The Argument Arena: LeBron or Michael, Is This Choice Even Fair?
America is extremely passionate about sports, and this passion inevitably leads to many bar stool or poker-table arguments about which athletes represent the best of all time in their respective game. The traditional metric used to separate great players from the best player in nearly all sports is to compare and contrast superstars’ postseason performances, and ultimately their number of championships. And yet, all of this debate seems self-defeating, as these superstars and their performances are not within a vacuum: the game changes with time, the player depends on the strength of the team around him/her, and most people will never change their minds.
There are people—a lot of people—that will always consider Joe Montana’s perfect 4-0 Super Bowl record achieved by passing eleven touchdowns and zero interceptions as superior to anything Tom Brady accomplishes. And despite Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds breaking Babe Ruth’s homerun record, Ruth is still widely considered the best slugger of all time. Is the NBA any different? Is there room to debate the greatest basketball player of all time?
Before LeBron came along, the choice for the greatest basketball player of all time was pretty settled. Michael Jordan is truly a unique player. MJ checks all of the boxes: college national championship? Check. Olympic Gold? Check, check. Slam Dunk Contest? Two electrifying checks. Oh yeah, and he went 6-0 for NBA titles and NBA finals MVP’s from 1991-1998 despite a stint in minor league baseball for a year and a half in between.
Who else even comes close to matching Michael’s all-around dominance? Tim Duncan is likely the greatest power forward of all time, but he excelled at playing his role. Magic’s legacy is forever tied to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Even though Kobe accrued five titles, the world outside of Los Angeles widely considers MJ the better case for best player of all time because Michael dominated the game offensively AND defensively. Michael was a ten time scoring champion, nine time NBA All-Defensive First Team selection, and three time NBA steals leader. Kobe also had nine NBA All-Defensive First Team selections, but Neil Paine of 538 Sports argues Kobe’s selections were based off reputation rather than defensive efficiency. And Kobe missed one piece of Michael’s game that separates the two: passing. Ask Steve Kerr about Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals if you don’t believe me.
LeBron’s emergence shook this argument to the core. Michael left the league in 2003 as a Washington Wizard and LeBron entered the league that same year as a Cleveland Cavalier. Even in his rookie year, LeBron showcased the smooth, big-man-with-finesse skillset similar to Magic Johnson, as well as the killer instinct and scoring prowess of Michael Jordan. LeBron is now in his 14th season, and Michael played close to 13 seasons with the Bulls from 1984-1998. Unlike Kobe’s ball dominant playstyle, LeBron seems to do it all on the court, and his dominance of all phases of the game reminds many of Michael’s. It would seem now is a great time to compare the two superstars. Or is it?
The Losing Side: Michael > LeBron
Forget about comparing statistics, measuring efficiencies, and arguing the minutia. For many, this debate ends with two simple numbers: 6-0. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls completed two separate three-peats without needing a game seven in any of their NBA Finals wins. There is a strong case to be made that Jordan could have and would have won eight straight championships if he didn’t retire for a year and a half after his third championship. This dominance wasn’t even matched by the Golden State Warriors—a team Nate Silver argues is the second coming of the ’95 Bulls—after the Warriors lost to LeBron’s Cavaliers last year.
And yet, LeBron supporters counter that his career has forged a separate, but equally as impressive legacy. LeBron single handedly willed his 2007 Cavaliers to the NBA Finals when he was only 22. The pre-Miami Heat LeBron didn’t have the squad around him that Michael had in Chicago. And since LeBron signed with the Heat in 2010 he has yet to miss an NBA Finals appearance, and brought two championships to Miami. LeBron left to return home to Cleveland, and beat the best team in the league to bring a championship to his hometown. LeBron supporters can’t point to a 6-0 Finals record, but they can point to LeBron’s unyielding drive to accomplish his goals. In this pursuit LeBron is racking up career milestones Michael never reached and passing many of the milestones Michael did reach.
So how can we sports fans possibly settle this? Who is the greatest of all time? Is it Jordan with his perfect NBA Finals record and all-around dominance of the game for a decade? Or is it LeBron, with still several years of his prime left to alter the analysis and seven straight finals, including the fulfillment of his promise to bring a title to Cleveland? The answer is we shouldn’t.
We Cannot and Should Not Compare LeBron and Michael
It isn’t fair to Michael or LeBron to compare their legacies because they are each compelling for drastically different reasons, and Scottie Pippen agrees with me. In an interview with ESPN, Pippen argues we shouldn’t compare Michael and LeBron because they have two totally different skill sets and played in two completely different eras with different rules. Comparing LeBron and Michael is like comparing a Cadillac Escalade with a Ford Mustang.
LeBron’s game is more similar to Magic Johnson’s than Jordan’s. LeBron is an excellent passer, rebounder, finisher, and defender. But it is his passing that separates him in today’s modern game. LeBron has already recorded more assists than any forward in NBA history, and his precision passing ensures that he impacts the game while also forcing his teammates into a rhythm. LeBron’s passing skills were birthed from necessity: prior to Kyrie, LeBron was the best point guard on his team every single year. Can you name LeBron’s point guard in Cleveland’s 2007 Finals run? Can you name the point guard in the Miami years? They were Larry Hughes and Mario Chalmers, two guards better suited to play shooting guard, and that’s what they did when LeBron played point guard. At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, LeBron is the best player in the world today because he can score from anywhere and guard any position on the court.
Michael was a true shooting guard. He liked the ball in his hands, and although he passed more than Kobe, he preferred to drive to the rim in situations where LeBron often passes. Michael didn’t need to pass as much as LeBron, he was extremely efficient from the field and his teammates fed off his efficiency just as much as his assists. Honestly, the player that most reminds me of Michael Jordan today is Kevin Durant, not LeBron James. KD and MJ are both hyper-efficient scorers that pass when they need to, and utilize their athleticism to have an impact on defense. They are both unguardable from mid-range, and collapse defenses that must respect their jumper. They pressure defenses to double them, and dish to open shooters as a result. They always put defenses in lose-lose situations: try to defend with man-to-man and give up a score, foul, or both, or double and give up an open shot to the perimeter or cutter. As far as Michael and LeBron, they are two completely different players with different skill sets, approaches to the game, team compositions, rule environments, and opponents.
So why do we have to pick THE greatest player in NBA history when it’s impossible to compare Michael and LeBron? Why do we have to pick one when both of their legacies are so distinctly compelling from the rest of the NBA for drastically different reasons? The answer is we shouldn’t. The greatest player in the history of the NBA wore No. 23, and let’s leave it at that.