- Written by David Dennis Jr.
There are two things you can bank on happening every time LeBron James pulls off a spontaneous act of GOAT-ness on a basketball court: Fox Sports host Skip Bayless is going to tweet an asinine reason to downplay LeBron’s greatness, and all of basketball Twitter will get engulfed in a war over who is the greater hoops player between Michael Jordan and his Cleveland counterpart. So when LeBron James completed his undressing of the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the NBA playoffs last week with a buzzer-beating 20-foot floater off the glass on one foot to essentially put the series to rest in game three, the debates started again.
Because now, LeBron—who has previously been lampooned as a player who folds in the clutch—has made more walk-off shots than Jordan, whose legendary ability to destroy teams in the clutch had become the defining characteristic that separated him from his would-be usurper. So the debates raged. And will continue until the next potential Greatest of All Time takes over the league. But here’s the rub: The Jordan vs. LeBron debate is pointless and will only serve to give you migraines and make you lose friends. Because there is no definitive, logical or statistical advantage for one man over the other. Every highlight has a counterpoint. Every stat has a “however,” but trying to convince a LeBron fan that Jordan is better and vice versa is an exercise in insanity. Because no right answer exists.
LeBron James, whose Cavs begin the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics on Sunday, will never win six NBA championships like Michael Jordan did. (LeBron currently has three, the most recent in 2016.) And for many Jordan fans, that’s enough to separate the two. But, as I mentioned, every point has a counter. Michael Jordan never played in an era where the league’s collective bargaining agreements allowed for players to leave and form super teams. He never lived in a league where shoe contracts were big enough to allow players to take less money for rings. In short, Michael Jordan never had to play against the Golden State Warriors, a once-in-a-lifetime dynasty that has derailed LeBron’s chances at catching MJ’s ring totals.
Sure, LeBron James has played in an Eastern Conference that looks like a JV league compared to the Knicks and Pacers that Jordan constantly rebuffed in the ’90s. But the Golden State Warriors would absolutely demolish any team Jordan played in the Finals. See? Point. Counterpoint.
Having watched Michael Jordan and LeBron James, I still take the former as the greatest ever. I just watched him win. All the time.
The albatross weighing down LeBron’s career will always be his piss-poor performance in the 2011 Finals, climaxing in game four, where he scored eight points and looked absolutely spooked. To be frank, he choked and ended up only averaging 18 points for the whole series, essentially costing the Heat the championship. Michael Jordan never had a performance that bad or that demoralizing. In fact, Jordan never lost to a team that had a lower seed than his Bulls in the playoffs. LeBron lost to lower seeds for three straight years from 2009 to 2011.
By the same token, the now-33-year-old LeBron James carried a 2007 Cavs team to the NBA Finals at age 23, terrorizing the powerhouse Pistons on the way. Michael Jordan also never had that that performance on his resume either. Therein lies the difference: LeBron James can do more with less, dragging subpar teams and players to heights nobody else could even imagine. But Jordan can reach levels of greatness—with help—that are historic. I think that if you put Jordan on the 2007 Cavs, they probably get bounced in the second round, but if you put him with the Miami Heat teams LeBron played with, then Jordan wins a title all four years. Neither is really better than the other. Just different. Point. Counterpoint.
Statistically, the two are even. By the end of LeBron’s career, he will probably be one spot higher than Jordan in total points, but a couple of spots lower in points per game. He’ll have more rebounds and assists than Jordan by a wide margin, but wind up lower in steals. The stats won’t tell us anything, which will leave us with an eye test. For me, having watched Michael Jordan and LeBron, I still take the former as the greatest ever. I just watched him win. All the time. I think he was able to get the exact shot he wanted whenever he wanted, and he was a better defender for longer in his career. But the argument is beyond the realm of objectivity and is as concrete as arguing over which type of beer tastes better. It’s about preference and gut. And at this point, the two are so close together that declaring definitively that someone is out of his or her mind for picking one above the other is just an exercise in sticking to one’s guns without budging. The two are just that close.
Sadly, so many people are so loyal to the notion of nostalgia that the idea of LeBron ever surpassing His Airness is out of the question—which is odd because why wouldn’t we want to watch continued greatness? Why don’t we want to live in a world where we get to watch the best player ever on a nightly basis? What is it about nostalgia that makes Jordan’s reign so unimpeachable against overwhelming evidence that LeBron James is at least his equal? Refusing to even entertain the idea that LeBron could be better is just stubborn wrongheadedness for the sake of praising a ghost we’ll never get to see play again. And, even though I am Team Jordan on-court, if LeBron James manages to somehow beat the Golden State Warriors in this year’s Finals with a team of mediocrity he has now, then it will be time to easily supplant Jordan’s GOAT status and give it to the King.