Yes, you bet we’re going to wade into the Twitter-infested waters of Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James for the official title of best basketball player of all-time. Absolutely. Sharpen your social media knives. Prepare your snark weapons. But first, we must set some ground rules.
Ground rule No. 1: All of the people who think any of the following players are getting short shrift in this argument …
… your protest has been noted and your strenuous objections have been overruled.
Ground rule No. 2: We must acknowledge from the start that there is no easy statistical answer to the question of MJ vs. LeBron. People like to wield stats like swords, but when it comes to Jordan-James statistics, they duel back and forth, like Inigo and the Man in Black. Jordan scores more. James rebounds and passes better. They shoot about the same, block shots about the same and are both marvelous defenders. Jordan played about 100 more regular season games than James so far and the advanced numbers look like so:
Value Over Replacement Player:
Player Efficiency Rating
Jordan: 27.9 (first all time)
James: 27.7 (second all-time)
Let’s just say it again: There’s nothing to separate them in the statistics. It is like trying to make the statistical argument on why blue is a better color than red.
Ground rule No. 3: Their postseason accomplishments are equally mesmerizing.
Michael Jordan led his Bulls to six NBA Finals, and of course they won all six.
LeBron James, so far, has led Cleveland and Miami to seven NBA Finals — including the last six in a row. His teams have won three of them.
Now, people will try to use this stuff to support one or the other, and it’s silly. The Jordan people will often use postseason success as the tiebreaker because Jordan’s Bulls won every time they reached the Finals, while James’ teams have not even won half of their Finals appearances. It’s a dishonest argument. Jordan had one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, Scottie Pippen, on all six teams. He also had Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman on two of them and likely Hall of Famer Toni Kukoc on three of them. He was coached by Phil Jackson for all six. Nobody can legitimately claim that James had anything close to that cast.
Put it this way: When Jordan left to play baseball, the Bulls won 55 games and reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Knicks.
When LeBron James left the Cavaliers, they went 19-63.
When James left Miami, the Heat went 37-45.
Conversely, though, LeBron people would like to make the counter-argument that Jordan could NEVER have taken those Cleveland and Miami teams to seven Finals, and that’s a dishonest argument, too. We have no idea what Michael Jordan would have done with those teams. The man had an icy will. He came into basketball at a time of dynasties, and he broke through and built his own. Don’t underestimate that man.
Ground rule No. 4: Last one — it doesn’t matter if LeBron James can beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. That’s a cute little aside, thinking about James just backing Jordan down to the basket and overwhelming him in a make-it-take-it run or thinking about Jordan in a one-on-one game just racing by LeBron with the fastest first step in league history and then dunking at the rim. Fun to think about.
That’s not the kind of basketball we’re talking about here.
The question before the court is a simple one: If you were starting a basketball team that was playing the Devil’s All-Star team for your very soul, and you had the first pick of every player in the history of the NBA, would you take Michael or would you take LeBron?
* * *
To begin with: Both sides — the MJ fans and the LeBron fans — feel pretty sure that their man is supreme. But I suspect Jordan fans believe it more. Many Jordan fans (and as someone who grew up at the altar of Michael Jordan I know this) SEETHE over the very notion that James could be the legend’s equal.
See, there are athletes that come along who transcend our previous notions of excellence. Think Willie Mays. Think Jim Brown. Think Babe Ruth. Think Bobby Orr. Think Ben Hogan. Think Sandy Koufax. Think Roger Federer. You can think of your favorites.
These athletes and others like them so surprise and intoxicate us that we cannot imagine ever seeing anyone better. And even while those athletes fade, the intoxication grows. Most people still rank Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player ever, even though he played a very different game in a very different time and the only thing that’s left of him are a few grainy black and white movies and unreal statistics that mean whatever we want them to mean.
Superior athletes position us in time and place. They make us young again. How could anyone ever seem as great to me as the running back Earl Campbell was? I was just a kid then, so new to the world, and every tackle he broke, every time he pulled away from the grasp of a defender (often losing his jersey in the process), every time he plowed over someone standing up too tall, it was like a little miracle to me. He blew up my mind over and over. Now that I close in on 50 years old, will anyone ever astonish me the way Campbell did? Probably not. No athlete can really compete with my imagination.
The movie “Bad Teacher” was not especially good or memorable. But there was one magnificent exchange between a student named Shawn and the character player by Jason Segel:
Segel: “You’re out of your mind. There is no way that LeBron will ever be Jordan. Nobody will ever be Jordan, OK?”
Shawn: “OK, LeBron James (is) a better rebound AND passer.”
Segel: “Will you let me finish? Can you let me finish? Call me when LeBron has six championships.”
Kid: “Is that your only argument?”
Segel: “IT’S THE ONLY ARGUMENT I NEED SHAWN!”
I love that so much — it’s the truest sports argument I’ve ever seen in the movies — because that flustered, red-faced, sputtering, “It’s the only argument I need, Shawn!” bit of fury is so true to life. I mentioned above that postseason is off-limits for our discussion, but Segel is not even trying to argue that Jordan is a better basketball player. He’s not arguing that because EVEN HAVING THAT ARGUMENT is an insult. Segel, like Colonel Jessup of “A Few Good Men,” has neither the time nor the inclination to explain the unsurpassable greatness of Michael Jordan to a young kid who never even saw him play.
Our generation comes from a time when emotion and passion drove arguments.
That, I think, is the Jordan argument at its core.
* * *
My pal Michael Schur, executive producer of “Parks and Recreation” and the upcoming show “The Good Place,” has been texting me lately about LeBron and Jordan (this, I should say, was after we inexplicably drafted Taylor Swift songs on the PosCast).
Here is the latest stream of texts:
“LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan.”
“LeBron and Michael have the same number of titles at age 31. LeBron has also been to way more finals. LeBron has also played on worse teams with worse coaches. LeBron also plays every position including center and defense incredibly well at all of them. LeBron also can’t hand check on defense. LeBron is taller and stronger and more powerful but also a better three-pointer shooter than Jordan. What’s the argument?”
“He’s better than Jordan and the sooner everyone else realizes it the faster we will advance as a society.”
Well, there’s a lot there, some of it persuasive, some of it questionable (LeBron is probably not a better 3-point shooter than Michael; you can play with the numbers and the video, but prime Jordan can be shown to be a demonstrably better outside shooter than James).
But here’s the larger point: The LeBron argument tends to be built more on LeBron James being a more advanced version of Michael Jordan. James is bigger. James is stronger. James is a more versatile defender. James can beat you more ways. It’s an argument of logical progression.
And this, too, speaks of the time when we live, a time of constant hardware and software updates, a time where this year’s computer has more features than last year’s computer and so it must be better, a time where people find themselves reluctant to buy stuff because the next version is just around the corner and the next version will undoubtedly be superior.
So it seems to me that the argument for many LeBron fans comes down to this: Michael Jordan was great for his time. But LeBron James is the newest iPhone.
* * *
And so am I just going to bail on the question? It’s probably obvious to you by now that my theory is that the James vs. Jordan argument says more about us than it does about them. Jordan and James are, in my view, the two greatest basketball players in NBA history, and they went about their greatness in such different ways that choosing between them is a bit like choosing between your favorite book and your favorite song.
But … I’m not going to bail. I’m going to give you an answer to mock on the social network of your choice.
To me, the biggest difference between LeBron James and Michael Jordan is their raison d’etat — the most important reason for their brilliance.
In my view:
Michael Jordan was a stone-cold killer on the basketball court.
LeBron James’ greatness, meanwhile, comes from his big basketball heart.
That’s a difference. Jordan, I think, wanted to win so badly he would go to whatever place he had to in order to get it done. There are countless examples of this. Jordan would use whatever slight — real or imagined — whatever taunt, whatever light or dark force he could find to beat you. He was the most competitive son of a gun we’ve ever seen on any field or court. It didn’t matter if it was the Lakers or Looney Tunes villains from outer space, he was going to win. Period.
Remember: Jordan’s first moment on the big stage was hitting the jump shot to win North Carolina and Dean Smith a national title. And his last moment — at least on the big stage — was hitting that final shot against the Utah Jazz, the one that cemented the idea that no one could ever beat Michael Jordan. If you needed someone to take the final shot in that basketball game for your soul, it would be Jordan and there’s no second place.
LeBron, incidentally, might not even be on that list. He could hit game-winning shots and has done so, but it is only because that was what was necessary. See, LeBron is a quantifiably different player from Jordan. It amused me that some people, in the aftermath of Cleveland’s extraordinary triumph over Golden State, felt it necessary to make the point that it was Kyrie Irving and not James who hit the game-winning shot. They seemed to be making the point as a knock — Jordan would NEVER have just stepped to the side and let Irving have the stage — which just proves that they have never understood at all what LeBron James is about.
See James’ greatness is about … generosity. He’s an extraordinarily big-hearted basketball player. Sure, he knows he’s the star because he has to be the star. He takes on that responsibility (though sometimes reluctantly). But, more, he wants to be part of great teams. That was what drove him as a young high school player in Akron. That was what frustrated him the first time in Cleveland and pushed him to help build the Super Friends in Miami. That has been the driving focus of his time in Cleveland. He wants — he NEEDS — to be part of winning families.
Is it any wonder he watches The Godfather before games? Never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking.
See, James has not taken seven mostly so-so teams to the NBA Finals just because of his own greatness. It is also because he lifts up his teammates, he challenges them, he inspires them, he bullies them, he celebrates them, he sets them up to look good. Nobody — and I mean nobody, including Irving himself — probably got more joy out of that final shot than James did. Irving hitting that shot was EXACTLY what LeBron James wanted the Cleveland Cavaliers to be about. I bet it meant more to him than if he had hit the shot himself.
Oh, before you get angry, yes, Jordan animated his teammates, too. He drove them and inspired them and made them better — who can forget him anticipating the double-team against Utah in the 1997 Finals and passing the ball off to a wide-open Steve Kerr (“You better be ready,” Jordan told Kerr). But it was different. Jordan understood that the game was about him. He was James Brown. They were the band.
Jordan was singular. James is plural.
And so, if given the choice, I would take LeBron James with the first pick. I fully appreciate that, in my play-for-my-soul scenario, the Devil would promptly take Michael Jordan, and there is nothing scarier in the history of American sports than having Michael Jordan trying to beat you. But it’s an approach-approach conflict anyway, a choice between two desirable alternatives. I don’t really think there’s a right or wrong answer.
But in the end, I guess, I would bet on James’ power to build a team that can beat anybody.
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Michael Jordan was and still remains the greatest basketball player in the history of the game.
Trying to suggest LeBron James is the best basketball player of all-time right now is undoubtedly premature. Nearly every unit of measurement favors Jordan and when we’re discussing the world’s greatest, championships define legacy. Jordan has six rings. LeBron has two. Debate over.
However, if we’re suggesting LeBron can eventually surpass His Airness, as his biased Cleveland Cavaliers teammates did earlier in these NBA playoffs, that’s not crazy. In fact, it’s actually quite possible.
Here’s a hypothetical look at how and why LeBron will indeed become the greatest player ever:
At 6-8, James has the attributes of a point guard. (USA TODAY Sports)
1. LeBron is a completely different player
We’ve had the (insert player name) could be better than Jordan discussion for quite some time now. The closest comparison in both style and legacy has been Kobe Bryant, who has five rings. And there’s a reason Kobe will never trump Jordan. It’s because he was too similar, too much like a Jordan clone than anything else. If LeBron is ever considered greater, it will be because he won championships and dominated the game in different ways than Jordan.
If it’s a matter of numbers and points, it’s hard to beat out Jordan, who scored at will and played with an offensive engine that will likely never be matched. But if we’re talking about the entirety of one’s skillset, LeBron is already a better passer and a better teammate. It’s not even close in those areas. LeBron’s gifts are far greater than scoring. His vision and ability to make other players around him better is Magic Johnson-esque. LeBron has 47 career triple doubles (third all-time). Jordan had 27 of them in his career. When you’re comparing an unselfish point forward (LeBron) with a scoring machine (Jordan), there’s surely going to be a difference in opinion for greatest ever. Yet that’s a good thing for LeBron’s case here.
James has had cameras and media attention surrounding him since his high school days. (Getty Images)
2. Handling the hype
There’s no mistaking the fact that the NBA was far different in the ‘90s than what it is today. The argument that Jordan had tougher competition (Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller) than LeBron (Kobe, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, now Steph Curry) is unfounded. Jordan played in an era with husky big men and guards without left hands who couldn’t shoot. Hand-checking was the norm. Both players were great in their time. Leave it at that. The real difference comes off the court. Jordan entered the league when both Magic and Larry Bird had popularized basketball — essentially rolling out the red carpet for Jordan to become bigger than basketball. Then factor in the perfect timing for marketing Jordan on a global scale. The shoes, the Gatorade. Be. Like. Mike. In this regard, Jordan had it easy. LeBron has had to deal with far greater expectations than Jordan ever did. While MJ became Air Jordan, he never had expectations to become Air Jordan. He was drafted third overall in the 1984 NBA draft. James was the easiest No. 1 pick in NBA draft history after getting hyped as “The King” and “Chosen One” when he was in high school.
The difference in era also makes us wonder how LeBron would be perceived in the ‘90s. Even more intriguing: How would MJ be perceived in this current era ruled by social media? Would his punching of teammates be swept under the rug? Would late-night gambling habits be blown out of proportion? Look, both of these guys are global icons, but it’s safe to say that LeBron’s pathway was more challenging. He weathered more storms of hatred and opinion than Jordan, who was in many ways bigger than the sport.
LeBron shows emotion after the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals (AP)
3. LeBron’s developed edge
The biggest rip on LeBron before he won his first NBA championship was that he didn’t possess a killer instinct in the same regard that Kobe or Jordan did. It was true. It wasn’t so much about missing clutch shots or failing in the big games. Something was just missing internally. Well, whatever was missing, he has it now. LeBron’s developed edge has been showcased particularly in this year’s NBA playoffs, as hehas led a batch of role players to the Finals while comfortably putting the team on his back and scoring at will in the same way that Jordan did in his heyday.
Jordan’s killer instinct was already embedded when he entered the league. LeBron developed his fire right before our eyes — as the world hated him for his Decision antics when he left for Miami and he had to dig deep down to find his winning willpower (and a Hakeem Olajuwon-taught post game) following a Finals exit in 2011 to the Dallas Mavericks. And as much as the Heat were referred to as the Big Three — with James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh — LeBron quickly established himself as the best of those superstars, spearheading Miami’s 2012 and 2013 titles in Jordan-like form. Meanwhile, Jordan faced adversity before winning — losing to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons two years in a row before taking them out in ‘91 – but he always had the killer instinct. Over the last four NBA Finals, we’ve seen LeBron find his. Watching a hero excel is one thing. Watching a hero be born from a villain is much better.
Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson for all six of his rings. If LeBron wins in Cleveland this year, it will be without a legit sidekick or Hall of Fame coach. (USA TODAY Sports)
4. Winning with less
Championships matter. Not just the shiny look of the ring, but how they are won. If LeBron James leads the Cavs to an NBA title this year, doing so without third wheel Kevin Love and a hobbled sidekick Kyrie Irving, it will be a far greater achievement than any title Jordan ever won. For all six of Jordan’s rings, he had great teammates. He played for a team that came within a bucket of the Eastern Conference Finals in ’94 the year after he retired. The reason the Bulls won 72 games in ’95-96 was not just Jordan. It was a recipe of four of the best players in the game with Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Scottie Pippen. Jordan won with those guys in the same way that LeBron won with Wade and Bosh. If James wins this year with Cleveland’s roster, as former nemesis Bill Laimbeer astutely pointed out, he’ll have done something Jordan never did. Also, there’s the coaching side of it. Phil Jackson is one of the greatest coaches of all-time. Erik Spoelstra? David Blatt? Great coaches but not Hall of Famers. LeBron is a basketball genius and has the mind of a coach with a phenomenal feel for the game. Jordan had similar characteristics, yes, but he also had Phil Jackson.
Fans take pictures of a LeBron James banner outside Quicken Loans Arena (Getty Images)
5. Bringing glory to Cleveland will resonate more
LeBron has the chance to bring a title to a city starving for glory. Chicago was a great sports city and MJ brought out the best in it. LeBron’s story is far more storybook, though: Born and raised in Ohio, drafted to the Cavs, leaves the Cavs to win, returns home as a winner, brings a title to his beloved city. If James were to win with two teams and one of them not be Cleveland, his legacy is mundane. If he wins a title with Cleveland, make no mistake, his legacy will skyrocket. The Decision looked like it ruined LeBron’s legacy. Looking at it now, that debacle helped pave way for the perfect hated-to-loved story line that would even trump Jordan’s infamous “I’m back” fax to Bulls management in 1995.
James has two titles and four MVP awards. Can he catch Jordan’s six rings and five MVPs? (USA TODAY Sports)
6. LeBron will win more titles and MVPs
This is a bold prediction, sure. But why won’t it happen? Realistically, if Jordan didn’t retire from basketball to play baseball, he’d have seven or eight titles instead of six. While one less hardly dismisses his legacy, six championships is catchable for LeBron James, who is 30 and playing in his fifth consecutive finals. Barring any injuries, he has at least six legitimate seasons to catch Jordan. All the greats won more titles later in their careers after maturing. If LeBron finishes his career with more rings than Jordan, no matter how he does it, the proof will be in the pudding. As for the MVP awards, Jordan had five and LeBron currently has four. Jordan had Barkley and the Mail Man rob him of a few MVPs, and Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have done the same recently to James. But it’s hard to believe that James won’t tie or pass that number, especially as the culture and talent level improves year by year in Cleveland.
LeBron will have a significant amount of extra time than Jordan did. James entered the league when he was 18. And Jordan retired twice, once in his prime and again at the end of it. Legacies are stamped with how they ended. Most MJ lovers will choose to remember him brushing off Bryon Russell and hitting a championship-winning jumper in 1998 instead of two playoff-less seasons with the Washington Wizards. How will LeBron be remembered? We’ve got a long time to figure that out. And that’s the scary part.
LeBron James, Michael Jordan, NBA, NBA Playoffs, NBA