The totality of sports comes down to competition. That is the forceful comparison of one athlete against another in an effort to determine which player is, ultimately, the best. It’s lose and go home. The comparison loses a little bit of luster in team sports, but not a ton in basketball, where individual players have to play offense and defense, and there are only five guys on the court per team at any given time.
The point here is that superstars shine brightest in the NBA. No other sport can be boiled down so succinctly to one-on-one action (aside from the various punching and kicking disciplines), and when someone’s ‘The Best in the League,’ they earn every single one of those capital letters. At two close but distinct points in recent NBA history, LeBron James and Michael Jordan have both been the best.
James is that very thing right now. Jordan was that thing for almost the entire ’90s. Since no one can be content with separate bests, they’ve been compared against each other almost as soon as LeBron entered the league, all the way back to 2003. Even though Kareem put it best when he told The Daily News that, “It’s impossible to judge over the generations. Every ten years you should have rank a 10-year team,” it remains that LeBron’s never going to be Jordan-esque, no matter how hard he tries. Let’s take a look at why that is.
1. The Resume
LeBron’s got 7 All-NBA Selections, 5 All-Defensive first team selections, 4 MVP awards (in 5 years), 10 selections to the All-Star game, and a pair of championship rings. That’s pretty rad. It’s not quite Jordanesque, though. LeBron’s in his 11th season, and when Jordan was at that same point — he’d taken two years off in order to cope with the murder of his father, so his 11th season was the 1996 season when the Bulls ran rampant over everyone — he was still better.
Jordan, in 1996, was a 10-time All-Star, 8 time All-NBA first team, Defensive Player of the Year, Four time MVP, Four time Finals MVP, Four time NBA Champion, and 7-time All Defense first team. Again, that’s when he took two years off, so it would be pretty easy to add a pair to the All-NBA and All-Star award count.
Then there’s the single fact that makes as much of the point as a single statistic ever could. Jordan’s perfect in the Finals. He never lost a series. Opine all you want about the power of a great supporting cast, but LeBron bombed out on his own — to the Spurs in 2007; don’t look at LeBron’s teammates, it’s just depressing — and with the Heatles (in 2011.) Whatever else James accomplishes, he’ll never have Jordan’s 100 percent success rate on the game’s biggest stage.
2. LeBron’s Not a Victory-Crazed Jerk
It’s been said often, but Jordan’s will to win — as positive as it sounds on motivational posters and in bite-sized sound clips from feverish announcers — has more or less crippled him in his dealings with people. Take a look at that clip up there — right about the 1:20 mark, Jordan starts talking about how he met OJ Mayo, then a high schooler at his college-level basketball camp. Mayo, in the grand tradition of many fine hoops players, starts talking smack to Jordan, who was guarding him.
Jordan shot the camp down and kept playing Mayo one-on-one, telling him that, “Look, you might be the best high school player in the country, but I’m the greatest that ever lived.” Look at the sadistic glee in his eye when he says it. LeBron doesn’t have that unless it’s game six of the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, which is a good thing for LeBron the human being, but a bad thing for LeBron the basketball player.
Oh, and here’s OJ Mayo’s take on the Jordan/Mayo showdown. Check out the difference in tone. Mayo’s in awe, and Jordan’s just the embodiment of pure competitive terror.
3. LeBron Couldn’t Carry Space Jam
Petty? Maybe. But Space Jam is a bonafide classic children’s movie, and there’s no way LeBron or any other star in the NBA would be able to turn it into that much of an event. Did you see Thunderstruck? You know, Thunderstruck, the 2012 swapping-skills basketball feature film starring Kevin Durant? No, you didn’t see that?
Neither did anyone else. That starred Kevin Durant, one of the most popular basketball players of all time. Would a LeBron movie pull more than Thunderstruck? Probably. Would people refuse to bat an eye at a LeBron basketball film, the same way people just sort of accepted Jordan’s forway into Hollywood? Yeah, right. People get sick of LeBron after a few commercials — he doesn’t have that endless fountain of goodwill that Jordan did. Not that everyone loved Jordan, of course, but people were significantly more tolerant of his extracurricular activities. Plus, there’s no way LeBron vibes with Bird and Bill Murray the same way.
4. Jordan’s Got the Scoring Titles
So, for all the advances and nuances in the general basketball fan’s way of looking at the sport, there is really no way to truly overestimate the value of scoring. At least, not Michael Jordan’s scoring. Jordan wasn’t a chucker even though he averaged 23 shots a game for his first 11 years in the league. He was just a machine, garnering 8 scoring titles from his entry into the league through 1996 — the year that he and the Bulls would go 72-10 on their way to a second three-peat. For those of you who are into less traditional stats, consider that Jordan is the number one all time career leader in WinShares. So there’s that, too.
LeBron, on the other hand, is also doomed in this journey — he’s been under the TMZ/Twitter/blogosphere microscope for his entire career. He’ll never be as good as Mike because Mike was allowed to be a mythological entity who just happened to exist on a basketball court. LeBron won’t ever be that. James is an incredible player. He’s built like Karl Malone and can pass like Larry Bird, but what he isn’t, to quote the Celtics’ great, “God in Basketball Shoes.” There’s only one of those, and that’s Michael Jordan.