Bulls

The Unassailable GOAT Case For MJ

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We all know by now MJ was 6-0 in the Finals. Thanks to “The Last Dance” documentary, everybody got ample proof of his pathological competitive spirit, grudge-holding, and killer instinct. His textbook ending to that 1997-98 season is a story we would consider too cheesy for a Hollywood script. This ending to his career (at least was assumed to be) where no other Bulls player even handled the ball the last minute or so may never be topped:

 

Record Befitting a GOAT

This combination of the undefeated Finals record, the legendary intangibles, and a storybook ending are good enough for a GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) argument. And there have been enough of those arguments across social media these days with LeBron James being the primary rival to MJ. Most arguments pits MJ’s 6-0 finals record against LeBron’s 3-6, and you can imagine where it goes from there. This then leads to a legitimate question:

This is a fair question. Our culture values winning championships but knocks people for losing in the Finals. However, making to the Finals is an achievement in and of itself that doesn’t get the credit it deserves sometimes. Why do we seem to think to lose in the Finals is somehow worse than not making it to the Finals at all?

In this context, Jordan and Joe Montana come to mind in their respective sport. Joe Cool was 4-0 in Super Bowls and a consensus GOAT until very recently. We rated him higher than Tom Brady even after Brady’s fourth ring because Brady had a couple of Super Bowl losses in his resume. Brady had to make it to a few more Super Bowls and win six championships to unseat Joe. Now at 6-3, Brady has won a couple more rings and has astonishingly been to more than twice as many Super Bowls as Joe. It took so much more for Brady to snatch the GOAT status from Joe just because Joe never lost the big one, and Brady did.

MJ’s Mystique

MJ is 6-0 – even better than Joe, but his mystique is way more than that undefeated Finals record. That record is the best and easiest metric to throw around in any GOAT argument. Keen observers, however — even among the youngsters who never saw him play — can probably notice that people of a particular generation are incredibly passionate about MJ’s status as GOAT. Some youngsters may think it’s just the “Hello Boomer” psyche of “my era was better than yours” at work. No, it’s way more than that. You see an almost God-like reverence for MJ from his generation with very little criticism of him. If you think about it, there should at least be some rival fans hating on him. There were other teams in the league at that time too!

Jazz, Blazers and Suns fans (like myself) did exist back then, and we didn’t root for or enjoy getting beat by MJ. I never rooted for MJ even against Karl Malone and the Jazz because I tend to side with the underdogs. However, most of us who saw MJ band together in anointing him as the unquestioned GOAT. Maybe the culture back then was not as “crowd-sourced” and vicious as today’s Twitter generation, but there is a reason why even his rival fans respected him. Fast forward 25 or 30 years from today. Do you think Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard fans are going to unite and bow down to LeBron? Not a chance! But that is precisely what is happening with MJ from his generation of fans.

Not Your Grandfathers’ 6-0

Not many stars go 6-0 in the finals, but even if they did, MJ’s was unique and different. It is special because we never saw him lose! I don’t mean in the pre-season, regular season or even in the playoffs. I mean, he was never not a Champion at the end of a season. Let me explain. He entered the league as a rookie in 1984. He got better and evolved into a star and lost his share of games and playoffs series. Like any other legend, he paid his dues and got to his athletic and professional peak eventually. He made his first Finals in the 1990-91 season. He was 27 years old when that season started and was 28 when he won his first championship in 91. That’s no coincidence, because age 28 to 33 is often considered the peak for an NBA player.

But here’s the part that makes him the GOAT. Once he hit that peak, he never lost during his prime years. He ended every season as the champion. The only exceptions were 1995 when he returned from baseball and played a small portion of the season, and the 2001-03 version in Washington, which was way past his peak. We didn’t count either of those stretches for obvious reasons. The Washington run started when he was 38 years old and ended when he was 40. Not to mention he returned after a three-year break from the game. That would be like LeBron retiring today and returning for the 2023-24 season. Believe me, that version of LeBron will not be peak LeBron. We would not consider that version for evaluating his greatness if that were to happen.

The Key Argument

Jordan ended every season in his athletic peak with a ring. You could argue that he had a shorter pinnacle due to his own, multiple retirements. Maybe MJ would have lost more often if he had played the entire 90’s without a break. You could say there is no way he wins nine or ten straight titles. All true, but we can only talk about what happened and not those hypotheticals. What did happen was that he finished every meaningful season after he attained his athletic peak with a championship. This is why almost everyone who watched him through the nineties has such high regard and near-unanimous respect for him. He was considered the GOAT even before the Last Dance season and that storybook ending.

As fans, we could never trash MJ even if we wanted to. We could never belittle him, and we could never laugh at him. Every time we saw him, he was standing there with the Larry O’Brien trophy. Every clutch shot he had to take, we assumed he is going to make because he always won when it mattered! Joe Montana won the Super Bowl in 1982, 85, 89, and 90. That means he either missed the playoffs or lost in the playoffs in between those championships. MJ is the only modern-day athlete I have seen who got to the mountain top and never got pushed off of it in any meaningful way. I have seen a lot of arguments for MJ in the excellent GOAT debate of quarantine 2020, but I feel like this point is not being emphasized enough.

Mythical Legend

Now, close your eyes and think of LeBron James entering the league. He grows up to become a star just like he did. Let’s assume he never made it to the 2007 Finals, as impressive as that feat was for him at that age. Let’s assume his first Finals was in 2011 or 2012 in Miami, and he wins it. And then he just keeps winning championships the rest of the 2010s. Just imagine he is now on an eight- or nine-year championship run. How beloved and respected will he be? What can even be the argument against that version of LeBron? What can the Warrior fans or Curry fans or KD fans or Boston fans or anybody else say to knock that mythical LeBron? Nothing! Maybe they could ding him for joining a Super Team in Miami. That’s about it!

That mythical champion was who MJ was through the ’90s. And he did it all with the team that drafted him. So, it’s not just the number of rings that sets him apart. The fact that he got them in sequence with nobody else being able to knock him off the pedestal sets him apart. Even if some future star goes 7-1 in Finals, but loses between his second and third championship seasons, that won’t be the same as the MJ experience. That star would become a legend since that record is impressive. LeBron’s eight straight Finals is also unbelievably amazing! But the MJ experience was even better and unassailable. That’s why he is the GOAT, and it is going to be hard to surpass him.

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About Aravind Srinivasan

Aravind loves two things- the NBA and writing. He has been a long-time Phoenix Suns fans since the Charles Barkley-Kevin Johnson era of the mid-90’s. He now lives in the Golden State and follows the Warriors closely. An avid sports and NBA blogger since the early days of blogging, he is now a Suns and Dubs writer for TLSM. His favourite Sun is Steve Nash and his favourite Warrior is Steph Curry. Twitter: @15cent

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