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Settling the LeBron James vs Michael Jordan Question

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Who was the greatest of all time? Depends what “greatest” means.

Miami Heat v Charlotte Bobcats - Game Four Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Since LeBron James carried the Cleveland Cavaliers past the Boston Celtics to advance to the 2018 NBA Finals, a debate has raged across the internet: who is better, James or Michael Jordan? The issue has not escaped the notice of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, so let’s settle it,

Dave,

LeBron or MJ for GOAT? You’ve seen them both play. Jordan kept us from a championship. LeBron has kicked us for years when we’re down. Who is better ultimately, in your opinion?

Lawrence

My first question is whether the Greatest of All Time debate has to be limited to those two. Wilt Chamberlain might want to get a word in. Bill Russell could vote with his championship rings. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still holds the record for most points scored in a career. We don’t identify with centers as much as wings, but plenty of dominating figures have come from the near-seven-foot ranks too.

For the sake of argument—and it’s a solid one—let’s limit the field to just Jordan and James. The debate usually derails into a few ditches:

  • Jordan won six championships and James, so far, only three. That ends the discussion for some. Then again, Jordan’s teams were stronger, both empirically and in relation to the rest of the league in their respective eras.
  • The NBA features far better athletes playing more precise schemes now than it did in Jordan’s time. On the other hand, Jordan-era defenders were allowed to lay hands and bodies on people in ways that would draw fouls and ejections nowadays.
  • When, “Back in my day...” meets, “Everything old is, by definition, inferior,” nobody wins. People are arguing as much about generational pride and identity as the actual players involved. Disentangling the discussion from lenses of nostalgia and innovation is all but impossible.

I’m less interested in rehashing those arguments than pointing out that they don’t reveal a clear answer. Nor are we likely to find one. That’s half the fun.

The best place to start may be the commonalities between the players. Both possess otherworldly talent bolstered by top-of-the-line athleticism. Were we to construct ideal shooting guards and small forwards, we could hardly devise better. They’re both brilliant students of the game, elevating not just their own play, but that of the players surrounding them. Each has the ability to take over at will, bending the court with their gravity. Neither can be stopped effectively for long.

Jordan was the ultimate weapon in his day. He’d stab at opponents incessantly on both ends of the floor. Teamed with Scottie Pippen, he formed the most proficient defensive duo the league has ever seen. The over/under on his point total might as well have read, “As many as he wants to score tonight.” He was the center of the basketball universe and he was out to prove it most every night.

James is more like a volcano: large and ominous, feared not just for his direct blows but because of the way he changes the terrain around him. He’s far more likely to hit teammates with passes in critical situations than Jordan was. This is ironic as he’s even more unstoppable when he sets his mind to it. He’s bigger, stronger...you might as well defend shifting tectonic plates.

Modern NBA players and coaches would be able to give Jordan a rougher time than his contemporaries did. The league has caught up to Michael’s level of athleticism, training, and preparation. In this newer, faster, taller, stronger, and more technical era, James still stands apart.

Fast-forward Jordan to 2018 and he’s still a clear MVP front-runner. He still vying for championships. But he’s got catch-up work to do and more hands in his face while doing so. Transport James back to the 1990’s and he breaks the entire universe. Even now—playing on super teams and garage-sale teams alike—LeBron has made the NBA Finals every year this decade. He would have done that and more in Jordan’s time.

Let the two face each other one-on-one in their primes and James beats Jordan. He’s too big, just as fast, and just as skilled. Space Jam be damned...if you have to pick a single player to go one-on-one against an alien with the fate of humankind in the balance, you pick LeBron.

For those reasons, I’m going to say that LeBron James is the greatest player of all time.

BUT...

Anyone who saw Jordan play—or read accounts of his career afterwards—knows that Michael had a competitive fire that has never been equaled in this league. James claps talcum powder into the air at the scorer’s table; Jordan ground his opponents into dust on the floor, then used it to season his T-Bone steaks. If Michael and LeBron are ever hurtling towards each other on the highway in a perverse game of “chicken”, bet on Michael. Once engaged, he will not lose.

James may be the best player of all time, but Jordan is the greatest winner of all time.

For many, that attribute will tip the scales towards Jordan in the GOAT debate. I don’t think it would make a difference in that hypothetical one-on-one game between them, but in a hypothetical discussion of what “greatest” means, it might.

If that’s your take, I’m good with it. Let’s face it, the Trail Blazers (or any team) would mortgage the entire franchise to have either suit up for a significant length of time. The NBA is more remarkable because both players existed.

Let us know who wins the GOAT debate for you: LeBron, MJ, or someone else. And keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com or on Twitter @DaveDeckard!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com