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Is LeBron James Still Chasing Michael Jordan’s Ghost?

LeBron James says he became “the greatest player of all time” when his Cavaliers upset the Warriors in the 2016 Finals. Will that change how we look back on his decision to join the Lakers?

A few weeks after upsetting the 73–9 Warriors in the 2016 Finals, here’s what LeBron James said his biggest motivation was when asked by a prospect at the Nike Skills Academy, as witnessed by then-SI writer Lee Jenkins: “My motivation,” James said, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”

Fast forward to 2018, here’s what James said about that Finals series, and what it meant for his career (via a clip from his ESPN+ series): “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time.”

So, which one is it? Is James the guy who told a young player his driving force in basketball is to surpass Michael Jordan? Or is he the guy who said, after reflecting in the moments after his epic championship victory, he knew he had become the greatest player of all time?

It doesn’t really matter whether or not you or I think LeBron James is the GOAT. James himself waxes and wanes from the conversation—at times freely discussing like he did at the Nike camp or in his documentary, other times preferring more attention be paid to his off-court pursuits. What’s most interesting to me when comparing these LeBron comments is trying to figure out if he’s content or not.

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First, an appreciation. LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was a junior in high school, and he was boldly proclaimed “The Chosen One.” He has completely surpassed the hype we (and everyone else) placed on him as a teenager. The only reason the discourse around James reaches such absurd levels is because he commands that much attention. He could’ve faded into a solid-but-not-spectacular NBA career, like many highly hyped prep stars do, and the TV debate shows (and hot takey magazine writers) would have found someone else to bloviate about. Instead, James has put together a career that’s Hall-of-Fame worthy multiple times over. He basically could have retired after his first Clevelnd stint and still been one of the NBA’s all-time greats. LeBron has earned every comparison to Michael Jordan, and it’s 100% to his credit that the comparison is even a possibility. But is he now satisfied?

The 2016 LeBron sounded hungry. He was chasing. He was starting his workouts at 6 a.m., beginning earlier in the summer in the aftermath of Kevin Durant joining Golden State. 2018-2019 LeBron sounds more confident, more willing to reflect, and more secure in his place in the game’s hierarchy. This isn’t to say James is all of a sudden relaxing. I bet those workouts still start earlier than 95% of the NBA. I’m sure we’ll see more chasedown blocks once the playoffs start. The question now isn’t if LeBron is still giving his all to the game, but what his biggest motivation is if he feels he’s already caught the ghost.

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LeBron’s Lakers tenure is in many ways shaping up to be the most fascinating experiment of his career. How will he fare now that he’s theoretically nearing the end of his prime? Will the game’s biggest stars, now of a different generation, still want to team up with James? The biggest issue I saw with James’s decision to sign with L.A. is that it didn’t come with the same starpower as his last two decisions. There were no All-Stars waiting in the wings or coming along for the ride. Instead, LeBron made what felt like a not-100%-basketball-related decision—which is totally, perfectly cool!—when it seemed like other teams could give him a better chance at a championship. Especially with the Warriors still operating with juggernaut-level talent.

James is certainly not in the stage of his career to be ring chasing on any level. But for someone chasing a ghost, joining a team of prospects glued together with veteran mercenaries looked like a step backward. If LeBron doesn’t feel like he needs more titles to be considered better than Jordan, maybe he doesn’t feel the title-or-bust pressure he’s lived under for the last eight years—his recent Anthony Davis recruitment notwithstanding.

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Cynics, realists, Steph Curry fans, and all kinds of other people will read LeBron’s GOAT declaration as goal-post moving. If he says he’s the GOAT, he’s already creating excuses for losing. Maybe that’s true to an extent. James is certainly aware of what he’s saying in front of cameras and writers alike. I’m more interested in the shift in perspective, and if it means LeBron can finally be content with his accomplishments as opposed to having to amass more of them every second of every day.

For outsiders, LeBron could believe he’s the best or win 10 more titles, and it wouldn’t change many of their opinions, both good and bad. But how LeBron approaches the final quarter(? Third? S---, half?) of his career should ultimately reveal what is truly motivating him. If he’s sitting shotgun next to Magic Johnson on the driveway of 2019’s best free agent, then it’s probably fair to assume James is still looking for more stones for his Infinity Gauntlet. If a Hollywood trade mag announces two more Space Jam sequels that are going to be filmed back-to-back, it may be a hint LeBron wouldn’t mind some more free time.

James has always had the right to approach his career the way he best sees fit. Without any championships or any outside validation, he still would have had a remarkable impact both on and off the court. For seemingly the first time now, at least publicly, LeBron appears willing to admit his approach is not about climbing, it’s about enjoying the view from the top. If that really is the case—and again, Anthony Davis is out there—I’m interested to see how that affects James’s decisions moving forward. Selfishly, I never want James to stop trying to reach new heights. But that gets harder to do when you know you’re at the top.