Michael or LeBron? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

It’s the question every NBA fan has been asking for years…who’s the best player of all time?

Of course, there’s no statistical category that allows you to say one or the other. If you ask someone from Chicago, their response is bound to be “Michael. Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T.” Now, you spring that question on someone from Cleveland, maybe even Miami, and the response, most of the time, is going to be LeBron James.

As fans of basketball and products of the social media generation, it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla over who’s the greatest basketball player of all time. It’s one of ESPN’s go-to debates, and sometimes it can be a good bit of fun. But, if we take a step back from the conversation and truly become students of the game of basketball, it’s obvious that this particular debate doesn’t make a lot of sense.

If I were to ask you, “who’s the greatest baseball player of all time?” you’d likely ask me to clarify at which position. The same could be said for soccer, football, or even hockey. The problem with team sports is that each position is asked to do so many different things that comparing two players from very different positions isn’t a fair comparison.

Michael Jordan and LeBron James are clearly two of the greatest basketball players ever, there’s no debate there. Despite that, their roles for their teams have been incredibly different. Michael Jordan played shooting guard on some of the best teams of all time, alongside the likes of Scottie Pippen (who will come up again later in this article), Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman, and other big name players. For him, that meant being allowed to play off the ball, not having to guard the opposing team’s best player, and really focus his game on scoring the basketball. That type of dynamic translated to Michael becoming not only one of the best scorers of all time, but also one of the best playoff scorers of all time.

LeBron James in Cleveland and LeBron James in Miami are two different players, but nonetheless, still very different than Michael Jordan. In both of his stints in Cleveland, LeBron has found himself facilitating the offense, almost as a point guard. He brings the ball up the court, orchestrates the offense, and is a wizard with his passing. While in Miami, he played much more of a forward position, adding on weight and girth. Don’t get it twisted, LeBron still scored (and still does) quite a bit, but his role for his team in Miami was not to be the elite scorer that Michael was in Chicago. LeBron did prove this season that he’s capable of it (averaging 40 points per game in the NBA Finals is the only justification needed there).

So, we’ve got two basketball titans, separated by a generation of basketball, and no clear-cut answer to our question…Who’s the greatest player of all time? The go to response for the Michael Jordan supporters? Championships – This makes this a no-brainer…right? Michael Jordan has six rings, going 6-0 in the NBA Finals. On top of that, he averaged 33.6 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists per game. What other question is there? LeBron is 2-4 in the Finals, falling twice as a Cavalier and twice with the Miami Heat. Well, I would implore you to look a little deeper.

First, let’s consider the competition. LeBron has lost to the Spurs twice, the Mavericks once, and the Warriors most recently. Yes, LeBron drastically underperformed in 2011 against the Mavs, likely costing his team a chance at a ring. Still, in his other three Finals losses, LeBron either lost to the greatest franchise in sports in my lifetime, the San Antonio Spurs, or he lost to historically one of the best teams in an NBA season in the history of the game. Now, it’s easy to have the rebuttal be, “Does it matter? He still lost!” While that is incredibly true, let’s again reference the fact that basketball is a team sport. LeBron’s dominance in the 2015 Finals was absurd, especially without his two fellow superstars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. He averaged nearly 40 points per game, in addition to being a few assists shy of AVERAGING a triple double. Plus, this:

It’s hard to argue that LeBron is losing his team championships, but you could definitely argue he’s not winning them for his team. Michael never lost in the Finals; as a matter of fact, Michael never even needed seven games to finish off a series. But, I challenge you to name players from the ’92 Trailblazers (besides Clyde Drexler) or ’93 Suns (besides Charles Barkley) that are playing at the level of the Spurs of the 2000s, Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, or the 2015 Warriors. The competition was not nearly as deep in the ’90s as it is in the modern NBA, and that allowed Michael to stay fresh and have his body ready for Finals’ competition. Let’s also not forget that LeBron James is only 30 years old. When Michael Jordan finally hung it up (for the last time), he was 39 years old. If you’re telling me LeBron could play nine more years in the league, this conversation could be very different in 2024.

Realistically, the battle of Michael vs. LeBron can’t be won. Both sides have such captivating arguments that it’s a push. So, if we can’t compare Jordan vs. James…what are we supposed to compare? Both Michael and LeBron have much more applicable comparisons than each other.

Michael Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant

When it comes to pure dominance on the offensive end of the court, these two are the best to ever do it at the guard position. Both are such elite scorers, capable of nailing a jumpshot in a defender’s face at any time. If the jumpshot isn’t falling, don’t worry, both Michael and Kobe could take you to the basket and finish with grace at the rim. As we compare Michael and Kobe, Jordan’s Mount Rushmore status dwindles a little bit in my mind. Kobe was just as elite a scorer as MJ, but probably a better shooter, and won five championships with fewer pieces than Michael needed to win his six. Does Kobe win his rings without Shaq or Pau Gasol? Definitely not. Does Michael win his rings without Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman? Definitely not. The breakdown of MJ vs. Kobe is so identical in their abilities and the way they play off their teammates that this is a complete toss up. It also makes this comparison far easier to make than that of LeBron to the players his game is predicated on. Sure, Kobe has lost twice in the Finals, but he’s also been seven times, one more time than MJ. If my comparison isn’t enough to intrigue you, the likes of Mark Jackson and Jackie McMullan, both well respected in the NBA community, have gone as far as to say that Kobe will go down as a better player than Michael, even if Scottie Pippen disagrees.

LeBron James vs. Scottie Pippen vs. Magic Johnson vs. Oscar Robertson

It’s impossible to compare LeBron to one player since his game encapsulates so many different aspects of so many different players. Of the three players listed, LeBron’s post game by far the best, but these three players were carefully chosen because every other facet of the game of basketball that LeBron uses is a derivation of what these men did before him.

If we move in chronological order, we’d begin with the Big O, Oscar Robertson. The LeBron to Oscar comparison is so clear due to their ability to do so many things well. Though Robertson played point guard, he still was able to haul in rebounds at a very high rate and stuff the staff sheet. Oscar is the only player in NBA history to average a triple double in a season, something we are probably never going to see again. He also helped lead the Milwaukee Bucks to their only championship in franchise history. LeBron and Oscar both were able to facilitate offense, rebound, and score better than anyone on the floor. The all-around game they share has only been close to matched by the next man on the list, Magic Johnson.

The main reason I love the comparison of LeBron and Magic is because they are both…pardon my pun…magicians with the basketball. Sure, Magic played point guard, but he and LeBron are the same height, and similar weight, with Magic weighing in somewhere in the 250 lbs. ballpark during the peak of his career. LeBron is going to finish his career as a better scorer than Magic, but their passing skills are not only similar, but also magnificent.

Magic’s career was much shorter than LeBron’s is going to be, so there is a chance LeBron could surpass Magic in rings. Plus, tell me someone besides LeBron or Magic Johnson that could have done this:

The final comparison, and in my opinion the most applicable one, is LeBron to Scottie Pippen, which comes at an interesting time after Pippen said today that he was “LeBron James before LeBron James.” Pippen said, “They want to compare him to the greatest whether it be Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, but he’s more closer to myself. It’s natural for folks to say that, but if you look at how he plays the game and how I played the game, you’ll see more similarities with us.” I agree with Pippen; LeBron and Pippen both have a positionless feel to their games, to their ability to score inside and out on offense, but primarily due to their ability to guard any position on the floor. Scottie’s post game was very solid, much like LeBron’s, and both men could attack the basket with intensity. But, it isn’t their skills that make these two players so similar, it’s the intangibles. In the game of basketball, understanding the flow of a game could be just as important as being able to dominate it physically, and both James and Pippen have off the charts basketball IQs. For a frame of reference, LeBron just passed Scottie Pippen this season on the all-time assists leader board for forwards. Scottie Pippen is a top 25 player of all time, in my opinion, and one could argue (as I often do) that he was just as valuable to the Chicago Bulls’ six championships as Michael Jordan was.

After all of that, we still don’t have an answer – who’s the greatest player of all time? Even though we’ve mentioned so many greats, we haven’t even touched the power forward or center positions (but that’s a completely different conversation). The knocks on LeBron are plentiful – he left Cleveland with a charade, he hasn’t closed out series for his teams, etc. People love to hate LeBron, but if we were to put Michael Jordan in the social media era, would he be as loved as he currently is? LeBron takes heat for leaving a Finals game with cramps, but do we even recall that Michael did the same thing? LeBron is hated on for being chauvinistic, but have we all forgotten that Michael Jordan retired after only nine seasons because he, “had nothing left to prove?” Don’t get me wrong, I love this debate, but I think it’s very important to consider every aspect to it, and I think we struggle to do just that. So, who would you choose?


Image via GQ

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