Michael Jordan's fourth championship was by far his most unlikely. While there were a number of external reasons for that, ranging from an overhauled roster to a new group of rising competitors, the real culprit was circumstance. Jordan retired after his third championship. The world didn't know what kind of player he'd be upon a return. It didn't know when he would return. It didn't even know if he would return. The NBA in 1993 was faced with the sobering possibility that it had seen the last of Michael Jordan as the world's greatest basketball player.
The story has a happy ending. A brief tryst with baseball reinvigorated his competitive spirit and love for basketball. Three more trophies fill the cases at the United Center. Jordan's place in NBA history was confirmed. He cemented his status as the greatest basketball player of all time.
And now, decades later, a saddening symmetry is developing between Jordan's quest for that elusive fourth ring and that of the greatest challenger to his throne. LeBron James didn't surrender his immediate chance at No. 4 as Jordan did, but circumstance might take it from him all the same. With his Los Angeles Lakers sitting at 49-14 and coming off of back-to-back wins against chief championship-rivals in the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA suspended its season amidst a coronavirus crisis far bigger than any sport.
There is no telling what kind of basketball we might see if the NBA returns. There is no telling when the NBA could return, either. There's not even a guarantee that it returns at all in time for a 2020 champion to be crowned. The circumstances couldn't be more different, but just as Jordan's legacy once hung precariously on a basketball-less thread, so, too, does James' now. And purely in basketball terms, the challenge ahead of him appears substantially more difficult.
Putting aside the enormous real-world implications of COVID-19 and how they could drastically change the way basketball is played and consumed in the coming years, the ticking clock that has quietly scored James' past few seasons has never been louder. At 35 years old, James was already the NBA's oldest All-Star. LeBron has played more total minutes than Jordan did in his entire career. He suffered the first major injury of his career only 15 months ago.