I have long refrained from the Michael Jordan versus LeBron James Greatest of All Time debate. It’s difficult to stay quiet when “GOAT” is perhaps the most common phrase on sports Twitter. The conversation seems to have gone overboard with extreme hyperbole and hostility, and yet individuals have built or advanced media careers on the back of one of the two stars. If you’re pro-MJ, you wait for every chance to call LeBron passive. If you’re pro-LeBron, you criticize his teammates and mock all of Jordan’s 90s opponents. Is it hypocritical to dislike elements of the debate and still write about it? No, because my intent is to add perspective more than pick a side. It’s not even fair for me to pick a side since Jordan won two championships before I was born and his sixth title before I turned six. But a few factors in Jordan versus LeBron are too often ignored because fans are determined to prove their opinion is the only acceptable opinion. Also, it’s fair to dislike parts of a debate and still have a reaction and insightful commentary.
Michael Jordan played his final NBA game almost two and a half months before the Cleveland Cavaliers selected St. Vincent-St. Mary High School product LeBron James with the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. It’s the most basic and ignored fact in the Jordan and King James banter. Wait, there’s an early challenger! Did you know LeBron is still an active NBA player who just completed what many would call his best postseason to date? Sorry for the snark, but barring injury from a borderline unbreakable player, it would be a surprise if LeBron doesn’t earn at least three more All-NBA honors with at least two All-NBA First Team nods. Another NBA championship or two is well within reach. Even if you want to engage in the GOAT debate, you don’t need to rush when LeBron has plenty of chapters to write. Back to the generational gap, the Bulls drafted North Carolina standout Michael Jordan third overall in 1984. Those most passionate about the GOAT overlook the impact of Jordan and LeBron’s career divide because they were presumably around to witness the prime of both careers.
1984 and 2003 are an eternity apart in terms of playing style, size, athleticism, and training. 1998 (Jordan’s last NBA Finals) and 2018 (LeBron’s latest NBA Finals) are even better reference points. The stories of LeBron’s training habits are infinite. It has been said King James spends $1.5 million on his body PER YEAR. It sounds crazy until you consider his wealth and the technological advancements available to the world’s finest athletes. Basketball gods (thanks to an improved jump shot in his Heat days) built LBJ in a lab. James has the best combination of physical tools and ability the game has ever seen. That is indisputable, and it doesn’t suggest King James is the GOAT. We will never know what would have happened if Jordan entered the league 20 years later, LeBron entered 20 years earlier, or if their careers overlapped. Similarly, it’s tough to compare numbers across generations, and LeBron’s historic statistical performances are sometimes overblown in context. The numbers are ALWAYS there given the aforementioned combination of physical tools and ability. James is just that special. Consider LeBron compiled 10 straight NBA Finals games with at least 25 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists prior to the Game 4 loss to the Warriors. Nobody else has back-to-back NBA Finals games with 25-8-8. Pick any meaningful overall impact stat, whether it’s playoff wins over replacement player, success in elimination games, or clutch time performance and buzzer beaters. Statistics favor James to the extent that I view his games in comparison to what he’s capable of. When the numbers are predictable, a more comprehensive review is required. That’s the ultimate compliment. Fans and media members were upset when ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said LeBron had “not been great” and “triple-double” in the same sentence of Game 3 of the Finals. But Game 2 and Game 3 were not among his 10 best performances of the 2018 postseason. We’ll disregard the Game 4 clunker. JVG wasn’t knocking those elite performances. It’s simply the standard LeBron has set as the best player post-Jordan (at least we can agree on this since it’s a separate conversation from the GOAT). LeBron would be immune to post-2011 NBA Finals criticism if we stopped at the numbers.
Some may say it’s semantics, but I prefer a “most impressive” or “best career” conversation. It sounds more all-encompassing and welcomes more factors. GOAT will continue to be a moving target in the same way there weren’t LeBron-esque specimens in the 90s. Cases for LeBron, Jordan, and the game’s all-time great centers can be made in the “most impressive” or “best career” department. Some love stats, some love championships, and some will manipulate the conversation to pitch their guy. Much of this analysis has revolved around LeBron only because I’ve been alive for his entire career, and he’s fresh off the NBA Finals. Again, I lack the proper Jordan perspective, but a dose of my assessment would come down to a combination of stats, championships, individual dominance via the eye test, consistency, longevity, and a player’s impact relative to his era. What a player does relative to his generation is particularly important to me because of the aforementioned individual and game-related evolution along with the flaws of comparisons across eras. Jordan’s two three-peats in eight years will forever baffle basketball historians. Four of the six opponents won 60-plus regular season games. Five of the series went six games after Chicago hoisted its first trophy in five games. Many Jordan viewers speak to a feeling of invincibility when he competed. It sounds as if his killer instinct meant victory was a foregone conclusion in the championship run. Barring additional titles, LeBron detractors will point to the 2011 NBA Finals flop when James averaged 17.8 points per game and shot 1-10 from three on the road against Dallas. Jordan wasn’t known to lose confidence in such fashion, and we’ll forever wonder what would have happened if MJ didn’t leave basketball for almost two full seasons to pursue baseball. It’s naive to say a modern NBA team would have won eight consecutive championships. Championship fatigue and internal controversy have interrupted modern dynasties, which is why we have already heard rumblings from the Warriors. Regardless, MJ sacrificed two All-NBA First Team honors, two scoring titles, and possibly one or two MVP awards. One could also spin the fatigue equation in Jordan’s favor to say his greatness enabled him to leave and return en route to two separate three-peats across six full seasons (Jordan returned to play 17 games in 1995 after he missed all of 1993-94). On the other hand, James receives a significant boost in the longevity category. LeBron will shatter Jordan’s career numbers thanks to his sustained dominance, which includes eight straight Finals appearances.
Recruiting and draft background are irrelevant to eventual greatness, but both Jordan and LeBron have fascinating paths too. It’s incredible Jordan is even in the conversation. A late bloomer in high school who ascended into an NCAA champion, National College Player of the Year, and third overall pick. 1984 top pick Hakeem Olajuwon is among the 20 if not 10 greatest players ever, but it’s quite improbable to go third in the NBA Draft and turn into a player of Jordan’s caliber. LeBron’s ability to live up to Sports Illustrated’s “The Chosen One” label from his junior season in high school is underappreciated. Many have crumbled under premature hype.