NBA

The Debate: LeBron James or Michael Jordan

LeBron James or Michael Jordan

This article is more specific to those who have seen Michael Jordan and LeBron James play in their primes and the majority of their careers.  The first half of my debate will be made by utilizing the eye test, which I feel is always the most accurate scoring system when grading athletes ranking among their peers and those who came before them. In football, we compare Tom Brady and Joe Montana.  In baseball, we argue Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth.  In hockey, we debate if anyone can match Wayne Gretzky’s success on the ice.  When it comes to basketball, much like “The Great One”, Michael Jordan is the standard, and in many people’s eyes, M.J. will always be the greatest player in NBA history.

I can’t say I blame them.  I was lucky enough to witness Jordan’s entire career and he was a must see TV.  Nobody controlled a game like M.J., except for Wilt Chamberlain, who was five feet taller than the rest of the league in that time period.  Jordan was a 6’5 shooting guard who was able to win six world titles playing in a big man’s era.  Jordan defeated the likes of some of the best big men to ever play the game, including Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and other 7 foot centers around the league.  Jordan dominated the league!  His biggest strengths were his clutch ability, his penetration to the hole, his unblockable fadeaway shot, ability to draw double and triple team coverage, his incredible defense and the sense of leadership and fear he struck in his opponents and teammates, demanding greatness.  Michael Jordan is 6 – 0 in the NBA Finals and won the MVP in every championship.  When Jordan retired, it felt like the entire NBA would shut down.

A couple of years later, the NBA welcomed “The Chosen One” in LeBron James, who was given more hype and publicity than any other player to ever enter the league.  Everyone knew LBJ was going to be a great basketball player.  How great of a player was the question, and for a short while, we debated whether or not LeBron had the will and leadership to win multiple championships.  Maybe all the media coverage before and after he entered the league took a toll on him! However, LeBron lived up to the hype and beyond, becoming the best player in the world shortly after putting on an NBA uniform.  Besides not winning the big one, LeBron’s biggest criticism was that he was a pass first player and would often defer to his teammates in crunch time; some say he was afraid to take the game-winning shot.

Those were fair assessments considering that it did take Lebron James until his 9th season to finally put a ring on his finger and hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.  By the way, M.J. didn’t win his first title until his 9th season either.  So toss that argument out of the window!  Like any NBA superstar, Jordan needed help and when Scottie Pippen came along, M.J. finally had his wingman to put the Bulls over the top.  I don’t care how great of a player you are.  No individual can carry an entire team through four grueling rounds of NBA playoff basketball and win a championship essentially by themselves.  Every championship team has had at least two or three-star players on their roster.  There are very few exceptions like the 2004 Detroit Pistons.

LeBron James put his stamp on the league when he single-handedly carried the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals.  His magic moment was when he scored 25 points in the 4th quarter in a closeout game in the Eastern Conference against that same Detroit Pistons team.  LeBron and the Cavs were swept by the dominating San Antonio Spurs in the Finals, but the story coming out of those playoffs was the announcement that LeBron James was becoming the best player in the game.

Although it took LeBron joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, the King finally got his first title in his second season with the Heat.  Miami went to the Finals all four seasons LeBron was in South Beach.  They went 2 – 2 in the championship as LeBron won Finals MVP both times.  LBJ returned to his home and rejoined the Cavaliers in 2014, advancing to the next three NBA title games and winning one of three series against NBA superpower Golden State Warriors.  LeBron fulfilled his promise to bring the city of Cleveland its first NBA championship, and of course, won MVP honors as well.  The sum of simple addition will show that LeBron has been to seven straight NBA Finals and eight overall.  Although James is 3 – 5 in the championship, you can’t take away from the fact that no player in league history has done more with less by leading his team to seven straight NBA Finals.  That is an abnormal feat, and only the best player in the world can make that happen when there are 14 other teams in the Eastern Conference with professional talent, attempting their best every season to dethrone “The Chosen One.”

Do we hold it against Tom Brady for reaching eight Super Bowls in his illustrious career but losing three of them?  No, we don’t, and we shouldn’t.  Simply reaching the final game of the year is an accomplishment in itself.  It’s understood that Brady has a winning and flip-flopped record in title match ups with Lebron;  Brady (5 – 3) – LeBron (3-5).  Yet and still, simply reaching the championship for seven straight seasons as the best player in the world speaks tremendous volumes on how great an all-time player LeBron has been and continues to be.  Even in his 15th season in the league, with more mileage on his legs than any other player, at 33 years of age, playing in every game this season, LeBron remains the best player in the game by far.  Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Steph Curry and many others are legitimately great basketball players, but none of them are on LeBron’s level. He can guard every position on the floor and play any offensive position on the court.  He’s a phenom unlike any other we’ve ever seen!

One of the main attributes when comparing LeBron and Jordan is that M.J. certainly had a better supporting cast and a better coach for the majority of his career.  While Jordan was the leader of the team and a coach on the floor, he was blessed with having players like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Tony Kukoc, Horace Grant and others like John Paxon and Steve Kerr who were major contributors to the Bulls title runs.  LeBron hasn’t had nearly as much help as Jordan, with the exception of his four title runs with the Heat. Then James re-joined the Cavs franchise, playing alongside Kyrie Irving.  Despite a very weak supporting cast, Cleveland made the Finals three years in a row as a new NBA rivalry was born. The Cavaliers squared off against the Warriors in all three championships. Golden State took two out of three, and most believe these teams are on a collision course to play for a fourth straight season in a winner-take-all seven-game series.

Jordan and LeBron have many similarities on the court.  However, they also have some differences, which leaves open the discussion of who you think is the better player, or even who you’d prefer to start your team with.  I realize there are many great NBA legends that belong in this conversation such as Oscar Robertson, Kobe Bryant, Shaq, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Duncan, Bill Russell and so on.  However, when you just use your eyes and look at the God-given athletic talent and NBA I.Q., along with their sheer will and determination to win every season, Jordan and LeBron stand out from the pack.  Some like to put Kobe in this category, but as great as Kobe was on offense and defense, I don’t believe he measures up to the same standard as M.J. and LBJ.

Here are some statistics to help you measure the scale along with the eye test:

NBA Titles:  Jordan (6) – LeBron (3)

NBA Finals Appearances:  Jordan (6) – LeBron (8)

All-Star Games:  Jordan (14) – LeBron (14)

League MVP:  Jordan (5) – LeBron (4)

Finals MVP:  Jordan (6) – LeBron (3)

All NBA 1st Team:  Jordan (10) – LeBron (11)

All-Defensive 1st Teams:  Jordan (9) – LeBron (5)

Points Per Game:  Jordan (30) – LeBron (27)

Rebounds Per Game:  Jordan (6.2) – LeBron (7.4)

Assists Per Game:  Jordan (5.3) – LeBron (7.2)

Field Goal Percentage:  Jordan (49.7) – LeBron (50.4)

Three-Point FG Percentage:  Jordan (32.7) – LeBron (34.3)

Triple Doubles:  Jordan (28) – LeBron (56)

These stats tell me that Michael Jordan is the best player in NBA history by a small margin.  If you never saw either player in their prime, then you’d look at the stats and say Jordan hands down.  But take a closer look at their stats and remember to keep in mind that when you watch these all-timers that your eye doesn’t lie.  Take the names off the jerseys and blank out their faces, then you tell me who you think is the better player.

I have no problem saying and believing that Michael Jordan was the best post-season player of all time.  Other than a perfect 6 – 0 record in the Finals, Jordan refused to lose.  He simply would not allow it to happen.  Once he and the Bulls got over the Detroit Pistons hump in the late 1980’s, Chicago soared into NBA royalty with M.J. wearing the kings crown.

As we know throughout history, kings change as time passes, and Jordan’s NBA throne has been warmed up for LeBron to take over the new regime in the NBA kingdom.

I ask you a simple question.  If you’re starting an NBA team, who would you draft first?  Jordan has always been known as an assassin, especially during the playoffs.  He scores at will, plays tremendous defense and will take over a game by himself if needed.  Sound familiar?  Because that’s exactly what LeBron does, and the reason why he may be headed to his 8th straight NBA Finals.  And that’s on three different teams!  Simply amazing.

Now, just because Jordan had better players surrounding him, doesn’t take away from the fact that M.J. was, and still is, regarded as the best player in league history.  Jordan made his teammates better out of fear.  LeBron makes his team better by getting them involved in the game and using his versatility to open up the floor.  James is a mixture of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

I recently tweeted the Golic and Wingo show on ESPN, making a case for LeBron as the best all-around player in league history.  I stated that if you were to create the ultimate basketball player in a lab, LeBron James would emerge from the cryo-chamber.  He’s taller, stronger and faster than Jordan.  LeBron is a better passer and sees the floor as well as any player I’ve seen since Magic.  He’s a triple-double machine and has no fear driving to the basket for an “And One.”  LeBron’s game has evolved since the 2010 season, developing a post game, becoming a better long-range shooter and wiping away the fear of taking the game-winning shot.  He’s also gotten better at the free-throw line, which gives him more confidence as he drives to the bucket, knowing he’ll probably get fouled and head to the line.  Now LeBron wants the ball in his hands in crucial moments, as opposed to the time before he joined his buddies in South Beach.

In LeBron’s 15th NBA season, he’s still playing at the top of his game and is still the best player in the league.  He deserves to win the MVP every season because he is truly the most valuable player in the league and to his team specifically.  If LeBron really wanted, he could lead the NBA in scoring every season.  Nobody can stop King James from driving to the hoop and slamming a dunk right in your face.  But LBJ knows in order for his team to reach the Finals, he needs to stick to his own game, which is running the floor and making the best decisions possible, whether he’s shooting the rock or finding a teammate who has a better look.  Jordan would often just dribble the ball up the court and demand isolation without even one pass.  That was Jordan’s killer mentality, and it worked.  But he wasn’t a fan favorite among his teammates, given his braggadocious attitude and the “get out of my way” mentality. M.J. wanted to shine and felt the team had the best chance at winning with the ball in his hands.  Again, he was right!

Let’s break this down in a concluding statement.  If I need a game-winning shot, I’m going to Jordan.  If I’m starting a team, I want LeBron.  Jordan always had the mentality that nobody could stop him and he could do whatever he wanted on the court.  That includes telling his opponents mid-game what move he was going to do and he still couldn’t be stopped.  Defensively, I give the slight edge to LeBron simply because he can guard more positions on the floor.  Jordan had a better mid-range game and an unstoppable fadeaway shot.  LeBron is more versatile as he racks up the box score with points, rebounds, and assists.  Russell Westbrook does the same thing but OKC doesn’t even sniff the NBA Finals.  LeBron puts up all these stats, but more importantly, his team wins and goes to the title game every year.

I know how hard it is for people who grew up watching Michael Jordan to say that anyone could ever be better than him.  The fact is that in just about every sport, we say the same thing about other players.  Like nobody will ever break Pete Sampras’s Majors record.  Hello Roger Federer!  Babe Ruth’s home run record will never be topped.  Say hello to Hank Aaron!  No quarterback will ever throw more yards than Dan Marino in 1984.  Sorry!  Drew Brees has done it four times, along with several other quarterbacks.  The point is, things change and people are allowed to change their mind without getting fixated on their favorite athlete.

My opinion, after watching Michael Jordan and LeBron James play full careers, I have finally come around to realize that LeBron is the greatest basketball player I’ve ever seen.  LeBron is a point guard in a power forwards body and is as athletic as any player in the league.  He’s a fantastic passer, an incredible defender and has the ability to take over a game whenever he feels like it.  He’s inspired to be the best player to ever wear an NBA uniform and has the heart, will and desire to do so, constantly proving his naysayers wrong.

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