Who’s the Greatest, LeBron James or Michael Jordan?
As the Cleveland Cavaliers face off against Golden State in the NBA finals (again), the debate rages
In the world of professional basketball, Michael Jordan has been widely considered the greatest player ever to live since his first retirement in 1993. When he returned to the game a few years later and added three more consecutive championships to his list of accolades, there was no longer a debate: Michael Jordan was the greatest.
He retired after the 2002-2003 NBA season. He was so widely revered that the Miami Heat, a team Jordan never played for, decided to retire his trademark No. 23 jersey number.
Enter LeBron James, a player drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers straight out of high school. He had gotten a tattoo reading “Chosen 1” in huge letters across his back before he ever played a single NBA game. He was the number-one pick in the 2003 draft, and there had been huge expectations for him ever since he made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior in high school.
“I didn’t go bald like Mike, but I’m getting there,” said LeBron. “I did everything Mike did. I even wore a wristband on my forearm.”
Fourteen successful seasons later, “King James” has become greater than anyone ever imagined.
Last Thursday, LeBron scored 35 points in a win against the Boston Celtics, bringing him to his seventh-straight NBA finals. That brings LeBron’s postseason point total to 5,995, passing Michael Jordan’s all-time record of 5,987. While Jordan’s career is long over, King James is still resting at the top of his throne and has many more years to pour into his own record.
After the game, James shared some emotional comments about surpassing MJ’s record: “I wear the number  because of Mike. I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike … I did pretty much everything that MJ did when I was a kid: I shot fadeaways before I should have. I wore a leg sleeve on my leg and folded it down so you saw the red part. I wore black and red shoes with white socks. I wore short shorts so you could see my undershorts underneath. I didn’t go bald like Mike, but I’m getting there. I did everything Mike did. I even wore a wristband on my forearm.”
LeBron has always praised MJ and other basketball legends, and is quite knowledgeable about basketball history. He has said that part of his motivation to work hard every day is because he is “chasing a ghost that played in Chicago,” a clear reference to the fact that wants to be on (or above) Michael Jordan’s level. This is why passing his role model’s playoff point total meant so much to him.
Then brings up the topic soon to be discussed in barbershops across the nation: Who is better, LeBron James or Michael Jordan?
Those who prefer Jordan are quick to bring up the fact that he won the championship each of the six times he reached the finals, compared to LeBron’s lackluster 3/7 finals record. This taps in to the common critique that LeBron isn’t “clutch,” or that he performs poorly under pressure.
LeBron has had some games during critical playoff situations in which his stats were poor, while Jordan always seemed to rise to the occasion. While Jordan was a great scorer, LeBron prides himself as being a player who always will pass to an open teammate, and people often see this as a weakness. If he were the greatest, some say, he would take the outcome of the game into his own hands instead of leaning on his teammates’ contributions to win.
LeBron fans, however, would say that it doesn’t matter that King James has a worse finals record because he has already made it to the finals more times than MJ did, so why should Jordan be praised for losing in the playoff before he could even reach the finals? LeBron has also been to the finals with different teams, players, and coaches, showing his versatility and adaptability, while Jordan played in every finals game as a Chicago Bull under the guide of the great coach Phil Jackson.
There is also the question of supporting cast. LeBron has had more all-stars on his team, and to some, that means his job has been easier than Jordan’s. LeBron’s first title came about because he left Cleveland to team up with the well-established all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — while MJ always stayed loyal to the Chicago Bulls and never resorted to “chasing rings.”
That said, Jordan had a great deal of help from Scottie Pippen and other great role models. It’s worth noting that Jordan had a playoff record of 1-9 before Scottie Pippen joined the Bulls. It’s also worth noting that when Jordan retired to play baseball, his former team won 55 games without him. When LeBron left Cleveland, his team won only 19 games — and when he left Miami, they only won 37 games.
While Jordan is still the favorite in the argument, the list of NBA legends that would take The King over His Airness is growing. Even Scottie Pippen shared a few thoughts in this direction.
In 2011, Pippen said, “Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to play the game. But I may go so far as to say LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game because he is so potent offensively that not only can he score at will, but he keeps everybody involved.” Pippen has since made it clear he didn’t mean that LeBron is decisively better than Jordan — but that he may have the chance to reach MJ’s level over the course of his career.
The most valid argument is that it’s simply a matter of preference. Michael Jordan was a lethal scorer and competitor; nobody wanted to play against him. He had a certain “just stay out of my way” attitude toward his teammates. He was dominant physically, emotionally and mentally. He wanted to win so badly that he wouldn’t accept any alternative.
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LeBron James, on the other hand, is more team-oriented and is great at getting others involved. Part of the reason so many great players have played with LeBron is that they wanted to; they knew James would try to find opportunities for them to score.
LeBron is also a stat machine; he is big enough to get rebounds; the combination of arm strength and basketball IQ allows him to be a great passer and get assists; his athletic ability and quick instincts account for his steal and blocks. In terms of play style, LeBron is more comparable to Magic Johnson than he is to Michael Jordan.
If this writer were forced to choose, I’d take LeBron James. Why? In last year’s finals, when his Cleveland Cavaliers played the Golden State Warriors — the most dominant regular season team of all time —the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to win in seven games. LeBron led all players from both teams in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.
That type of overall domination is unprecedented. The combination of basketball knowledge plus absurd physical ability is lethal. While Jordan was clearly a better scorer, LeBron is a better rebounder and passer and is more a more versatile player overall.
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Some sportswriters have also called LeBron the most athletic person they have ever seen. What other athlete do you know is 6 foot 8 inches, 250 pounds, and has a vertical of over 40 inches and a 40-yard dash time near 4.5 seconds? His decision-making is also unmatched. It’s as if LeBron were built in a laboratory to play basketball. The man is only 32 years old — he’s played for 14 seasons in the NBA, seen an insane amount of playoff games, and played for USA basketball in his off-seasons. Even with all that mileage, he is still dominating, with no signs of slowing down.
But again, it’s a matter of preference. LeBron is the better overall player and can play all five positions. And yet, there will never be a shooting guard better than His Airness. The choice is between someone who is great at every aspect of the game — or someone who specialized in one area so decisively that he was unstoppable. The choice is between a brawny tank or a sleek style icon. The choice is between a calculated winning machine, or a human with an incredible amount of will (and a certain degree of shoe-marketing genius).
The choice is yours to make! But remember this: Jordan retired during his prime to play baseball. He retired from 1999 to 2001 — then returned to the NBA to play for the Washington Wizards. Jordan also played three seasons in college — while LeBron joined the NBA right out of high school.