For at least the last four years, two NBA players have sat atop the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) conversation.
These two men are Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Although many don’t like to admit it, there is a huge bias that comes with age. Most people who were born in the late 80s or early 90s believe Michael Jordan is the greatest, while people born in the early 2000s point to LeBron James. Both generations don’t care to look at the other point of view, but immediately choose the player they grew up admiring. In this article, there will be none of that knee-jerk bias. I will rely upon facts and statistics to make the case.
First, let’s compare the notable players both Jordan and James faced in their respective NBA Finals.
Jordan played against Magic Johnson and James Worthy in 1991, Clyde Drexler in 1992, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson in 1993, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in 1996, and Karl Malone and John Stockton in 1997 and 1998.
By comparison James faced Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in 2007, Dirk Nowitzki in 2011, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2012, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard again in 2013 and 2014, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in 2015 and 2016, and Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant again in 2017 and 2018.
If we count the Hall of Fame players that each of them went against in the NBA Finals, Jordan played against 7, while LeBron played against 9 Hall-of-Famers.
It is arguable that James’ Miami Heat teams, which included Hall-of-Famers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, were “super teams,” Michael Jordan alsobenefitted from a “big three” with Hall-of-Famers Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen.
Now that we understand their competition, let’s go over their awards. I will NOT be including All-Star MVP’s, as they do not count towards anything.
Jordan finished his career with 14 All-Star appearances, 10 scoring titles, three “steals” champion, six NBA Championships, six MVP awards in the finals, five NBA regular season MVP titles, 11 all-NBA honors, nine all-defensive honors, a Defensive Player of the Year award, and a Rookie of the Year award.
In his career to date, James netted 15 All-Star appearances, one scoring championship, 3 NBA Championships, three Finals MVP awards, four NBA regular season MVP awards, 15 All-NBA honors, six all-defensive honors, and a Rookie of the Year award.
If we add up the achievements for both players, Jordan sits at 66 honors/awards, while LeBron sits at 48.
Still, in order to measure true dominance numbers-wise, we must look at their stats.
*Note: Since these players entered the league at different ages and LeBron is still playing, I will be basing their stats off of their age 21-34 seasons for both players:
Between the ages 21-34, Jordan, in 930 games, totaled 29,277 points on 21,686 shots, 5,836 rebounds, 5,012 assists, 2,306 steals, and 828 blocks while shooting 83% from the free-throw line, 52% from two-point range, and 33% from three-point range.
Between the ages 21-34, LeBron, in 1039 games, totaled 28,714 points on 20,302 shots, 7,860 rebounds, 7,620 assists, 1,630 steals, and 811 blocks while shooting 73% from the free-throw line, 56% from two-point range, and 34% from three-point range.
From this data, we can see that from ages 21-34, Jordan was the better scorer, defender, and free throw shooter. On the other hand, LeBron is the better rebounder, passer, and shooter from two-point range and three-point range.
Based on those stats, I would say LeBron is the more dominant player all-around, and if LeBron had as many shots as Jordan did between the ages 21-34, it is safe to say LeBron would also have more points, although LeBron did play 109 more games than Jordan in this time-span.
Also some interesting facts, LeBron is currenty 4th all-time for points, 10th all-time for assists, and 14th all-time for steals, while Jordan is 5th all-Time for points and 3rd all-time for steals.
Although stats show how dominant a player was numbers-wise, they don’t tell the full story of the player’s impact they have on a team.
In Jordan’s first season, the Chicago Bulls made the playoffs, but were eliminated 3-1 by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
In his second and third seasons, Jordan’s teams made the playoffs again, only to be swept 3-0 by the Boston Celtics in the first round both years.
In his fourth season, with Scottie Pippen by his side, Jordan finally got past the first round, only to lose 1-4 to the Detroit Pistons in the second round. The Bulls made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in his fifth year, lose 2-4 to the Detroit Pistons, and lost again 3-4 to the Pistons the Conference Finals in Jordan’s sixth year.
Finally, in his seventh through ninth seasons, Jordan would won the NBA Championship in each of those years.
As was well documented, Jordan retired for the next two years, only to come back to win three more championships with the Bulls alongside Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
In LeBron’s first and second seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers missed the playoffs, but in his third season, the Cavs made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, only to lose 3-4 to the Detroit Pistons.
In just his fourth season, LeBron would take an almost helpless team to the NBA Finals before being swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
In his fifth season, LeBron would again make the Conference Semifinals, losing to the Boston Celtics 3-4.
In his sixth season, LeBron made the Conference Finals, but lost 2-4 to the Orlando Magic, and in his seventh season, made the semifinals before being eliminated by the Boston Celtics 2-4.
In his eight season, now alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James would make it to the Finals before losing to the Dallas Mavericks 2-4. However, in the next two seasons, the Heat would win the NBA Championship. It was after these championships with the Heat that LeBron would return to Cleveland and win another championship alongside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
As we can see, both Jordan and James needed a “big three” to win a championship, although I will give the advantage to James because he was able to take a helpless Cavs team to the NBA Finals without another star in only his fourth season, where Jordan in his fourth season, with Pippen, was only able to make it to the second round.
Although I know that the matchups that year may have been harder for Jordan and Pippen, the lack of any other star on James’ team clearly shows the impact James could have on any team.
Having considered all of the information above, it’s time wrap everything up and reach a decision.
Michael Jordan knew how to win, score, and defend at one of the highest rates we’ve ever seen. LeBron James has shown that he can keep his body healthy, that he can lead hopeless teams better than anyone in history, that he is one of the best passers this game has ever seen, and that he doesn’t have a limit.
Although Jordan might have the more iconic career, filled with more accolades and glory, LeBron James has to be the best player all-around to ever touch a basketball. While many may not agree right now, it will become more and more evident as LeBron’s basketball career slowly comes to an end.