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God or G.O.A.T.: The Myth of Michael Jordan

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LeBron James will never be a god.

In this new golden era of technological connectivity, in which everything is recorded, analyzed, scrutinized, and archived, superstardom has been forced to change its face. Once upon a time, celebrities of all kinds were nothing more than perfect faces plastered on magazine covers or enormous, daunting images on silver screens. They were untouchable, unknowable, and that was their allure: enigmatic beings who somehow were what we all strove to be.

No longer is that the case. Now, we are so connected with celebrities that we feel we are part of their lives, and that, as such, they owe us things. We see their thoughts on places like Twitter, candid photos on Instagram, and videos of their lives on YouTube and Facebook.

They owe us these inside looks, we feel.

What’s more is that we demand perfection. If something is amiss in any way, shape or form, we will notice it and we will criticize it. We will remind them of it and we will remind each other of it, and we will never let it die.

Such is the life for LeBron James, and has been since he entered the NBA in 2003 as an 18-year-old teenager. As he’s grown, social media and technology in general has blossomed, and together these two ingredients have produced something inevitable and new: the first NBA superstar to be excruciatingly dissected game by game, moment by moment for the majority of his career.

We were there to overanalyze his admittedly bizarre final game during his first incarnation with the Cavs, in which his team lost to a well-oiled Boston club in 2010; we hammered him for sitting down on live television to announce The Decision the following summer; we mocked and gasped and scratched our heads during his Finals meltdown against Dallas in 2011; and, most recently, we shook Twitter to its proverbial core with richter scale-level takes about his greatness following a single bad outing against the Celtics in Game 3 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals.

Those are just a few choice examples.

And yet, throughout it all—and what a testament it is—LeBron’s basketball genius has finally grabbed us by our throats and pulled us into the unstable waters of the “Who is the GOAT?” debate to stack him up against the most revered basketball player of all-time—Michael Jordan.

Air Jordan didn’t have his career squished onto a microscope slide to be examined and picked apart. He was never subject to the same blistering over-analyzation that LeBron is. Imagine the excitement that would boil on the Internet today if Jordan did this or this while we were watching with keyboards at our fingertips. Imagine also the reactions to Jordan ditching the game of basketball to pursue a stint in baseball, or to his known gambling habits, or to his “Republicans buy shoes, too” comment.

We would have been in awe with the former, and crucified him for the latter. Neither would be forgotten.

As it stands, MJ’s legacy survives largely unsullied. Partly due to the fact that his career was not under the same strains that LeBron’s is, but also simply because of time (by now, if you’re under the age of 30, it’s likely you never saw Jordan play). Time heals all wounds they say, and what would you rather remember about the greatest basketball player ever—his mistakes or his spectacular highlight reels?

In an essay entitled, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” theorist Hayden White discusses how a series of chronological events (History Proper) recorded as a body of writing (History as Narrative) shapes our understanding of those historical events. Historical narratives, he says, are “verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found.” He goes on to note that these verbal fictions are packaged together in order to make you, the listener or reader or viewer, feel a certain way about the event(s).

This is what we’ve done with Michael Jordan. We’ve taken the history of his best and brightest and packaged it together in a series of verbal and written hyperboles, weaving a singular, fluid tapestry that exists in order to make people feel a certain way about him.

This tapestry has become gospel for so many that when you ask them why Jordan’s the greatest player of all-time, they’ll merely shrug and say, “He just is,” or the slightly more knowledgeable but still irritating, “He’s got six rings.”

He’s just the greatest. Has six rings. Add it to the tapestry.

In a 1996 New York Times article entitled, “Like a Superhero, Jordan Is There to Save the Bulls if Ever They Should Slip,” journalist Ira Berkow writes this about the Bulls’ superstar: “Jordan often sees issues clearly […] he can be Superman, or at least Captain Marvel.”

Jordan is a superhero. Add it to the tapestry.

In Michael Jordan: The Life, Roland Lazenby’s fantastic and definitive biography of His Airness, there’s a chapter called “The God of Basketball.” In it, Lazenby explains how during a 1992 trip to Barcelona—just before the Olympics—Jordan played in a game with a bunch of Spanish professionals in which he utterly dominated such that it led “fans and media alike to declare that the ‘god of the basketball’ had descended into their presence.”

We made Michael Jordan into a god.

These are but the tip of the iceberg, but what we’ve woven is, of course, untrue. Michael was not and is not a god. Does that mean he’s not the greatest basketball player to have ever played? No, it doesn’t—he very well might be. And one can also not blame the journalists and writers who have written in such a way. They’re storytellers with a job to do. It’s sports. It’s fun. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t helped fabricate the Jordan myth.

Jordan had many shortcomings throughout his career. It took him seven seasons to win an NBA championship—the same amount of time it took LeBron—and prior to that there were many who were skeptical of calling him the best they’d ever seen. He was plagued early on in the playoffs by Milwaukee, Boston, and then the Bad Boy Pistons, who sent him packing three postseasons in a row and forced him into some of his worst-ever playoff performances. One such time was Game 5 of the 1989 postseason, in which MJ went 5–15 from the field in 43 minutes of action and sent the Bulls spiralling into a tizzy, losing the next two games to Detroit and effectively ending their run.

Even after Jordan broke through and had become a well-established champion, he wasn’t impervious to bad games. In Game 4 of the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals against Miami, for example, Jordan shot 9–35 from the floor over the course of 45 minutes. Needless to say, the Bulls didn’t win that one.

But if you go to YouTube and search for “bad Michael Jordan games,” you’ll only wind up with a few videos showcasing some of MJ’s failures—the rest will be the highlights we’ve all come to know so well. Search for LeBron’s bad games, however, and you can imagine how that plays out.

We know Jordan had bad games, we know he had faults, we know he had the Wizards years, so why do we choose to toss them aside for the betterment of the tapestry? We do it because it’s more functional—it makes all of the brilliance we saw on the court easier to understand if the rest simply is forgotten. Even in the overarching narrative of the NBA—that the 1980s revived basketball and then Jordan took it to the next, highest level—relies on the unblemished version of the tapestry.

For many, Michael Jordan will always be a god—everything is simpler if we accept him to be—unassailable in any basketball conversation. But as the ancient mythologies warn us, even gods are liable to fall given time and a proper obstacle—and perhaps that’s just what this recent LeBron-Michael debate is.

Maybe, just maybe, the greatness of LeBron James will be what pushes us to finally take Jordan off the pedestal and inspect him, for the first time in a long time, for what he really is: a mortal man who may be the greatest basketball player who’s ever lived.

And you know what? That’s not such a bad reality to wake up to.

Joshua is Editor-in-Chief at Press Basketball. His love of the sport started with watching a LeBron James game in 2003, and he quickly took a shine to his Canada-based Toronto Raptors. His NBA-related words have been found at Hoops Habit, NBA.com's HOOP magazine, and Raptors Republic. He loves words with a passion and is always writing. Joshua is a published author, poet, sportswriter, and film critic.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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MELO-dy Cool

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Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.

It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.

Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.

And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.

Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.

It didn’t matter to Melo.

And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?

And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.

The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.

A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.

As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.

But, he refused and rebuked such a change.

And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.

So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.

Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?

He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.

In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.

Championship or bust, they say.

He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.

In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.

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Reloaded Raptors Banking on Young Guns

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Masai Ujiri is a smart guy.

No matter which conference your team is in, you’re either stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out the Warriors, or you’re stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out LeBron James. For Ujiri’s Raptors, the latter is the elephant in the room. So when the offseason came, the club had some decisions to make that would indicate the direction of the franchise’s future, both immediate and long-term.

Ujiri and Toronto GM Bobby Webster were somehow able to re-sign Kyle Lowry for a three-year deal instead of the five years that Lowry desired, and then managed the same with Serge Ibaka. This effectively put the Raptors on a three-year timeline until the next big shift in the franchise. For these upcoming three years, the Raps will stay competitive with their tried-and-tested core, and they will simultaneously cultivate young talent around their stars.

It’s a great formula. LeBron is going to be 33 years old this December, and by the time Lowry and Ibaka’s contracts are up, he will be entering the twilight stage of his career. Suddenly, the East could be wide open again. Ujiri knows it, and he wants to be ready for it.

But what about the present? The Raptors lost a couple of their veteran role players this summer in the re-signing of their core, including Patrick Patterson (an advanced analytics darling), and P.J. Tucker (a terrific perimeter defender). The team also traded away DeMarre Carroll—who was never able to return to his Atlanta peak—to Brooklyn in order to shed his contract, as well as Cory Joseph to Indiana, who snagged them sharpshooter C.J. Miles—swiftly signed to a three-year deal, no less—as a return.

These changes have left the Raps with a squad that, outside of the starting lineup, is quite young. None of their bench players have played more than three seasons in the NBA, and their total average age is about 23 years old. A number of them have yet to see significant minutes, with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and newcomer K.J. McDaniels being the exceptions.

The regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the keys to racking up wins in order to put yourself in a good position come playoff time are chemistry and consistency à la the Spurs. If the Raptors are to continue their regular season success of the last few years, then they’ll need their young guns to step into formerly veteran roles and rise to the challenge.

Thankfully, a few of them already seem prepared to break out and have impactful seasons. Both Powell and Wright gave the team some fantastic minutes last year, especially in the playoffs. Norm in particular was a standout, putting the league on notice with his athleticism and tough defensive play. He was part of the best lineup the Raptors had in the postseason (a +5.3), and the team’s offensive rating shot up from 101.7 to 107.9 when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t.

In the first round against the Bucks, Powell went for 55/91/92 per cent shooting, averaging 12.4 points per game and torching his opponents. He was a key cog in helping the Raptors win that series and fully earned Dwane Casey’s trust, which is not an easy thing to do for a young player.

Wright didn’t get quite as much time to shine with CoJo being the primary backup point guard, but when he was on the floor he scrapped defensively and showed in flashes that he was able to run the team. His length and effort have been the two most noticeable qualities when watching him so far, and his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is one that Casey must love.

Siakam is another high-energy guy, and good for a few minutes a game, although playing him for a substantial amount of time isn’t a great idea since he’s undersized and a below-average rebounder. Jakob Poeltl should get more run, and like Wright—though less frequently—he showed instances of strong play, both on the boards and around the basket.

Perhaps the two most interesting youngsters are the newcomers: Raptors 2017 draft pick OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. Anunoby has been touted as an excellent defender, a grinder, and he already has an NBA body that should allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from an ACL tear and therefore it’s possible he doesn’t even play this season. Still, this is the kind of player you get excited for as a fan and as a coach—he’ll likely be impactful right away, at least in one aspect.

As for McDaniels, he’s spent time bouncing around the league during his three seasons. He’s already played for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn, and has never had a chance to get comfortable. He’s another player with defensive potential—he’s got some pretty sweet block highlights—but has yet to find any sort of consistent shooting. If he can’t show Toronto something this season, he may be on the move again.

And finally, as we ask every year, is this the season when Bruno Caboclo breaks loose and starts going Brazilian Kevin Durant on the rest of the league? My answer: Unlikely. It may be hard to believe, but Bruno is still one of the youngest guys on the team at 21 years old. His time in the D-League—now the G League—can only be good for him, but his scoring dropped off significantly last season compared to the year prior, when he was putting up double-figure numbers almost every game. There’s still a lot of time left for Bruno to prove himself, and as such it’s tough to imagine that time being this season.

It’s difficult—though intriguing—trying to judge a group of players who don’t have an extensive NBA resume as of yet (I feel for you, Philly fans). Even if one has seen a player be productive in spurts, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ll be capable of handling a bigger role long-term without actually seeing it. For the Raptors in particular, Powell is probably the only young player that the team has a good grasp on.

So let the experiment begin. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

And remember: It’s all part of the three-year plan.

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