Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James: Final answer

Credit: Streeter Lecka

Credit: Streeter Lecka

The debate about the No. 1 player in NBA history returns to terrorize us every spring, so I need to get this out of my system so I can move on with my life. Whether you do, too, is up to you.  

Michael Jordan is the greatest player in NBA history.

LeBron James hasn’t matched him, but he’s a clear No. 2.

If LeBron wins about four more titles, we can revisit this, but I doubt he will.

Any questions?

Well, notice I said, “greatest.” That is distinct from “best.”

In terms of who is “best”, there is no definitive, objective answer.

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Comparing them one for one is difficult because they play different styles in different eras under different rules.

I’d pick Jordan if they played one-on-one, but there’s a great argument for James, too, because they were/are both great players who can do at least a little bit of everything on the floor.

If we’re trying to determine the most talented player of all time, I doubt either of them is the choice. That’s probably Wilt Chamberlain. He averaged 50 points per game for a full season after all, and he was indisputably a world-class athlete. He was big enough and talented enough he could still be a star today.

Regardless, I’m not getting hung up on this aspect of the debate because plenty of times I have seen a consensus gather around one player or team being physically superior only to see them lose. Some things we just can’t know unless we see them, and we’ll never see this battle play out, so it will always be a matter of opinion.

That said, Jordan became regarded as the greatest player in league history not solely because of his physical ability.

There were other athletic wing scorers like Elgin Baylor and Dr. J who came before him and no doubt inspired him the way Jordan inspired Kobe Bryant, LeBron, etc.

(Not to mention Oscar Robertson, whose all-around game just might make him the LeBron of the ’60s, but that’s another story.)

Jordan was placed atop the mountain because of his dominance of the league both individually and through his team. He became No. 1 not just because he had great stats but also because he was 6-0 in the Finals. That’s why 6-0 in the Finals remains the measuring stick and always will be.

There is no changing the criteria now.

James will never be 6-0 in the Finals, obviously.

I don’t think he has to have been undefeated (Like Tom Brady surpassed Joe Montana despite having lost multiple Super Bowls because he also won more), but is a .500 mark in championships at least a reasonable expectation?

Of course it is.

If he were to get to 6-6, maybe we can revisit this discussion, though I seriously doubt he will. Nonetheless, watching him try should be fun if we can block out the noise.

(If it’s any solace, maybe we can start a petition to get second place renamed LeBron place. Would that make reality easier to stomach? No, OK, just thought I would throw it out there.) 

There’s no shame in being No. 2 behind Michael Jordan, but I know the over-heated anti-LeBron rhetoric from certain corners of the sports media world has created an army of LeBron apologists.

They have crafted a pretty good narrative for those interested in ignoring the most significant reason Jordan got to No. 1 in the first place, but at the same time most of their arguments can be swatted away with the disdain Jordan showed good friend Patrick Ewing so many years ago.

Let’s take care of those now:

LeBron has put up eye-popping numbers, but Jordan led the league in scoring without relying on the 3 and despite guys being able to handcheck, armbar and dole out a lot more punishment when he was going to the basket.  

It’s easier to score now than it was then because of changes in the rules.

Also there used to actually be centers who defended the paint. So getting to the lane used to be more difficult, and finishing was harder when you got there, but Jordan still averaged more points per game while shooting a high percentage and being an effective passer.

It’s often said LeBron has the ability to guard every position, but he doesn’t actually do it regularly so that’s more novelty than anything meaningful. 

And that is another thing influenced by the fact there are no real centers at this time.

The first time I remember anyone remarking about LeBron guarding a “5” it was Draymond Green, who is of course not a real center (and happens to be smaller than LeBron).

James wouldn’t be guarding Ewing or Alonzo Mourning or David Robinson, let alone Shaq (no one really guarded Shaq) so it’s sort of irrelevant for this discussion. He was the best player on the floor when his teams played Tim Duncan’s Spurs, but how often did he guard Duncan?

Jordan was a great on-ball and help defender who like LeBron could steal and block shots. He and LeBron are both great all-around defensive players, but Jordan played elite consequential defense more often.

Is the league “better” now than it was then? That’s another matter of opinion, but I also don’t think this directly impacts the debate. 

I am sure there is more length and athleticism on the court overall, but I’m not sure if there is more skill.

Regardless, Jordan excelled in both the higher-scoring ‘80s and the grind-it-out ‘90s, and I don’t really think wing players have gotten longer and more athletic so much as everyone else has. There are probably more wings who can really score than there used to be, but there were always athletic wings his size he had to score on (for example Bryon Russell, Clyde Drexler, etc.).

Even if there are more big point guards and more athletic 4s and 5s, that doesn’t have much to do with who is guarding LeBron or who guarded Jordan.

The two most ludicrous arguments are Jordan had more help and faced less competition. Neither of these are true in the majority of cases.  

The LeBron’s four Heat teams and the first three Cavs teams of LeBron’s return were all more individually talented than Jordan’s Bulls.

They were all impressive, but Jordan’s championship teams —like the Warriors of 2015 and ’16 — were far greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s in no small part because while Jordan made players around him better, LeBron seems to have the opposite effect.

I’m willing to concede the last two Warriors teams were better than anyone Jordan’s Bulls beat. The Spurs were not (otherwise they would have beaten the Heat in 2013, too), and Jordan never lost to a team like the 2011 Mavs in the Finals.

The ‘90s Suns, Sonics and Jazz were all great teams with multiple Hall of Famers. Jordan beat them all with one multi-year all-star by his side.

I’d take the ‘90s Knicks and Pacers over anyone LeBron has beaten in the East with the possible exception of the 2007 Pistons, but they were no world beaters either (or they wouldn’t have lost to that Cavs team everyone agrees wasn’t very good).

It’s often said Jordan never won a title without Scottie Pippen, but who would Scottie Pippen be without Michael Jordan? 

He's gotten a lot of mileage out of almost winning two playoff series without Jordan in 1994. Nice accomplishment but greatly overblown.

(Lots of teams have great regular seasons then fail to make the conference finals -- remember this year’s Raptors?)

The reality is Jordan made Pippen into a Hall of Famer.

Pippen would have been a good player on his own I’m sure, but he thrived alongside Jordan while most superstars have seen their games surprisingly diminished after joining up with LeBron.

Dennis Rodman made the Hall of Fame (thanks in no small part to his years with Jordan), but he was a one-dimensional player they had to make up for on offense.

He made the all-star team twice, which is one more time than Horace Grant.

Meanwhile, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love were both 20-point scorers who spent multiple seasons as franchise players before taking a backseat to LeBron.

Lastly, LeBron’s case may not age well. 

I strongly suspect the careers of Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and maybe Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns and others will alter the perception of James’ achievements.

Those guys are all multi-talented, do-it-all players, who are even bigger than LeBron, and one or more of them could end up doing similar things over the next 10 years.

In that case,  his archetype will be less unique, and he still won’t be 6-0 in the Finals, so Jordan will look even better.

(For those who are overly sensitive, understand that’s more respect for the talent of those guys than anything against LeBron, whose size and skill are amazing right now.)

Durant’s not done yet, but he’s out of the G.O.A.T. running since he went ring chasing out West.

Regardless of what else happens, LeBron James going down as one of the top five and probably top two ever, though, and I'm going to try my hardest to just enjoy it without worrying about historical context.

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