Basketball talk: Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James

So, who ya got: Michael Jordan or LeBron James? LeBron James Ohio State locker

Seems premature to have this discussion when James is so far from finishing his career — or even the 2015 postseason — but it’s already out there and we’ve got another day to kill before the 2015 NBA Finals so why not?

Well, first of all we need to define the debate. 

What are we really talking about here? Is it:

  • Which player would win if they played one on one in their prime?
  • Who was the most talented?
  • Who was the “greatest”?

Well on sheer talent, the nod probably goes to LeBron. I would imagine they are about equal in pure athleticism — quickness, jumping ability, speed — but LeBron is taller and heavier. Perhaps Jordan, without carrying so much bulk, would maintain an edge in flexibility that would let him negate LeBron’s strength advantage, but it’s hard to say definitively. At any rate, it seems close enough we need not get bogged down in that aspect of the debate.

If they played one on one in their prime? In a story in ESPN The Magazine a couple of years ago, Jordan made a good case he had LeBron’s game figured out just from scouting him over the years. If he knew what LeBron was going to do before he did it, would that help Jordan make up for the difference in height and bulk? Maybe. They also might play all day before one gained a clear advantage. I think Jordan was a better one-on-one defender on the perimeter, and his fadeaway jumper could give LeBron fits. LeBron shoots more threes, but they make a similar percentage. Could LeBron just take Jordan down in the post and overpower him? Maybe, but Jordan was no weakling and he held his own occasionally against bigger guys. He had great hands and instincts so I suspect he could hold his own.

But if all we’re judging is pure talent, neither might be No. 1 all time. That’s probably Wilt Chamberlain given that he was bigger than both and by all accounts an incredible athlete himself. He put up numbers that are absolutely mind-boggling, too.

No one has ever discussed MJ vs. Wilt, at least not that I’m aware of over the past 25 years or so, and that’s because no one ever really has it in mind when they call MJ the best of all time.

Jordan’s status as His Airness was based on what I would call “greatness.” He was not only a fantastic player but the preeminent winner. I think we get too caught up in winning at times. It should not be the be-all, end-all in a debate, and that goes for every sport, but that is where we stand. It works as a tiebreaker for Jordan and has since he ascended to the thrown kept warm by Magic and Larry.

So to review, who was ever a better pound-for-pound basketball player than Michael Jordan? Probably nobody, but there were people in his class — Dr. J, the Big O, Elgin Baylor, Kobe, maybe even Vince Carter and obviously LeBron — and Jordan scored at a higher clip and won more than all of them. Nobody but Bill Russell is in his class as far as winning, but again Russell was a big guy and not as big or talented as Wilt. Russell was just a better team player and probably on a better team.

So that is how we got to this place where Michael Jordan is considered the gold standard. He did things no one had done before on the court athletically, and he was an indomitable winner.

Lots of guys have replicated Jordan’s moves since the mid-80s, but no one has won like he did.

In his last 10 full seasons with the Bulls, Jordan won the scoring title. In his last six full seasons with the Bulls, they won the championship. 6-0. He was named Most Valuable Player all six times.

How does LeBron compare to that? Not well, actually. He’s got the stats, which on their own say he has a more well-rounded game, though not by much. And “more well rounded” doesn’t necessarily mean superior when all is said and done. Jordan was a better scorer; LeBron is a better passer. Both are great in both areas. LeBron has a higher rebounding average while Jordan averaged more steals. Again, both are adept in both. LeBron has the ability to guard more body types, but I’m not sure how often he actually does. Jordan gets the nod as far as I’m concerned defensively, but that’s kind of the realm of he’s an A+ while LeBron is an A. Both could be great defensive players when they wanted to be, and I think Jordan wanted to be a little more often, but that’s probably nit-picking. Jordan also played in an era when defense was by rule allowed to be more physical, and I’ve heard many players and coaches from that era say he would be practically unguardable under today’s rules.

Where LeBron falls short is in the winning department. Maybe more accurately: He far exceeds Jordan when it comes to losing.

Let’s throw out the 2007 Finals loss to the Spurs. That was not a fair fight. Like this year, I think LeBron got that team as far as it should have been expected to go, but they’ll have to beat the Warriors to say they exceeded expectations (It’s not like the Pistons team they beat in 2007 was the defending champion — they had already been dethroned in the East by the Heat the year before and the Spurs in the Finals the year before that). It’s the first year, so there’s no shame in that, but there is no reason to think Jordan would not have produced the same results. Raising the level of his teammates’ play was one of his calling cards, as it is with LeBron but in different ways. Jordan demanded the best out of his teammates while with LeBron it is more about his play setting them up to have an easier time executing their jobs.

Jordan would not have had much luck against the 2007 Spurs with the 2007 Cavs, though. That was just a poorly constructed team, and I am not going to knock LeBron much if they lose to the Warriors, either. I think the Warriors are better, especially with Kevin Love sidelined. Of course LeBron gets bonus points if they win, but to me he has a lot of ground to make up.

Why is that? Because despite going to Miami with the idea he had beaten the system by putting together not two but three All-Stars to build a ready-made winner, LeBron went only .500 in that pursuit. (That is three perennial All-Stars to the two that were on any of the Jordan championship teams, by the way. I’m not very much moved by the suggestion Jordan had more help because if you compare the supporting casts you’ll find a lot of similarities. The bottom line for me is both made their teams much better than the sum of their parts — and both were on teams that won in large part because Michael Jordan or LeBron James was on the team. It’s all a wash then.)

Would LeBron have had to go perfect to keep pace with Jordan? Maybe not, but the way last year’s Finals unfolded did what at this point is to me irreparable damage to LeBron’s potential to be the greatest ever even if he ends up being able to claim to have been the most talented. Not only did his team, which turned out to be flawed but most teams are in some way or another, lose, it got embarrassed. The Heat folded up the tent in a way none of Jordan’s teams did when he was in his prime, and something else happened to LeBron that is unthinkable for Jordan: The guy guarding him was named Most Valuable Player. Now, Kawhi Leonard has the makings of a fantastic player and LeBron still put up numbers in the series, but that can’t happen if you are going for the throne.

Does it take LeBron off the all-time starting five in league history? No. Absolutely not. It just means he’s not Michael Jordan.

Does it mean he can’t still be considered greater than Jordan if he wins four or five more titles? No, but let’s put this argument to bed — you know, at least until he gets more than halfway to six.

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