1984, a young kid out of the University of North Carolina was drafted to the Chicago Bulls. The two I just mentioned had their own thoughts after going against him:
“Magic Johnson said, ‘There’s Michael Jordan and then there is the rest of us.’ Larry Bird, following a playoff game where Jordan dropped 63 points on the Boston Celtics in just his second season, appraisal of the young player was: ‘God disguised as Michael Jordan.’” (NBA.com Staff, 2021)
Even with his final game over two decades ago, people still consider Jordan to be the GOAT. Even in debate, Jordan and Kobe are considered the top three or five in that conversation. Could LeBron be considered? Maybe…if we were talking about stats. But loyalty does play a factor in that conversation despite anyone saying otherwise.
When it comes to LeBron, had he won his championships in ONE setting rather than team hopping, it would be a completely different story. But instead of winning one in Cleveland, he took his talents to South Beach (while wasting everyone’s time with a television special). After win a set there, he returned to Cleveland (where by that time, everyone had already torched their jerseys and desecrated his mural) only to win one, then jumped to Hollywood. His accomplishments in Hollywood? Winning one title, making a craptastic sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster starring his basketball daddy, broke a few records and provided one of the funniest memes in history involving tacos.
But this most recent series should be living proof that it is time for LeBron to check out. If he wants to coach, go coach. But you cannot have it both ways in which you try to coach from the court and still attempt to do what Jordan, Brady, Kobe, Gretzky and even Curry have done.
There are a lot of factors that determine GOAT status. But is LeBron the GOAT? No. GOAT tendences? Yes.
Bailey, A. (2023, May 23). If This Is It, WCF Exit Did Nothing to Tarnish LeBron James’ Legacy. Retrieved from Bleacher Report: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10076978-if-this-is-it-wcf-exit-did-nothing-to-tarnish-lebron-james-legacy
NBA.com Staff. (2021, September 14). Legends Profile: Michael Jordan. Retrieved from NBA: https://www.nba.com/news/history-nba-legend-michael-jordan
Rasmussen, K. (2023, May 22). Stephen A. Smith Offers Stark Stance on LeBron James’s Legacy If Lakers Swept. Retrieved from Sports Illustrated: https://www.si.com/extra-mustard/2023/05/23/stephen-a-smith-offers-stark-stance-lebron-jamess-legacy-if-lakers-swept
*Points are considered goals plus assists, and hat tricks are scoring three goals in a single game