Michael Jordan (by Adam):
I grew up in the LeBron James era, watching him go from the hometown hero to the backstabbing villain and back again. I remember texting my friend in 2018, during LeBron’s last season on the Cleveland Cavaliers, that if he could get that team to the NBA finals, I would consider him the greatest of all time Well, two years later, I have to admit I was wrong. After having some of my preconceived notions about Michael Jordan shattered by ESPN’s new The Last Dance docu-series, and a reexamination of his stats and accolades, I feel confident saying that Michael Jordan is the unequivocal G.O.A.T.
Jordan played 11 full seasons with the Chicago Bulls before he was driven to retirement by Bulls management at the age of 34. During that span, the Bulls never missed the playoffs. They won six titles and Jordan led the league in scoring 10 times. In fact, if you go by total points instead of points per game, Jordan led the league in scoring every full season he played before his first retirement, which ended at age 38 when he went to play for the Wizards.
Jordan was also a defensive powerhouse, leading the NBA in steals three times, being named to the NBA’s all-defensive team nine times and taking home the title of Defensive Player of the Year in his third full season. LeBron, despite being a model of consistency and winning four Most Valuable Player awards, has had just one season leading the league in scoring and has never led the league in any other category.
An argument commonly used in favor of LeBron is the difference in quality of teammates and/or opponents. Players can only be as great as the era they played in. While Jordan’s opponents may have been less athletic, Jordan is a product of that environment. And while Jordan had Scottie Pippen for all six championships and eventually Dennis Rodman for the last three, once Pippen hit his prime, the Bulls failed to win a finals appearance just twice during the Jordan era: The first to the defending NBA Champion Pistons in seven games, and the second coming after Jordan had only played 17 NBA games in the previous two years entering the playoffs. Meanwhile, in the four seasons where James had constructed one of the most talented teams in the history of the NBA, he only managed to bring two championships to Miami: as many failures as Jordan with one-third of the successes.
This argument is not meant to diminish James’ talents and place in the NBA’s legacy. He is by far the greatest player of the past two decades and probably the most talented player to ever step on the basketball court. However, to earn the title of G.O.A.T. requires a level of sustained success and a legacy that changes the way the game is played. Before Jordan, basketball revolved around having the tallest guys on the floor and guards were just seen as pieces to get them the ball. Jordan revolutionized the game with his acrobatic shots, allowing the marketability of the NBA, and basketball in general, to reach new heights. Everyone tuned into the games, bought the shoes and just wanted to ‘Be Like Mike.’ With the number of players he inspired, it’s no wonder that James has had to play against better athletes.
While the history of the National Basketball Association has been littered with stars from Wilt ‘the Stilt’ Chamberlain to Giannis ‘the Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo, Air Jordan soars above the rest as the greatest of all time.
LeBron James (by Jordy):
Much of this debate stems from a question of how one analyzes a player’s greatness. Inevitably, everyone is going to emphasize different qualities in their assessment of the greatest NBA player of all time. That being said, I choose to look both at a player’s all-around impact on the court. There is no doubt that Michael Jordan is the best pure scorer of all time. When he decided he wanted to score, there was almost nothing a defender could do.
The difference is that LeBron has not only been able to score at will his entire career like MJ, but also possesses an unmatched versatility. He is, with the possible exception of Kevin Durant, the most positionless player the NBA has ever seen. James is an excellent ball-handler and facilitator, is formidable in post-up play and can guard all five positions and rebound consistently.
LeBron’s passing is likely the most underrated element of his game. He is one of the best distributors to ever play. He ranks eighth all-time in assists (third in the postseason), while Michael Jordan ranks 45th. As NBA fans, we take for granted James’ full-speed cross-court passes to shooters off drives to the hoop. No one has combined such outstanding abilities as a passer with seemingly endless ways to finish around the rim. There is an inevitable quality to the moment when LeBron decides to drive to the basket. He will use his unmatched strength to get into the paint and his array of moves to finish, or he will fire a pinpoint pass to a shooter for a wide-open 3 pointer. There are so many ways for him to wreak havoc.
As viewers have witnessed during the Last Dance docu-series, teams could beat Jordan’s Bulls early on in his career, both when he dropped 50 or 60 points or when they forced the ball out of hands with lots of defensive attention. Only when Jordan embraced some of the qualities that LeBron has possessed his entire career did his teams win championships. He understood that he could only achieve the ultimate goal when he made his teammates better. LeBron James has made a career of doing that, and he hasn’t had nearly as much talent around him.
With his ability to be the ultimate floor general both on offense and defense, he has masked the deficiencies of the players around him. The roster of the 2006-7 Cavaliers, who James led to the NBA Finals, has, to this day, a combined two All-Star appearances aside from The King. The performances of Cavaliers teams without James exemplifies his immense value; no Cavs team since LeBron entered the league has won more than 33 games without him. James’ value to his team is reflected in more advanced statistics as well. He ranks third all time in win shares, two places above Jordan.
Many like to compare Jordan’s six championships to LeBron’s three, but not only did Jordan typically have far more capable teammates, but the competition he faced pales in comparison to that of James’. What often gets lost is James’ nine Finals appearances—including eight straight, which is a remarkable achievement. Not to mention, all but one of his Finals losses came against the Spurs and Warriors, two teams widely considered two of the best ever assembled and both at the height of their success.
MJ lovers also argue that his play under pressure is something that cannot be matched. Yet, LeBron James has been under immense pressure since he was 14 years old, and he has performed with unparalleled consistency. In 16 NBA seasons, minus his rookie year, he has never failed to average more than 25 points, six assists and 5.3 rebounds. This has been achieved with one of the biggest workloads in NBA history; James ranks eighth in minutes played. Jordan, on the other hand, ranks 28th in this category, and had multiple breaks with years away from basketball to rest his body. Before the coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season, James was having an MVP-caliber campaign in his 17th year, averaging a career-high 10.6 assists per game. It’s safe to say Jordan wasn’t in the running for MVP as he wound down his career with the Wizards.
Nobody has ever been a more capable scorer than Michael Jordan. But there has also never been a more complete player than LeBron James.