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The NBA's Version Of Batman Vs. Superman: LeBron Vs. Jordan


When the Cleveland Cavaliers clinched their first-ever NBA championship earlier this week, there was no question that it was done largely on the back of one man, and his name is LeBron James. So just how great is the king? Commentator Pablo Torre has some thoughts on that very question.

PABLO TORRE: LeBron James won the 2016 NBA championship on Sunday, upsetting the ostensibly omnipotent Golden State Warriors. He became the first player to ever lead a playoff series in points and rebounds and assists and blocks and steals, but he had no shot at the one title that truly matters. Despite needing only two years to haul the Cleveland Cavaliers from irrelevance to their very first championship, a consensus has long solidified. Sports fans across our country firmly believe that Michael Jordan is the best player of all time and that LeBron might not even come in second.

But before we count MVPs and rings and statistics, it is useful at times like this to be the most unlikeable person at a joyous sports bar. It is useful to question the point of this entire argument in the first place because if you were to reasonably appraise talent in any other field, you'd probably measure it relative to time period. You probably wouldn't compare accomplishments across eras at all. You wouldn't take Einstein's theory of relativity and just put it head to head against Ben Franklin's kite. But sports history operates like a comic-book movie. So the question of who is the best is ritually answered by promoting a fictional, time-bending prizefight. LeBron versus Jordan is our Batman versus Superman, which means that it's childhood versus childhood, and what we really do is emotionally answer an empirical question as if someone proposed that my dad could beat up your dad - because it's not only the rules of time travel that complicate a sober analysis of who the greatest of all time truly is. It's the rules and thus incentives of the game itself, which have changed decade by decade, making the sport faster and less physical, altering the challenges players face and the very jobs they're asked to do. It's modern medicine and technology nutrition which create stronger, more resilient athletes, reinforcing LeBron's teams in ways that Jordan's can only dream of.

It's the talent level of the competition which never holds constant over time and is subject to seismic demographic shifts like the embrace of international players. It's the sport's accumulated wisdom which taught the modern day Warriors to shoot eight 3-pointers a quarter whereas the dynastic Lakers of the '80s shot eight 3-pointers a game.

So when evaluating an individual or a team, how can we possibly control for these variables? And when it comes to doling out credit, how can we possibly resolve the fact that James idolized Jordan? As sports fans, we do not answer these questions. Honestly, we don't even ask them, which makes sense. LeBron versus Jordan. When you love an argument this much, you never want it to end.

MARTIN: No, we don't. Commentator Pablo Torre is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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