I love sports debates. They’re like a sport within a sport. Since no debate is hotter than MJ vs. LeBron right now, and since I have a pretty strong opinion about it, I’ve been known to wade into it a few times. So, I’ve heard all of the arguments given in favor of Michael Jordan. I agree that he’s great, but I don’t think the arguments hold up. Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones I’ve seen.
Nobody will ever be better than Jordan
In other words, “I refuse to be objective about this and therefore my opinion is not valid.”
LeBron wears #23 after Jordan so clearly Jordan is better
Michael didn’t have to leave to win.
Context. 1) LeBron’s teams were objectively awful. The Cavs had 7 years to get him help and couldn’t come up with anyone better than Larry Hughes. MJ had Scottie and Phil. If MJ were saddled with LeBron’s early Cleveland teams and never left, he would have precisely 0 rings. Basketball is a team game and nobody has ever won with teams that bad 2) Players didn’t leave in MJ’s day like they do now, but his discontentment with the team he had indicates he very well might have left in a different era.
LeBron has had better teammates
First, that’s demonstrably untrue. Statistically, LeBron has taken some laughably bad supporting casts to the Finals, including this year’s Cavs. In Michael’s 2nd 3-peat, he had 3 of the best supporting casts the Finals have seen since the start of his career.
Second, context. Michael played in a time where players didn’t really choose their teams, so super teams were rare. Once the Celtics and Lakers faded, the league was comprised of 2-star teams. Johnson and Barkley. Dumars and Isiah. Stockton and Malone. Hakeem and Drexler. Shaq and Penny. So, Jordan and Pippen was enough to go against anybody.
LeBron’s prime came during the heyday of the KG/Pierce/Allen Celtics, the Kobe/Pau/Bynum Lakers, and the Duncan/Manu/Parker Spurs, the KD/Westbrook/Harden/Ibaka Thunder, and ultimately the Curry/Klay/Draymond/Iggy/(KD) Warriors. LeBron had good teammates, yes. But that doesn’t mean his teammates were better than the competition, and that’s the context that matters.
Additionally, Jordan’s Bulls won 55 games and went to Game 7 of the 2nd round without him. The Cavs and Heat were lottery teams as soon as LeBron left.
Michael never lost in the Finals
Guess what that argument lacks? Context.
If the two had played with the exact same coaches and teammates against the exact same opponents, this would be a viable argument. Since they didn’t, the argument ignores all context. Does anybody really believe that if Michael had to play Curry’s Warriors with Matthew Dellavedova as his sidekick that he’d still be undefeated? Does anybody really believe that a 22 year old Michael Jordan would have been victorious against prime Pop, Duncan, Manu, and Parker with DREW GOODEN as his sidekick and MIKE BROWN on the sideline? Come on now.
The only reasons Michael has a perfect Finals record? He never dragged a team to the Finals that didn’t belong there, and he never played an opponent that was even marginally better than his team – let alone one that was historically dominant. Jordan beat teams he was supposed to beat.
LeBron is very likely about to add another Finals loss to his record. It’s totally nonsensical to use that loss as a mark against him. Instead, it’s a testament to him carrying an inferior team to a place they never belonged in the first place – again, something Jordan never did. Yes, he lost to a team he should have beat in the 2011 Mavs. But he’s also beaten plenty of teams he shouldn’t have, none more prevalent than the 73-win Warriors in 2016.
LeBron wouldn’t have survived in the 80s
I mean… have you seen LeBron?
Did you see him hit this layup with a Celtic pulling on his shoulders like a human backpack?
He’d be fine.
Sometimes. But he also fights through getting absolutely battered. By the time MJ was winning titles, he went to the line every time somebody looked at him funny.
Hand check rules made scoring easier in LeBron’s era
Maybe. But the illegal defense rules that were enforced in Michael’s era made isolation scoring ten times easier than it is today and yet for some reason nobody ever brings that up when comparing eras. Help defense was basically illegal.
Today’s NBA isn’t as good
I’ve always been told that the 80s and 90s NBA was miles ahead of today’s league. Thankfully we’ve got YouTube to confirm whether or not that’s true. Upon further review, the NBA back then was certainly different, but not in a good way. Between the differences in athleticism, size, and strategy, the NBA of Jordan’s day isn’t in the same galaxy as today’s. Check out these clips from two of MJ’s most famous performances (63 points vs. the Celtics, 55 points vs. the Suns) and tell me the NBA was more difficult then.
Memory has a way of making things a lot bigger and better than they were. That doesn’t make it true.
Michael was a better defender
In one sense, that’s probably true. He one a DPOY award and is well-known for his lock down abilities. But LeBron is no slouch, either. He finished 2nd in DPOY voting in two different seasons, and he’s made all-NBA first team defense five times (to Jordan’s nine). The other thing that sets him apart is that he is one of maybe two players ever (with Magic Johnson) who has effectively defended all 5 positions on a basketball court. His ability to switch onto anyone has literally broken the NBA to the point where traditional centers are fading out of the league. Maybe Michael was the better defender. But it wasn’t by much, and being able to lock a guy down doesn’t make him more important to team defense.
Michael Jordan will always be in the conversation as one of the best basketball players ever. But that doesn’t mean he can’t ever be topped. When you look at the two as individuals, you see that LeBron is just the more complete player. Jordan is the slightly better scorer, but LeBron is easily the better rebounder and also has established himself as one of the best passers the game has ever seen. Yes, Jordan was clutch, but LeBron is too. He’s the best Game 7 player the NBA has ever had.
Simply put, he does things Jordan just couldn’t do. He played against an all-time great team in 2015 and still led the Finals in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. In 2017, hopelessly outgunned against the team that won 73 games and THEN added Kevin Durant, he averaged a triple-double in the Finals, becoming the only player in league history to do so. He puts up stat lines that are straight out of a video game on easy mode. He puts up stat lines that look like Russell and Wilt’s from the days where they were 4″ taller than their opponents. Add in his longevity and consistency that is rivaled only by Kareem Abul-Jabbar, and you have a person who has played at a higher level and for longer than anyone we’ve seen.
When you factor in the truth that basketball is a team game that makes players heavily dependent on teammates, coaches, and opponents and just measure the players on what they can do, LeBron is the clear winner. We’ve never seen a more complete basketball player.
(image credit: Robertoperoda, Wikimedia Commons)