The Lebron/MJ Debate Is Over
For years now, my friend Chris and I have had a running debate over who is the greatest basketball player of all time. Now, Chris is one of my favorite people on this Earth and he is one of the brightest computer minds I know (in fact, he designed my website in his spare time), but in this regard, Chris, being of less than forty years of age, clearly has the the ill-informed view of the young man without sufficient experience to bring proper perspective to his opinion, for he is of the notion that LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers (or at least for the next 25 minutes or so before he hastens on to another team in free agency) is the best basketball player that has ever lived. He is, of course, delusional. There has always been only one feasible answer to that question, and it is Michael Jordan. And the Cleveland Cavaliers’ being on the verge of getting swept by the Golden State Warriors just slammed the door shut on that conversation.
In fairness to Chris, he has never actually suggested that LeBron is better, but rather merely that we needed to wait and see after LeBron’s career whether he had matched MJ or not. History favors nostalgia for what was, he might suggest, and LeBron’s legacy might loom larger after he is gone. But I’m calling it here and now: This debate is over. And it’s really not even close.
Of course the numbers back it up. Michael went to the NBA Finals six times and won all six, being named Finals MVP every single time. He was league MVP five times, and not more only because the voters felt like somebody else had to win it every once in a while. He was the league scoring champion an incredible ten times, but was also an all-Defensive Team selection nine times. LeBron James, however, has just three titles to his credit, having lost in five other Finals appearances (and soon to be one more). He has four MVP’s thus far, but none in quite awhile, and though LeBron is an outstanding defensive player, he isn’t exactly out there winning scoring titles.
Ok, ok, I know LeBron is a more well-rounded player than Jordan. He has redefined certain aspects of the game by bringing the muscular 6’8”, 270 pound frame of an NFL linebacker to his rebounding and drives to the basket while also having the basketball intelligence and deft passing skills to create scoring opportunities for others. But Michael was a force of nature that simply could not be stopped. His athleticism to drive by a defender and make them look foolish when he skied above them for a death-defying dunk combined with a cutthroat ability to hit jumpers from the outside made him simply unguardable. During the eight year span where no other team won a championship other than the two years Michael Jordan left the NBA to play professional baseball, a Bulls’ championship wasn’t just expected, it was a foregone conclusion.
And especially now, with LeBron’s near loss in the conference Finals to a Celtics team playing without its two best players, the same just cant be said for LeBron. Sure, he’s made it to the NBA Finals eight straight years, but that has been in the Eastern Conference which is so clearly inferior to the West that you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t exactly break my arm patting him on the back for that one.
And don’t go trying to give me any of that preposterous, “LeBron hasn’t had any help” nonsense. I will acknowledge that LeBron had no help whatsoever in his early days in Cleveland, but LeBron left Cleveland to go play in Miami with perennial all-star Chris Bosh and his buddy Dwayne Wade, who won an NBA title before LeBron ever even got there and whom ESPN recently ranked as the fifteenth greatest player to ever play the game. The result of that formidable merger? Two championships in four years. And who did Jordan have other than Scottie Pippen who ESPN ranked as the thirty-first greatest player of all time? Toni Kucoc? Bill Cartwright? I mean Rodman was a great defender and rebounder, but c’mon. No, the most impressed I have ever been with LeBron was the 2015 NBA Finals when LeBron willed Cleveland to two wins against the Golden State Warriors even though both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured, and his best complimentary player was Matthew Dellavedova. And yet I just can’t help envisioning MJ, in James’s place, somehow winning that series.
In the end, that’s just what it comes down to when comparing these two legendary players. Jordan played with a fierce tenacity that simply would not allow him to lose. This caused him to have incredibly high expectations of performance and accountability from his teammates such that they may not have always liked him, but they sure as hell respected him, and developed markedly as players through his presence. Unlike MJ who helped Pippen develop into a Hall of Fame player, LeBron may have joined with players who were already great, but no one like that evolved from his presence. Michael pushed others to greatness, even if it was kicking and screaming, but that just isn’t who LeBron is. LeBron was recently quoted as saying, “It’s just basketball,” adding after that, “I’m not going to lose sleep over it.” Oh but you sure as hell know Jordan would have. And that’s what separates them when it comes right down to it. To be honest, I personally come down more on LeBron’s side of it. It is just a game, after all, and LeBron’s perspective will likely lead to a more impactful and meaningful life beyond basketball than Jordan has been able to achieve. But in the world of sports, where competition is the name of the game, it is the indomitable spirit of a competitor like Michael Jordan that can make all the difference.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less the first THURSDAY of each month at www.waitingfortoday.com