LeBron James' return puts him within reach of Michael Jordan

LeBron James return to Cleveland set the stage for the storybook ending that still caught many people by surprise. Reports were inconclusive prior to his announcement on July 11 in a Sports Illustrated exclusive that he would indeed return. Leaving Miami defied logic, something that James’ former teammate, Mario Chalmers, was quick to point out.

(The indomitable Chalmers even took his anger to Instagram in a not-so-cryptic shot at his former teammate.)

Chalmers may feel this way, but what he doesn’t realize is that LeBron put himself in a better position to become the greatest NBA player of all time. Moving back to Cleveland is a step in the direction of being able to surpass Michael Jordan.

Skip Bayless said that LeBron “no longer views winning as his ultimate goal and priority” and that the two-time champ eliminated himself from contention for basketball’s Mount Rushmore. He could not have misread LeBron's move any more.

What Skip and everybody else missed is that the genius that is LeBron James knows that winning championships alone is not enough. Even if he were to win six championships in Miami, he would need more. The label of “ring chaser” could not escape him. It might as well have been tattooed across his back overshadowing "The Chosen 1."

One simple change fixes that: returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bringing a championship to his hometown would be special. The taste of the ultimate sports glory in a city that ranks atop the list of the Pro Sports Hall of Shame would be historic. Cleveland hasn’t seen a championship since 1964. The city has gone a staggering 144 individual-team seasons without tasting that champagne. No other city has seen even 100 seasons without a championship. His forgiveness of Ohio and Dan Gilbert, his owner that brutally crucified him after his nationally-televised departure in 2010, adds yet another dimension to the story that could be read to put children to sleep on Christmas Eve.

Suddenly, LeBron’s next ring makes him more than just a three-time champion. His next championship is greater than basketball. That is exactly what he needs to catch Michael Jordan.

The Cavaliers were awful last year. Their 33-49 record last season only begins to tell the story of the franchise that has won 19, 21, 24, and those 33 games in the four years post-Decision. Mike Brown was exposed. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters feuded. 33 wins in the East is equivalent to at most two wins in the West. Cleveland was throwing up prayers with each brick that hit the rim that they would land consecutive number one picks (oh wait, that prayer was answered). So now, in even a pure basketball sense, LeBron has the ability to do something that nobody else has dared do. He’s running headfirst at a tornado trying to save everybody in it. He brought a perennial cellar-dweller to the Finals in 2007. Now he's aiming for the only echelon above that.

LeBron learned from his poor choice of words four years ago. In that SI article announcing his return, he said “it will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.” The Akron native is not promising a championship. His coach has not played or coached a single minute in the NBA. For LeBron to say that his patience will be tested is the understatement of the year.

With his chess move, LeBron is still moving his pawns, diminishing awareness of how grand his goals are.

Becoming a great player requires something more than just the tangible proof of winning. Shaquille O’Neal articulated after being traded from the Lakers that even the then-three-time champ Kobe Bryant was missing something. Shaq calls it "the little things” but then says it separates Kobe from the likes of Michael Jordan and other NBA greats (skip to 3:10):

You have to make the players around you better. Many superstars have passed through the league as supremely-gifted players. Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant are the latest iterations of offensive superstars but they have not made the jump to make the players around them better. Kobe never made that jump, but he was great enough to win five (albeit with solid supporting casts). Allen Iverson, another all-time great offensive player, never won one. Michael Jordan, in all of his six titles, never really made his teammates better. (But he did help the Jordanaires get paid, as Sam Smith discusses in his 1992 tell-all, The Jordan Rules.)

If LeBron can bring a championship to a team that has been so horrendous, he will prove in the loudest way possible that he is not only great himself, but he can make his teammates better


Less than eight hours after LeBron James announced his return, the Cavs sold out their season tickets. Less than two weeks later, the NBA.com store sold out of LeBron Cavs jerseys…and the man has not even made a decision as to what number he will wear.

Time reported that LeBron could bring the northeast Ohio $500 million next year. Let me say that again…LeBron could bring a city in the Midwest $500 million. In. One. Year. I’m no economist, but I think we can agree that’s not normal for one human being to do.

The icing on the cake was making everybody in the media look like middle-school students prank-texting their friends. LeBron's one-man paparazzi, Brian Windhorst, and ESPN’s Man-With-The-Sources, Chris Broussard, were kept in the absolute dark on this one. In an era where journalists tweet draft picks before they even happen, nobody found out where the best player in the NBA would land until LeBron’s co-written letter with Lee Jenkins hit the internet air waves. Chris Broussard even went so far as to confirm it after everybody already knew:

The media circus surrounding LeBron’s decision has settled, so maybe that will hurt this column’s visibility (so thank you to the few people who have read this far). Yes, one more championship will not be enough to crown the King as the NBA’s GOAT. But maybe two more Finals MVPs and one or two more league MVPs with maybe a Defensive Player of the Year Award sprinkled in there? The numbers will be near Michael Jordan if that can happen.

That top spot in NBA lore requires something more than just pure basketball achievements. Bill Russell is no longer the NBA’s greatest player of all time despite his 11 championships. Michael Jordan proved that rings are only part of the equation in calculating greatness. 

LeBron James return to Cleveland could prove that case once again.