Darvin Ham has a unique vantage point on the LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan GOAT debate

Darvin Ham’s first glimpse of LeBron James’ greatness was during the 2004 playoffs.

Throughout that postseason, William Wesley, aka “World Wide Wes,” and a 19-year-old James made several trips to Detroit to visit the Pistons during their championship run.

Wesley, who is famously well-connected, was close with Rip Hamilton and believed it would be a formative experience for James to get a taste of the playoff environment — the crowds, the intensity, the stakes — since the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t make it during his rookie season.

After each round, the Pistons would have a celebratory dinner, and Wesley and James would accompany them, schmoozing with Hamilton and the rest of the team. James broke bread with Pistons coach Larry Brown, who would coach him a few months later in the 2004 Summer Olympics. More than anything, though, he studied the Pistons’ secrets to success. What did real leadership look like? How did off-court camaraderie lead to on-court domination? How does a competent organization function?

“He was just soaking up the vibe of winning, and what the type of team we were,” said Darvin Ham, who played on that Pistons team and now, of course, coaches James for the Lakers. “We were close-knit. I think it allowed him to see what winning looks like in the NBA early in his career.”

Ham and James shared a couple of short conversations, with the teenager’s humility shining through. Here James was — the No. 1 overall pick, the Rookie of the Year, already one of the league’s biggest stars, a teenager on top of the world — spending his offseason trying to learn from his elders. He could’ve been partying, vacationing or just being a typical 19-year-old. But instead, he absorbed all he could from the players who were where he wanted to be.

“That shows the way he’s wired,” Ham said. “He’s wired to try to figure out any and every way he can to be a winner.”

LeBron James and Rip Hamilton before a game in 2004. (David Liam Kyle / NBAE via Getty Images)

Nineteen years later, James used those lessons from the Detroit suppers — as well as his unprecedented combination of size, speed, athleticism, skill, work ethic and intelligence — to become one of the game’s greatest players.

For many, the two greatest players ever are James and Michael Jordan, in some order. To some, James’ case is growing with his passing of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, as it’s a sign of his historic longevity, discipline and endurance.

When asked about the GOAT debate, Ham admits he doesn’t like it. Since basketball is a team sport, he thinks the greatest teams should be debated, but not the greatest players.

He doesn’t mind players within the same era, though. And thus, it’s clear to him that James is the best player of his generation.

“He’s definitely the GOAT of this era,” Ham said. “That’s for damn sure.”

Ham is uniquely qualified to weigh in on the Jordan vs. James comparison. He not only played against both of them but also defended them both. He coached against James for over a decade — losing twice to his Cavaliers in the playoffs — before coaching him this season.

He notes that James and Jordan share a similar mental makeup, but believes it’s difficult to compare the two legends given they played in different eras, played different positions and had different playing styles.

Jordan played in the ’80s and ’90s (and a little bit of the 2000s). James played in the 2000s and 2010s (and who knows how long in the 2020s). Jordan was a shooting guard, through and through. James is a hybrid point guard-small forward who morphed into a power forward over the final third of his career. Jordan was a shoot-first, two-way assassin who bent the game to his will. James is a pass-first, physically gifted Swiss Army knife who always prioritized the best shot, even if it meant a teammate taking it.

“I think it’s, obviously, their passion and love for the game, their competitiveness and the way they take care of their body,” Ham said of the comparison. “When you get into the style of play and all of that, obviously, it’s two different eras. They’re two totally different types of players.”

One of the most common arguments against James is his 4-6 NBA Finals record. Jordan, in comparison, is 6-0 in the finals. But Ham says James’ eight straight NBA Finals appearances from 2011 through 2018 are an underappreciated achievement that demonstrates his rare adaptability to win at such a high level with different teammates and coaches and situations (the Heat from 2011-14 and the Cavaliers from 2015-18).

Michael Jordan celebrates winning his sixth NBA title in 1998. (Fernando Medina/ NBAE/ Getty Images)

“Jordan has six rings,” Ham said. “That’s great. He was the dominant figure in that era. But, man, for someone to go to the finals every year for eight years, that’s incredible. Because you factor in the different players that are being siphoned through those teams and for him to constantly have that leadership, constantly have that make-the-right-play mentality and his style of play. …

“It’s hard. It’s hard, man. There’s no clear-cut, ‘OK, yeah, he’s the GOAT.’ Nah. They say that about Mike and I think it’s a lot because Mike was a trailblazer for a lot of what we see now, in terms of branding and all that other stuff. But there’s a strong argument for (James).”

That argument will now feature the all-time scoring mark, an achievement that James recently likened to the home-run record in Major League Baseball. It might be the most impressive record in NBA history.

James has remained a top-10 player for virtually all of his career, which has never happened before — even with Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar. They both have more championships, MVPs and NBA Finals MVPs — a strong argument in their favor — but James figured out a way to maintain his greatness longer than either of them could.

“It’s everything, man,” Ham said. “It’s durability, and not just being available, but being available at an extremely high level. I can’t think of a time when he wasn’t considered one of the top five players in the league. I mean, even his rookie year. It’s amazing, man, the 20-year run he’s had. I think it means everything. That was a record no one thought could possibly be broken. And here we are. So I think it puts him right up there.”

LeBron James celebrates winning his fourth NBA championship in 2020. (Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)

Ham, who also played against and coached Kobe Bryant from 2011-13, claims that James is more competitive than he’s often described. He’s seen firsthand James’ impassioned orders and directions in the locker room, at practices and in the huddle at games.

He’s more even-keeled than Jordan and Bryant, which gives him a less intimidating presence. But as James has consistently shown in the biggest moments of his career, since his disappointing 2011 NBA Finals performance, his killer instinct is just as strong as his peers’.

“He’s extremely competitive,” Ham said. “When you see a guy like that sitting in your huddle, it gives you all the f—ing confidence in the world. You’re like, ‘OK, we got a chance.’ No matter what the deficit is, if there even is one in the game, he just gives you the ultimate confidence.”

When tracking the evaluation of James’ offensive game, the starting point is his notable improvement as a 3-point shooter (he shot 29.0 percent as a rookie but has made 35-plus percent in four of the past six seasons) and post player throughout his career, which basically made him unguardable during his second Cleveland stint. He was slightly past his physical prime but still at the sweet spot of elite experience and apex athleticism.

Ham said there isn’t a particular move or shot or skill that propelled James into a different stratosphere offensively. To Ham, the biggest difference with James’ attack has been the wisdom he’s accumulated through the years, as James has seen every type of defensive coverage and defender. With his programmatic mind, James is able to read and react at a genius level.

“Just savvier,” Ham said. “Like, he sees the game three, four steps ahead of where everybody else is seeing it. I think the game has really slowed down for him. … It usually happens with the greats, where he knows how to be more efficient. He knows what to do, how to get to his spots. He knows how to create a foul. And whether they call it or not is a different story. That’s been the case this season. But just his evolution mentally, his mental focus, and his mental capabilities, as well as his physical.”

(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

The Lakers’ struggles (13th in the West at 25-29) are the backdrop to James’ pursuit of the scoring record. James has often had to answer questions about breaking milestones and pursuing the record while disgruntled after losses. It’s soured his season and the experience, to some extent.

But with Anthony Davis back and healthy, James playing at an All-NBA level, Austin Reaves returning, and the Lakers optimistic they can upgrade their roster ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline, James’ goal of making the playoffs appears more attainable than it once did.

“I think he’s humbled by (the scoring record), but I think his focus is to get us in the postseason,” Ham said. “I think he’s really in the moment of what we have to do as a team to get ourselves together and play more consistent and more impactful basketball as we get to the home run stretch of the season. … He wants to get to the postseason this year. I’m right along with him.”

A couple of weeks after his conversation with The Athletic, in New York, Ham thought more about it — it’s been inescapable, with Ham being asked about it before and after each game — and changed his stance, taking a stand on the GOAT debate.

He’s seen enough and has an answer: James.

“I think (passing Kareem) puts him at the top of the list,” Ham said of the achievement. “Just his durability, his longevity, what he’s done, what he’s meant to the league on and off the court. He’s at the top of the list. I don’t mind at all calling him the greatest.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; top photo of LeBron James and Michael Jordan: Jared C. Tilton, Scott Cunningham / Getty Images) 

More LeBron James coverage from The Athletic

Joe Vardon: LeBron James had every intention of breaking the NBA scoring record against the Thunder. So he did

What the sports world says about LeBron James, NBA’s new scoring leader: ‘An iconic figure’

John Hollinger: LeBron James’ scoring record won’t be unbreakable. But it’ll be pretty close

David Aldridge: As LeBron James tops the NBA’s scoring mountain, don’t forget Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s excellence

Eric Nehm: Thunder’s Kenrich Williams is OK with being a future LeBron James trivia answer

Joe Vardon: Up close with LeBron James and the Lakers as he prepares to pass Kareem to become NBA’s scoring king

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