(NOTE: This was written in June of 2011 after the Miami Heat lost in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. Updated 5-30-2014)
One of the most popular arguments in basketball recently has been the idea that LeBron James will surpass Michael Jordan one day as the greatest player in the game. Some even say he will become more popular worldwide than Michael Jordan. Some say that he has greater skills than Michael Jordan and that Jordan was just the greatest scorer. Does this argument have merit?
This argument is going to be partially statistical and partially opinion-based. I’ve been blessed enough to watch each man play at their apex. That has to count for something, right?
So without further ado, let’s get into the argument.
Jordan – 2 Olympic gold medals (84 & 92), 6 NBA titles, 6 NBA finals MVPs, 5 time MVP, 2 time All-Star Game MVP, Rookie of the Year, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, NCAA Championship, 13 time All-Star, 10 time All-NBA First Team, 1 time All-NBA Second Team, 9 times All-Defensive First Team
Lebron – 2 Olympic Gold Medals, 1 Olympic Bronze Medal, 2 NBA titles, 4 time MVP, 2 time Finals MVP, 2 time All-Star Game MVP, Rookie of the Year, 7 time NBA All-Star, 7 times NBA All First Team, 2 times NBA All Second Team, 5 time All Defensive First Team
Analysis: There are several factors to account for. 1) The Era – Michael Jordan played in the 80s which was primarily more high scoring, defense was also more physical, they had 10 seconds to get the ball across half court and zones did not exist (remember the infamous illegal defense?), and superstar calls weren’t prominent yet. In fact, you could argue that Jordan ushered in that era. Lebron James played in the ‘handcheck’ era, where referees would routinely call petty calls and free-throws were given away like candy. Scoring was slightly lower, partially because of better defense and partially because of worse offensive players. The league was spread more thinly because of the number of teams. Thus, the disparity between the best teams and the mid-level teams was not as great. The field was more even, but not quite even if that makes sense. Everybody likes to talk about how the Cavaliers won the ‘weakened’ East, but do you realize that Jordan’s Bulls made the playoffs in 1986 with 52 losses? Unreal isn’t it?
Taking those into account, overall you have to give Jordan the edge. He was dominant on both ends of the floor – winning 11 scoring titles to Lebron’s 1 and also acquiring the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, not to mention making the All-NBA Defensive First Team 10 times. To me, that’s one of the factors that separates Michael Jordan from Lebron or even Kobe. Jordan’s competitive nature made him a beast defensively. Many people talk about how Pippen was the greatest perimeter defender, and rightly so, but Jordan was just a notch below Pippen. Lebron is a terrific off-ball defender. In fact, in the Eastern Finals this year you could argue he transformed himself into a defensive powerhouse. He routinely blocks shots with violence. Jordan’s on-ball defense was simply more impressive.
Michael Jordan also won an NCAA Championship in 1982. After watching the Finals this year, I can’t help but wonder if Lebron cheated himself by not going to college. One of the famous images of Michael Jordan’s entire career is him knocking down the shot against Georgetown to capture the title for North Carolina. What if Lebron had spent a year or two in college? Remember, Jordan stayed 3 years and was coached by one of the greatest of all-time, Dean Smith. What if Lebron had that experience? Wouldn’t he be more prepared to come up big in crunch-time instead of wilting like a flower? If Lebron ends his career without one championship, that has to be one of the greatest ‘what-ifs’ in NBA history.
Jordan: 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.3 spg, .8 bpg, 2.7 turnovers, 49.7% FG, 32.7% 3pt, 83.5% FT
Lebron: 27.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 6.9 apg, 1.7 spg, .8 bpg, 3.3 turnovers, 49.7% FG, 34.1% 3pt, 74.7% FT
Analysis: Stats are not my favorite way to compare two NBA players. There is simply too much to be evaluated besides the raw numbers. In this case, I think it’s warranted and I think it depicts an accurate reflection of the two players. Remember, Jordan’s stats are for his first 8 years in the NBA. There are a few things that jump out at me. First, Jordan was a better scorer than Lebron, which may be partially due to Lebron being more of a distributor and also sharing shots with Wade and Bosh compared to Jordan primarily splitting them with Scottie Pippen. Also, Lebron is a slightly better 3 point shooter at this stage of his career than Jordan was in his entire career. Jordan did a lot of work to develop his 3 point shot over the course of his career and even led to his famous “Shrug” Game”, when everyone declared that Clyde Drexler had a better jump shot than Michael Jordan and this put him in the ‘same league’ as Jordan. Also, Lebron’s assist total jumps out at me.
Lebron is widely considered a better distributor than Jordan and I believe that to be true. Jordan didn’t get a lot of assists, but in the team sense he began to get everyone else involved and could have gotten some ‘hockey assists.’ Lebron doesn’t share this same quality and usually just gets the assist by making good passes. This could also be a difference in the era. In today’s NBA, isolation is a key to most offenses. Assists come as a product of movement off of the ball. In the 80s and early 90s, team basketball was emphasized and ball movement was more important. You could make the right decision, but it might take one or two more passes to get the assist. But he only leads MJ by 1.5 assists per game. Taking into account that Jordan averaged 2.5 more points than Lebron , is Lebron that much of a better passer? Or was Jordan simply underrated? It’s a fair question.
The Comfort Zone: There are two ways to determine how great a basketball player is: 1) If you are a fan of their team, do you feel like you always have a chance to win in the fourth quarter of a close game? 2) If your team is going against theirs, do you feel like you could throw up in your mouth when they have the ball in the fourth quarter?
This is where the difference is made. As a lifelong Bulls fan, I never felt like we would lose if Michael Jordan was on the court. If he did fail, I had every confidence that he would come back with an incredible performance the next game. I felt like every criticism would drive him, just like the Shrug Game mentioned above. Just watch as Jordan ended LaBradford Smith‘s career. He did this to Smith because Jordan himself was disappointed that he didn’t play well offensively and let Smith score 37 on him…and they won the game! There has only been one time I felt scared to be going against Lebron in the fourth quarter – and that was this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Lebron was unreal in those fourth quarters against Chicago. He was hitting shots that didn’t seem possible, yet he made them possible. I have no idea what happened to him between the Eastern Finals and the NBA Finals, but he wasn’t the same player.
This is what separates him from Jordan. Michael Jordan would have elevated his game after performances like that and even if he did receive criticism, he would rise to the occasion. I thought Lebron might have a performance like that in Game 6. He came out and scored 9 consecutive points and I thought to myself, “Uh oh. He may go ‘Jordan’ on the Mavs!” And then suddenly, it faded. He stopped hitting shots. He became passive. He looked almost disinterested and the magic…it was gone. Jordan would not have faded like that.
Two things are for sure. There will never, EVER be another Michael Jordan….and there will never be anyone as perplexing as Lebron James. You have to respect his ability and you have to know he will end up one of the all-time greats. I’m just thankful I’ve had the opportunity to watch two unique players at their peak.