The GOAT Conversation: LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan
The most coveted prize that can be awarded to an athlete in any sport is the title of “Greatest of All Time”. There will always be debate as to who is the best player of all time in any given sport. There is no player who is more universally recognized as the “Greatest of All Time” than Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan was the face of the NBA from 1994 to 2003, and during that stretch, he won 6 titles, was the finals MVP 6 times, regular season MVP 5 times, scoring champion 10 times, and was a 14-time all star.
People who got to see Michael Jordan live would often describe his style of play as being unfair, and how the game just looked too easy for him. He could score at will, averaging 30.1 ppg throughout his entire NBA career, and in the playoffs averaged 33.4. He also was not one dimensional like many stars are in today’s NBA. He was named to the all-defensive team 9 times.
I am not old enough to remember watching Michael Jordan play live, but I have gotten to watch legends like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who are the two players most commonly compared to Michael Jordan. As I said above, people who watched Jordan play have described him as one of the most dominant players they have ever seen, and that is how I feel when I watch LeBron James. I think that LeBron James is better than Kobe Bryant, James might not have as many titles, but he has been to the NBA Finals seven straight times, which I think is almost as impressive as winning 5 titles. Another reason I give LeBron an edge over Kobe is because LeBron never played with a player as dominant as Shaq in his prime. I think Kobe was a better pure scorer than LeBron, but LeBron has a much more well-rounded game.
When I watch LeBron James play, especially against my teams, I am always infuriated by how easy he can score and keep his team in the game. LeBron can bully his way to the hoop at any time, and he can stuff a stat sheet better than anyone who has ever played in the NBA. LeBron has also sustained his greatness for the whole time he has been in the league, with the exception of a few games or the 2011 NBA Finals. LeBron has been in the league for 14 seasons, which is the one fewer than Michael Jordan played in his entire career, and what is the most incredible thing about James is that he has never had a major injury that required him to miss more than 20 games.
Now, there are several arguments against LeBron James as the greatest player of all time, including his 4 losses in the NBA finals, and most importantly the 2011 NBA Finals. I think that the argument against LeBron because of his disastrous 2011 Finals is fair. For those who don’t remember, LeBron only scored 17.8 points per game in his first NBA Finals appearance for the Heat, and his team lost in six games to the Dallas Mavericks. Other than the 2011 NBA Finals though, I do not think that you can hold the losses over LeBron’s head. LeBron lost to the Spurs in ‘07 after he carried a team full of average players through the Eastern Conference Finals, and his team was clearly overmatched. In 2014 he ran into the Spurs as they were playing their best basketball all season, and his Heat team had gotten old fast. He then proceeded to lose two against the Golden State Warriors, who own the highest winning percentage over a three-year period in NBA history. In the first finals against the warriors, he was playing without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and he still managed to steal two games against Golden State. In 2017, there was no one who was going to stand in the Warrior's’ way of bringing home a title, as they went 16-1 during the playoffs.
As much as it pains me to say it, LeBron James’ performance in the 2016 NBA finals was the most dominant basketball I have ever seen an individual play in my entire life. Even though it was against my team, it was an incredible, all-time great performance. Every legend has his defining moment, and Michael Jordan had many, from the flu-game to the shrug, and for LeBron, it was the 2016 Finals.
I think that LeBron James and Michael Jordan cannot be directly compared because they both played the game very differently. Michael was more of a pure scorer, while LeBron was more of a well-rounded player. I think that the closest thing to seeing a second coming of Jordan was Kobe Bryant, but LeBron is far more like Magic Johnson than he is Michael Jordan. The biggest issue I have with the comparisons between LeBron and Michael Jordan is the total number of rings each player has being used as the primary reason against LeBron’s greatness. Jordan has six rings, LeBron has three, Kobe has five, and Shaq has four, but if you want to use the number of titles as the primary reference point for a player's’ greatness, than the GOAT is Bill Russell. I think it is universally understood that Jordan was better than Russell, but the point is that the number of rings a player has is a matter of circumstance more so than it is an argument for greatness.
In my mind, LeBron James is the second greatest player of all time, with Jordan at the number one spot. My ranking is not based primarily on stats or titles though, it is based more on the impact the player had on the game. During MJ’s run, kids wanted to “be like Mike” and people today still pay hundreds of dollars for his shoes, LeBron has never had anything like that. His impact is felt primarily in the city he plays in. The only reason that Cleveland is as big as it is right now is because of LeBron James the attention that he brings to the city and the franchise. LeBron’s shoes will never outsell Michael Jordans’, and that is because of the legend and mystique that surrounds the legacy of Michael Jordan. Jordan’s impact was felt all across the globe, where LeBron’s impact just isn’t, and that isn't necessarily LeBron’s fault. LeBron is a freak of nature, a 6’8” freight train that has a playstyle which is nearly impossible to replicate. LeBron is so explosive and is able to bully his way to the hoop for powerful dunks, and that is incredibly hard to do. Players like Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry have playstyles that people can attempt to replicate, because they are based on agility and the ability to shoot. I think that the story of basketball cannot be told without LeBron James, but the impact he has on that story will not be as large as a player like Michael Jordan or Stephen Curry.
On a side note though, 10 years down the road, when Stephen Curry has six or seven titles, he will be universally recognized as the greatest player of all time.