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.
In this final part, I’ll be covering the two’s legacies and overall impact on the league. Everything in my previous two installments leads up to this. While LeBron James is still currently playing in the league, I believe his legacy as a player has been set, regardless if James wins anymore rings.
His Air-ness and His Legacy
Michael Jordan took the league to new heights throughout his career. In the 1980s, the NBA was rejuvenated by the Bird/Magic rivalry; sprinkled with a couple of good teams from Detroit, Houston and Philadelphia. And as with the blessing of Dr. Julius Erving himself, came Michael Jeffery Jordan. While Bird and Magic were reviving and fueling the Lakers/Celtics rivalry, Jordan was playing a style of basketball appreciated by all. At the close of the 1980s, the dust settled from the Bird/Magic rivalry and it was clear who was hungry for glory.
Michael Jordan was considered the best player in the league as soon as the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1990. The four-time MVP would dominate the league for the six seasons he played in the 1990s. He had posterizing dunks, creative finishing at the rim and a go-to fadeaway; Jordan was something the league wasn’t prepared for. The combination of length, athleticism, skill and competitive drive had been seen in few other players prior to the 1990s.
Influences and Influenced
Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving are the two names that come to mind when I think about Jordan’s influences. In the 1970s, Erving took the ABA by storm with high flying dunks and unstoppable athleticism. In the 1960s, Baylor carried the Los Angeles Lakers along with Jerry West to the Finals multiple years against the Celtics; Baylor was known for his innovative finishing at the rim and was ahead of his time in that department.
Jordan was able to combine these influences’ games into a new breed of player. Jordan’s style influenced the likes of Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant. All three were Hall-of-Fame worthy players that wanted to “be like Mike”.
6-0. That is the record all Jordan fans will point to. Six Finals MVPs to go with the 6-0 record; His dominance was unquestioned. The NBA Finals was where Jordan thrived and established his GOAT status. Not since Bill Russell’s Celtics had the NBA seen any player win six straight NBA Finals. Not every player is Michael Jordan.
The King’s Reign
LeBron James entered the league surrounded by the most hype of any player since Michael Jordan. Entering the league after MJ retired for good, James would go on to show the league something they’ve never seen before; a 6’8″, 260 lb, athletic forward that could play 4 positions at all times on the court (all 5 in some match-ups). James may not have won MVP every year, but pundits have been hard pressed to find a more talented player throughout this era of basketball.
Influences and Influenced
LeBron James has often credited two players that had the biggest influence on his game; Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. I would also add Oscar Robertson to that list. James has the size and pass-first mindset of Magic and the athleticism of Jordan. LeBron was also known to fill a stat sheet like Oscar. Another possible influence on his game could be that of Karl Malone or Charles Barkley; If they ever decided to drive to the basket, who would want to stand in front of them and draw a charging foul? I could probably dig for more influences, but the point remains LeBron James is the type of athlete that the NBA had never seen before.
James’ legacy as a unique athlete has proven difficult to replicate his style of play. However, there have been a couple players in recent memory that have captured a unique, never-before-seen style of basketball and one that is probably close to James’ style. Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetekounmpo are freaks of nature that the league hasn’t seen before although their styles are not quite to the mold of James. Ben Simmons is most likely the closest comparison at the moment in the league to LeBron; the passing mindset, vision and lack of jump shot are very reminiscent of a young LeBron James.
James is currently the all-time leader in postseason steals and points; James is currently top seven in rebounds and assists and ranked 15th in blocks during the postseason. LeBron certainly has built up the stat sheet in the playoffs. However, as Jordan-ites always point out, James is 3-6 in the NBA Finals. While I have defended James throughout this series, there is one thing I cannot defend him from.
That is his 2011 NBA Finals performance against the Dallas Mavericks; James had just left Cleveland and got back to the Finals and all for what? So he could shy away from the moment? How can the most talented player of a generation want to be in the GOAT conversation, but then hide from the spotlight when it’s at its brightest?
Before I get to my final decision I feel I must point a couple things out. This debate is being had across the league for a couple of reasons. Reason number one is that LeBron, at age 34, seems to have gotten more dominant and better with age, stretching his greatness across almost two decades. Reason number two is Kevin Durant moving to Golden State for a shot at a ring… or two… maybe more. What does KD have to do with the reason LeBron vs Jordan debate?
To sum it up, Kevin Durant teamed up with the homegrown super-team in Oakland to get rings. Since rings have been the go-to talking point of Jordan/GOAT fanatics, KD took LeBron’s chasing Jordan a whole step further. However, by doing so, KD made the case for LeBron even more evident; how could LeBron beat four future Hall-of-Famers in Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green? KD devalued the ring argument in the modern era, which opened the door for that GOAT debate between Jordan and LeBron.
One final note before I reveal my GOAT: even after going through all the numbers and researching everything, I maintain the idea that this debate is purely generational and personal preference. People that grew up watching MJ refuse to acknowledge James’ claim as the GOAT. Conversely, today’s generation that didn’t grow up wanting to be like Mike will defend James’ status as the GOAT to the death; I am a part of that generation.
I am of the mindset that it is personal preference. Do you want a clutch shooter that will toss up 25 or more shots per game because he’s “the guy”? Or would you rather have more of a facilitator that looks to pass first before shooting? Another question I’d ask would be “which would you want to start a team with?” But all of those questions were made by people sitting on the fence. I’m hopping off the fence and making my decision.
In my opinion, after all the information I’ve considered, based on their play on the court, I have decided that the greatest of all time is… Michael Jordan. While I support and defend the argument for James as the overall better talent, the one thing I can’t get over is the poor Finals series James had in 2011 against Dallas. “Inexcusable” is the one word I think best describes that series for LeBron James. I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to pick Jordan, but the meltdown of James has greatly affected his legacy for me more so than any of his other playoff shortcomings. LeBron is still king in the NBA, but Jordan is still the GOAT.