As LeBron James celebrates his fourth championship and fourth Finals MVP, the LeBron vs Michael Jordan debate is everywhere. Matthew Bowen dives deep into the cases for two of the greatest players in NBA history…
Whenever the comparison between to titans of their time begins, it is always important to preface the bout by saying ‘why do we have to compare them? Can’t we all just enjoy greatness?’. And while that is true, it’s far more enjoyable to get into endless debates and arguments with your dad, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, mates while in the pub, stadium or over the internet.
Over the summer, during the dog days of lockdown, ESPN released ‘The Last Dance’, a ten-part documentary series, based on David Halberstram’s ‘Playing for Keeps’ chronicling Michael Jordan’s time with the Chicago Bulls with a spotlight on his final season with the team.
The documentary struck at just the right time. Due to literally all other sport, apart from Bulgarian soccer and Japanese baseball, being suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Jordan ran, jumped and dunked his way back into our lives. As a result, the fierce GOAT debate between Jordan and LeBron James was reignited (although it never really went away).
Flashforward six months and LeBron James has conquered the mountain for the fourth time, winning his fourth NBA Championship via besting the gritty Miami Heat, 4 games to 2. James averaged 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists during the Finals, earning him the fourth Finals MVP of his career.
So, with James and Jordan at the forefront of the basketball landscape, let’s have a good old fashioned LeBron vs Jordan debate.
LeBron’s GOAT case
The biggest obstacle LeBron has to overcome when it comes to the MJ vs LeBron debate is deconstructing the mysticism that surrounds Jordan. Although Jordan only played his last game in 2002, the passage of time from those glory days with the Bulls to now has only strengthened Jordan’s claim to the being the greatest player of all time.
People yearn for nostalgia, it’s potent, they get drunk off it. And in that drunken haze, people, in this case, the basketball cognoscenti, cannot be impartial. “They don’t make them like they used to” you often hear from the previous generation as they launch into a nostalgia fuelled diatribe against the current class of players.
Jordan played in the toughest league, with the strictest rules against the fiercest competition. Until LeBron somehow climbs over this intangible obstacle, his pitch to be the GOAT will always be marred.
However, that isn’t stopping the King from trying. James’ victory in the bubble now leaves him only two rings away from matching Jordan’s six. Moreover, LeBron has won four rings with three different teams: two with Miami in 2011 and 2013, one with Cleveland in 2016 and now one with L.A. in 2020. James has appeared in ten NBA Finals, six more than Michael Jordan. If it’s one thing that James firmly has over Jordan, it’s sustained greatness.
James was drafted into the NBA, straight out of high school, in 2003, at the age of 19. Since then, James has met every single challenge on and off the court. Aside from the multiple acts of philanthropy, including opening his own ‘I Promise’ school in 2018, James has seemingly unlocked the key to sustaining a long and fruitful career.
Per a 2018 article from Business Insider, LeBron spends $1.5 million a year on his body. This is not to say that Jordan was smoking a pack of cigarettes and two pints of beer after every game – MJ and his trainer, Tim Grover, were at the forefront of physical fitness for their time – but this is where the passage of time works in LeBron’s favour. Due to modern-day technology, as well as advancements in knowledge of nutrition, James has been able to meld his physical gifts with his years of experience in the NBA to create the ultimate basketball player.
Shortly after the Game 6 victory in which James secured his fourth NBA title, the kid from Akron was asked by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt what’s the biggest difference between 35-year-old James and 27-year-old James? LeBron replied, “He would dominate him”.
LeBron James says 35-year old LeBron would dominate 27-year old LeBron.
"He would dominate him." pic.twitter.com/XLvCqRX3U8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 12, 2020
On the court, the list of accolades James has amassed is seemingly endless. The L.A. Laker is 16-time All-Star, 16-time All-NBA, 2003/4 ROY, 6-time All-Defensive, 2007/8 scoring champ, 3-time MVP, 4-time Finals MVP and 4-time NBA Champion. After this fourth chip, it’s unquestionable that James belongs in the GOAT conversation forever. Bill Russell was great, so was Kareem and Magic and Bird and Kobe. But what we have had the fortune of witnessing is a once in a lifetime, once in a generation talent.
But he isn’t Michael.
Michael Jordan’s GOAT case
When Michael Jordan briefly retired from basketball in 1993 to pursue a career in baseball, Bulls head coach at the time, Phil Jackson, mulled “His [Jordan’s] talent was not merely that of a great athlete but transcended athleticism to become an art form. His gift was along the lines of Michelangelo and therefore Jordan at the least had to understand that it belonged not just to the artist but to all those millions who stood in awe of the art itself and derived, in a life otherwise filled with the mundane, such pleasure from what he did.”
These kinds of anecdotes about Jordan further emphasise that mystical cloud that surrounds him. The stories of him playing golf for eight hours straight before dismantling Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns in the 1992 Finals, tales of Jordan and Charles Oakley staying up playing cards until 4 am the night before overcoming the Detroit Pistons. MJ’s legendary practises with the 1992 Olympic Dream Team and his summer scrimmages while filming Space Jam where he dominated the competition in both. These stories help elevate Jordan to an almost untouchable, unreachable plain.
But of course, the mysticism has to be built on a foundation, and that foundation was Jordan’s play on the court. Jordan played 15 seasons in total, 13 with the Bulls and 2 with the Wizards. In that time-span, Jordan became a 14-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA, 1987/88 DPOY, 1984/85 ROY, 9-time All-Defensive Team, 10-time scoring champ, 5-time MVP, 6-time Champion and 6-time Finals MVP.
Both Jordan’s and LeBron’s list of accolades is extraordinary, and deciding who is the best based purely on that list seems like splitting hairs. Jordan’s 6-0 record in the Finals is another factor that boosts his legendary status, despite LeBron reaching four more Finals than Jordan. So this brings us to the argument of which feat is more impressive: to reach only six NBA Finals and win them all or reach ten but to lose six and win four?
Due to ‘toxic ring culture’ dominating the discourse surrounding the NBA, the only valued metric in deciding who is the better player is the number of rings a player has. So by that logic, Robert Horry is a better basketball player than both LeBron James and Michael Jordan, so what’s the point in even having this GOAT debate?
A common sentiment recently retired professional sportsmen share is that if they did not reach a Super Bowl or an NBA Finals, they always emphasise their wish to just play in the game. Not win it, but just to reach it. And when you look at LeBron, who has reached ten NBA Finals, that sentiment only adds to the greatness of The King.
From a certain perspective, James, through the overwhelming element of longevity has a real, strong chance to become the consensus best player of all time. James has never missed an NBA playoff game that his team has qualified for. He has played in three seasons worth of playoff games over the course of his career, without taking a break. And he shows no signs of slowing down.
After Jimmy Butler‘s LeBron-like performance in game 5 of the NBA Finals, he looked spent in game 6 and thus wilted under the pressure of James. After James put up 40/13/3 in game 5, he looked fresher, fitter and stronger in game 6. In the end, Father Time always wins, but right now, LeBron has him on the ropes.
If this James and Anthony Davis tandem continues for the next three to four years, and LeBron wins another two or three rings, then I just don’t see how we can defiantly say Jordan is the best player of all time. But for right now, let’s just enjoy LeBron James’ actions and Michael Jordan’s legacy.
But to wrap this debate up, to echo Phil Jackson, let us just enjoy, in a life that is otherwise mundane, the art that is being created by James, and the art that was created by Jordan.