It was a sight more glittering than the gold ball.
It spoke much louder than the droning commissioner.
The true meaning of the Lakers’ 17th NBA championship could be found moments before the trophy ceremony Sunday night, away from the microphones, absent of the pomp.
As Lakers owner Jeanie Buss was awaiting the presentation from commissioner Adam Silver, she was approached by LeBron James, and they hugged. And hugged. And hugged.
For the longest time, they clutched each other in a whispered celebration symbolizing the entirety of the history that had just been made, two new truths encapsulated in that embrace.
With the title, Buss’ Lakers became the greatest basketball franchise ever.
With the title, James became the greatest basketball player ever.
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It was GOAT embracing GOAT, best connecting with best, a portrait of two pinnacles, a hug for the ages.
“It was just a special moment and I know how special it was for her,” James said. “It was just in the words of, ‘I’m proud to be a Laker.’”
It was a connection of two pieces of newly minted NBA history, and while fans of the Boston Celtics and Michael Jordan will reasonably argue both assertions, they’re not going to win that debate, at least not today. There is no disputing that the Lakers and James triumphed in a season unmatched for its continual wave of adversities, a season that, yes, deserves an asterisk — because it was so damn hard.
As for the arguments, they both deserve periods.
The Lakers are the greatest, period.
LeBron James is the greatest, period.
Start with the Lakers, whose 17 titles matches the Boston Celtics, yet whose entire resume overpowers the Celtics like purple overpowers green.
The Lakers have a .595 franchise regular-season winning percentage, four points better than Boston. The Lakers also have the league’s most postseason wins, 450, and best postseason winning percentage, .601.
While Celtics fans will always scoff that five of the Lakers titles are ancient history, won by Minneapolis between 1949 and 1954, the Celtics’ run is equally compromised. Nine of the Celtics’ championships were won between 1957 and 1966, a period in which the league had just eight or nine teams. The Los Angeles Lakers never won a title against fewer than 17 teams.
Yes, the Celtics have won nine of the 12 Finals matchups between the teams. But this is about seasons, not series, and the Lakers have dominated the modern seasons.
In the past 40 years, the Lakers have won 11 championships. During the same span, the Celtics have won four.
The Lakers’ greatness is about more than statistics, it’s about culture. Behind the vision of longtime owner Jerry Buss, the Lakers changed the image of the league, transforming the games into the entertainment events that have sent the NBA’s popularity soaring.
The Lakers created basketball as theatre with Showtime. They popularized dance teams with the Laker Girls. They generated the role of the celebrity fan with Jack Nicholson. Thanks to legendary announcer Chick Hearn, they even concocted the term “slam dunk.”
What did the Celtics ever invent? Parquet?
The Lakers have also employed the league’s most celebrated superstars. The list of greatest Lakers is so deep that the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ranks only third. The man whose image is the NBA logo, Jerry West, isn’t even in the top three. The beginning of the list is so familiar, each spot only requires one name.
Magic. Kobe. Kareem. Logo. Shaq. Big-Game James. Elgin. Wilt. Chick. And now you can add LeBron.
The list of great Boston Celtics is top heavy with the incomparable Bill Russell and Larry Bird, but it lacks the Lakers starry depth, the all-time roster filled with solid players such as Bob Cousy, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens.
The Lakers are such an attractive brand that they’ve been able to lure two of the top free agent signings in NBA history in O’Neal and James. The best free-agent signing in Celtics history is … Al Horford? Kemba Walker?
“This is a historic franchise and to be part of this is something that I’ll be able to talk about and my grandkids and kids will be able to talk about, their pawpaw played for the Los Angeles Lakers,” James said after Sunday night‘s title clincher. “It’s like playing for the Yankees .…”
It’s certainly not like playing for the Celtics, who equal the Lakers in those 17 titles but little else.
If James sounded giddy, maybe it’s because he knew this latest crown also vaulted him ahead of Michael Jordan for the title of greatest player ever.
“I want my damn respect,” he said Sunday night, and, as unseemly as that proclamation sounded in the moment, he deserves that respect.
At this point, for every main argument for Jordan as the GOAT, there is a clear counterattack for James.
Yes, Jordan won six championships and James has won four. But Jordan did it all in one place, with one system and one coach. James is the first player in history to lead three different teams to a title while winning an NBA Finals MVP award in each.
Yes, Jordan was unbeaten in the Finals and James is 4-6. But Jordan basically took off two seasons to play baseball in the middle of his career — who knows what the break did for him? — while James has plowed straight through for 17 seasons and played in 81 more postseason games than Jordan.
James has scored more points than Jordan. He has more rebounds than Jordan. He has more assists than Jordan.
Jordan recaptured the nation’s imagination this summer with the documentary series “The Last Dance,” which was essentially a 10-part advertisement over which he had complete control. Jordan reportedly approved its production several years ago as a way of regaining attention from the surging James. And in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, it worked, quarantined fans growing misty-eyed over the memories and vowing never to question Jordan’s GOAT status again.
Five months later, however, James has regained his grip on the narrative after leading the Lakers to a championship amid a new coach, new teammates, the death of Kobe Bryant, social injustice unrest, a league pandemic lockdown and more than three months isolated in a bubble.
From start to finish, this season might be James’ greatest accomplishment — even greater than when he brought a title home to Cleveland in 2016 — because of the consistent leadership that this yearlong odyssey required.
“He’s the greatest basketball player the universe has ever seen,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said Sunday night, “and if you think you know, you don’t know, OK, until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group. … He was terrific the entire season leading us, and I can’t say enough about him.”
He already said it all. The Finals said it all. The 2019-20 season said it all, about all of them.
The Lakers are the greatest basketball franchise ever.
LeBron James is the greatest basketball player ever.
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