Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James. Who’s the GOAT? That’s the argument that’s been going on for years and years now and continues to be a hot topic of conversation as The Last Dance plays out on ESPN. And since I just mentioned ESPN, go ahead and pretend that you’re hearing this next sentence in the “30 for 30” voice. What if I told you that the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James GOAT debate was one of the most ridiculous arguments in history?
Now, just so we’re clear from the get-go, I’m not going to sit here and say that anyone who has this particular argument is wrong for having it. Sure, maybe the title of this piece suggests that. But I get it. These types of debates can be fun and they’re a great way to pass the time with your buddies over a few beers. But this thing has gotten way out of control. And, honestly, it’s never made one lick of sense to me.
Michael Jordan and LeBron James aren’t even the same player
One of my biggest gripes on the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate is easily one of the most obvious: they’re not even the same type of player. If you want to have this kind of argument, leave LeBron James out of it and insert Kobe Bryant. Kobe was admittedly a Michael Jordan clone and it was easy to see with the fadeaway and the intensity and essentially everything he did, including his defense. And while I’m at it, why did Kobe ever get knocked (and it happened a lot) for copying Jordan’s game? Isn’t that a guy you’d want to emulate? But maybe that’s an argument for another day. As it pertains to LeBron, I’ve just never understood the comparison. James has always been more like Magic Johnson or Oscar Robertson. I’d say he’s more like Scottie Pippen than Michael Jordan.
The argument I hear so often is that Jordan was a better scorer. And that’s true. Jordan had a career scoring average of 30.1 points per game to LeBron’s 27.1. But he also put up more shots (more than three per game on average) as LeBron was more of a passer than MJ, as evidenced by James’ 7.4 career assists average to Jordan’s 5.3. Another one I hear is about how LeBron is a better rebounder. Well, no kidding. He’s got three inches and about 50 pounds on Jordan in his playing days. They’re just different players.
So, yet again, I just don’t get it. If we’re going to go ahead and compare players that have different games, why not Jordan vs. Wilt or LeBron vs. Kareem? So that’s the first thing.
Both Michael Jordan and LeBron James would thrive in any era
It’s nearly impossible to compare players from different eras in any sport. It’s why it’s very difficult to compare Tom Brady to Joe Montana or Barry Bonds to Babe Ruth. As far as this debate goes, we all know that Michael Jordan played in a physically tougher era and still thrived. And we all know that a prime Jordan could thrive in today’s NBA. What gets me is the argument that LeBron James couldn’t survive in Jordan’s era. I mean, that’s a joke, right?
LeBron is 6’9″ and 250 pounds and the best pure athlete the NBA has ever seen, which is something I would argue with anyone. It’s why he’s still arguably the best player in the league in his 17th season. So to say that LeBron couldn’t handle the “Bad Boys” Pistons or Patrick Ewing’s Knicks is absurd. You’re telling me that James wouldn’t run over Bill Laimbeer or Charles Oakley when he revs up? Okay.
Can’t we just acknowledge that both would have dominated in any era and move on?
The championship debate
I think the championship debate is my favorite. Actually, before I get to that, let’s talk quickly about the awards arguments that I hear. Michael Jordan has five MVP awards to LeBron’s four. Can’t we all agree that both could have won MVP in just about every season? If that’s the backbone of an argument, does anyone really believe that Steve Nash was better than Kobe or Shaq because he won two MVPs and they only had one each? But let’s move on to the fun one.
The “six rings” argument is gold. Yes, Michael Jordan owns more NBA titles than LeBron James, six to three. But are we really naming the GOAT based on rings? So Robert Horry is better than Michael Jordan because he has seven? Steve Kerr is better than LeBron James because he has five? Yes, I know those two examples are ridiculous but if we’re going with this argument, why isn’t 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell included in this debate? Oh, he can’t be included because he lost in the NBA Finals, right? So 11-1 takes him out of the running? Just like LeBron’s losses in the Finals takes him out? Okay, so let’s take LeBron out and crown Michael Jordan at 6-0. But wait, John Havlicek’s 8-0 mark doesn’t count? The whole thing just doesn’t make sense. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six titles and scored more points than anyone in the history of the NBA and he’s not included in the discussion because he lost in the Finals?
Trust me, I could go on and on and on. But it just seems silly to me. I’ve been one of those fortunate enough (which means I’m old) to watch the entire careers of both Michael Jordan and LeBron James. And if any of this has sounded like I lean one way or the other, I don’t. They’re different players in different eras and they’re both incredible. Why can’t we just leave it at that? Maybe I’m way off base on all of this but since I think this is a ridiculous argument to have in the first place, I’ll go ahead and stop now. But something tells me that this debate will rage on.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference