The King vs His Air-ness. LBJ vs MJ. Sounds like a heavyweight fight. It’s actually the most triggering event in NBA history; the LeBron vs Jordan debate. Of all the players that have ever tried to establish themselves as the GOAT, none have been more dominant players than LeBron James and Michael Jordan. One is regarded as the undisputed and unquestioned GOAT pre-2018, the other has been so dominant for so long that he has earned his spot in the conversation. This is a 3-part series in which I am going to do my best to tackle this debate and use every resource available.
In this debate, I will not be including anything off the court that these two have done; good or bad. This means clothing/shoe branding, movie roles, rumored gambling scandals, etc. will be null and void points in this argument. This debate is strictly basketball; stats, performances, competition, etc. Throughout this debate, I am going to often address certain things that each fan base will cry out whenever a point is made for/against their guy; Jordan retiring twice, LeBron/Jordan not having any help, LeBron/Jordan didn’t play against anybody good, etc.
This part of the debate will concern the teams that both players played on as well as the teams they faced throughout their careers. How much did these players carry their teams? Did they have supporting casts tailored to their playing styles? Were their coaches competent? How difficult were the teams they faced in the playoffs? How good were the players in their time? All of these questions will be addressed in this section.
Michael Jordan’s championship teams have been touted as legendary. This comes as no surprise because of the presence of Jordan on the team was largely the reason for such praise. But let’s look back at all of the teams throughout his career; we’ll get to the championship teams later. If you already know Jordan’s history, then feel free to skip ahead to the actual debate.
Pre-NBA Finals Jordan Teams
Jordan came into the league in 1984 and won Rookie of the Year that season. His team that year was comprised of essentially a bunch of names the casual NBA fan has never heard of. The next season, 1985-86, a couple of names on the team would be recognizable among NBA fans. One of those names was Hall-of-Famer George “The Iceman” Gervin, who played one of his last seasons with Chicago. Another name NBA fans will see on this roster is Charles Oakley, who played his rookie year in Chicago before moving onto New York in 1988. The last remaining notable name on the 85-86 roster would be future GM, and 3-time NBA champion teammate with Jordan, John Paxson. The Bulls would drop Gervin and coach Stan Albeck after the season ended in a first-round exit in the playoffs, courtesy of the Boston Celtics.
Doug Collins would replace Albeck as the head coach for the 1986-87 season; they would again see themselves out after the first round, again, courtesy of the Celtics. Other notable contributors to the Jordan legacy wouldn’t be added until the 1987-88 season in Horace Grant and future Hall-of-Famer Scottie Pippen; that season the Bulls were knocked out of the playoffs in the second round by the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls would proceed to get bounced by the “Bad Boy” Pistons the next two postseasons. Then the Bulls fired Doug Collins and brought in Phil Jackson to replace him.
As many NBA fans know, Jackson would be the coach for the Bulls in both three-peats. But before we get into those teams, to sum up, Jordan’s 1980s and 1990 legacy: while he did carry the offensive load for his teams, he needed better teammates and a better coach to get to the promised land. Jordan would make a comeback with the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, but none of those teams would make the playoff and Jordan was well past his prime.
Jordan’s NBA Finals Teams
Alright, now I can go ahead and add the “6-0” argument in here. Happy now Jordan fans? However, I’m adding it here because it wasn’t just Jordan who was 6-0 in the Finals; his teammates on those teams were undefeated in the Finals as well. Jordan fans, go ahead and pound your chest, but an NBA championship is a team achievement, not an individual achievement. The banners hanging in the United Center say “Chicago Bulls, NBA Champions” in the big bold letters; Jordan’s name is in the small print along with his teammates.
As we know, the key pieces around Jordan in 1991-93 were Pippen, Paxson and Grant. In the 1991 NBA Finals, the Bulls faced the Los Angeles Lakers led by Magic Johnson. The Bulls’ youth and matchups would prove to be too much for the Lakers as the series ended in five games. The following year, Chicago would meet the Portland Trailblazers in the 1992 NBA Finals. The Blazers were led by Clyde Drexler, but the series would end in six games. In 1993, the Bulls would face the Charles Barkley-led Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. That series would also end in six games before Jordan took his baseball break.
For the Bulls’ 1996-98 three-peat, Jordan’s supporting cast had altered mostly from the first three-peat. Pippen was still around, but Grant had moved onto join the Orlando Magic and Paxson had moved onto a coaching role on the Bulls’ bench. Grant’s rebounding role would be replaced, and upgraded, by future Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman. The rest of the supporting cast would include the likes of Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, and future Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
These Bulls would face the Seattle Supersonics in the 1996 NBA Finals led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Once again, the series would end in six. The 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals would see the Bulls face the Utah Jazz led by John Stockton and Karl Malone. Both series would end in six games and give Jordan his “6-0” status with never having been in a Game 7 of an NBA Finals.
Arguments against Jordan’s teams
Now that the history lesson is over, I can begin to look at the teams Jordan faced throughout his career. Many NBA fans believe the “Golden Era” of basketball started with the Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson rivalry and ended with Jordan’s second three-peat. The 1980s saw 4 different NBA champions: the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons. Jordan didn’t come into the league until 1984, so only one of those champions would be removed from that list (Philadelphia). The Eastern Conference was owned by Boston and Detroit between 1985 and 1990.
As I pointed out earlier, Jordan’s Bulls would get beat by these teams in the postseason convincingly. For Jordan to finally get to the Finals, it took two things to happen: 1) a coach to put the pieces in place together in Phil Jackson to get past the Pistons. 2) for the Celtics’ dynasty and big 3 to get old and injury prone. Larry Bird would often be dealing with injuries during the late 1980s, hampering his impact on the playoffs and for his team; Boston couldn’t rely on Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, who was also battling injury, to get them to the Finals without their leader.
The early 1990s Bulls never had to go up against Detroit and Boston in their primes in the postseason. Those teams had essentially died out, so the path to the NBA Finals was easier. Sure, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller would make playoff matchups entertaining, but fans knew which team had the better player to take them over the line and into the Finals. The NBA Finals would be the same in this aspect. You’d be hard pressed to find an NBA Championship team that didn’t have at least two Hall-of-Famers on the winning team. It was no different with the Jordan-era as Jordan always had Pippen throughout his Finals wins. The teams they faced were no doubt good in their own right, usually housing at least one Hall-of-Famer.
For Jordan’s first ring, he had to go against Magic Johnson and James Worthy. During those Finals, Jordan was never guarding Magic Johnson as that duty was given to Scottie Pippen. While Jordan was a great defender by his own merit, this allowed Jordan to save more energy on defense for the offensive side of the ball. The 1991 Lakers’ team was a much different team than the 1980s Lakers. Gone were the “Showtime” Lakers of 1988. Vlade Divac was no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as he had retired. James Worthy was battling injury throughout the Finals. This left the Lakers with limited scoring options as Magic was the distributor, not the scorer. Unsurprisingly, the Bulls won in five games.
For Jordan’s next ring, the Portland Trailblazers had only one Hall-of-Famer in Clyde Drexler. It’s as simple as two is greater than 1 (Jordan and Pippen against Drexler). For Jordan’s third ring, the Suns had Charles Barkley. Again, two is greater than one. Both Hall-of-Famers in their prime could push a series against the Bulls to six games, but needed more from their teammates to push it to seven.
For Jordan’s second three-peat, the Bulls added another Hall-of-Famer in Dennis Rodman. This would prove vital to the Bulls’ championship success the next three years. The Sonics had one Hall-of-Famer in Gary Payton; with his supporting cast the Sonics were able to push the Bulls to six games, but when it comes down to it, three is greater than one. And the Jazz had both Stockton and Malone (two Hall-of-Famers), but again, three is greater than two.
My point through all of this? Jordan had more help than his opposition did in the Finals. I could argue Jordan’s three-peat was not as difficult and perfect as his worshipers claim. Without going to a Game 7, as Jordan diehards like to point out, it also proves it’s as simple as the better players you have around your superstar, your team will win. Now, having made that point, Michael Jordan would carry his team offensively and that role cannot be diminished. He is still “Air Jordan”.
“The Chosen One” was tasked with carrying his team the moment he stepped foot on an NBA court. No player has been more criticized, or praised for that matter, in the history of the game than LeBron James. Since LeBron made a Finals’ appearance before his NBA Finals appearance streak, I’m going to first talk about the teams and seasons in which LeBron James was not on a team in the NBA Finals.
The Cleveland LeBrons
LeBron James entered the league in the 2003-04 season; coincidentally the season after Jordan retired for the last time. James’ first NBA coach would be Paul Silas. Much like Michael Jordan, LeBron James early on was surrounded by a lackluster cast of teammates.
James wouldn’t make his first playoff appearance until the 2005-06 season where he would lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to the second round and lose a 7-game series to the Detroit Pistons; Mike Brown was made head coach of the Cavaliers at the start of the season. The names on the Cavaliers outside of LeBron James were not very noteworthy outside of scrappy Anderson Varejao and tall international Zyndrunas Ilgauskas. But neither of those two were at the very least All-Star level (let alone Hall-of-Fame level).
The 2006-07 Cavaliers saw an NBA Finals appearance, but we’ll get to that later. In the 2007-08 season, the only name added that jumps out at the NBA fan is Ben Wallace. The Cavs would be knocked out by the Boston Celtics in the playoffs that year, the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals in 2009, and again by Boston the year after in 2010; this was all with the same, if not similar, supporting cast (note: an aging Shaquille O’Neal appeared on the 2009-10 roster).
Cleveland’s Mishandling of LBJ
LeBron James had given the Cleveland Cavaliers seven seasons to find him a second-in-command, sidekick, Robin, etc. (whatever you want to call it). Michael Jordan got Pippen in his fourth NBA season to work with. James had decided to take matters into his own hands with “The Decision”. It was the first time any superstar of any caliber had made a free agency move in the way he did; usually, it was up to teams’ front offices to make blockbuster moves to set up their team for success in the coming years. LeBron James had carried Cleveland the last seven years, and now he decided that he was going to the help instead of waiting for it to come to him. Enter the Miami Heat.
LeBron’s NBA Finals Streak
Before I get into his streak, I’m going to quickly cover the Cleveland Cavaliers 2007 Finals team; it was LeBron, a couple role players and some scrubs vs the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobilli, Tony Parker and coach Gregg Popovich. NBA fans should know that is three Hall-of-Famers and a Hall-of-Fame coach against basically one player. Now onto the streak.
The Miami Heat in the 2010-11 season brought in LeBron James and Chris Bosh to form with Dwayne Wade the next NBA “Big 3” as the Celtics had done in the late 00s with Garnett, Pierce and Allen. James would get to the NBA Finals that year and face the Dallas Mavericks led by Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd. LeBron would have a terrible series and the Heat would lose in six games.
James and Miami would be back in the Finals next season and face the young Oklahoma City Thunder. James would right his wrongs of last year’s Finals against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka and receive his first ring in five games. The following season, the Heat would again make the Finals with a couple better role players added like an aging Ray Allen (you know, just your average Hall of Fame sniper). The 2012-13 Finals against the San Antonio Spurs would be an all-time seven-game classic series. This saw LeBron James win his second consecutive ring.
The Spurs would have their revenge in the next Finals. However, for that series, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were dealing with injuries as the Spurs took the Heat apart. These Spurs had not only had the same three future Hall-of-Famers in 2007; they had added a young Kawhi Leonard who guarded LeBron in both series and would win Finals MVP in 2014.
LeBron worked with an organization that has a much better reputation than Cleveland. Pat Riley delivered LeBron James solid to good teammates to work with. It was unfortunate that injuries hampered them towards the end of the “Heatles” era.
The Cavaliers vs Warriors Saga
LeBron James would return to Cleveland in the 2014 offseason with the intent to bring a championship back to his hometown. James would be teamed with Kevin Love (via trading first-round pick Andrew Wiggins) and Kyrie Irving. This first season back with Cleveland also saw an emergence of Tristan Thompson as an elite rebounder; this would prove vital for the Cavaliers in the “return era”.
James led his team to the Finals but on the way there, would lose Love and Irving to injury; this left the Cavaliers at the mercy of the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors ultimately won in six. James would do his best to carry the team and almost convince the voters that a player on the losing team should receive Finals MVP.
In the 2015-16 season, Love would re-sign with the Cavaliers. Cleveland would get back to the NBA Finals where the Warriors were waiting once again. This time, with a healthy squad, Lebron was able to deliver the city of Cleveland its first championship since 1960. While Cleveland celebrated, this win came with some bit of controversy. Draymond Green got suspended for Game 6 and rim protector Andrew Bogut getting injured in Game 6; this left those clamoring for more with a bad taste in their mouths. But history has written down that Cleveland is a city of champions in 2016.
Cavaliers vs Warriors would make it a trilogy the next season. This time the Warriors subtracted Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut and added Kevin Durant. This would prove to be too much for Cleveland as the series only went five games before the Warriors claimed their second title in three years. This loss did not do James’ team any favors as Kyrie Irving demanded a trade that off-season and wanted out of James’ shadow; the Cavaliers organization granted that request against James’ wishes. The 2018 postseason saw James drag his team to the Finals again now a play-maker and scorer down only to get swept by the same Golden State Warriors.
Cleveland 2.0 Criticisms
Throughout his return to Cleveland, it was rumored, but not officially confirmed, that James held out re-signing in the 2016 off-season. James reportedly wanted Tristan Thompson and JR Smith re-signed with the team before James re-signed himself. These signings would handcuff the Cavaliers in free agency and trade talks due to salary cap concerns.
LeBron James has moved to Los Angeles now and has yet to step on the floor in a Laker jersey with a whole new set of teammates; none of them have seen an All-Star game since 2013 (Rajon Rondo). LeBron, age 33, is about to begin the decline of his career. James will have (for lack of a better term) a lackluster group of teammates; it’s hard to see James continuing his NBA Finals appearance streak.
Both James and Jordan have had periods of carrying their teams to relevancy and both have been in the Finals at least six times. James has played with multiple Hall-of-Famers as has Jordan. Jordan also had Phil Jackson to coach him; you don’t become a Hall-of-Fame coach without doing something right. Unless Erik Spoelstra is going end up a Hall-of-Famer, LeBron James has never been under the tutelage of a great coach; James has had to rely on his basketball IQ more often than most all-time greats.
Therefore, I think it is safe to say that Jordan had more help to capture a ring and defeat his Finals opponent than LeBron James did. James had to be player and coach without the player-coach title. And as far as signing with the Lakers, it looks like he may have to continue being that, with all due respect to Luke Walton.