Imagine, an entire series dedicated to an NBA player sitting around with his hometown boys reminiscing about himself. At one point, as the four lounge in what could be described as a dimly lit garage with a “casual” makeshift arrangement of love seats, Lebron James makes a stark declaration: the night he claimed his third NBA title was the very moment in which he became “the greatest of all time.”
Such a level of delusion and arrogance could only reside in the mind of a self-proclaimed King. King James. Yes, LeBron James uttered those words with a laboriously nonchalant tone and smug expression, before peering out of the corner of his eye to read the reaction of his compadre.
Perhaps he forgot the final minute of Game 7 in that series – where he left a jump hook short, bricked his first free throw to ice the game and then hid in the corner as Kyrie Irving sank the game-winning three. More importantly, LeBron seemingly failed to brush up on his NBA history prior to the taping of this episode.
To climb atop the pinnacle of the league on multiple occasions is an impressive feat, though there is a laundry list of NBA players to do so. To be deemed the individual who produced the most value on a championship winning team is, once again, an honorable accomplishment, but many have achieved the award in league history.
In assessing his earth shattering performance in the 2016 NBA Finals, James was so blinded by vainglory that he somehow bypassed the man who personified clutch, who brought home twice as many NBA championships and Finals MVP honors in each of those championships, and spawned the relevance of the number “23” in the NBA. Michael Jordan.
Jordan revolutionized the game of basketball in an era where smiles and mid-game ass slaps between opponents weren’t a thing. He was born with a killer instinct like no other, which culminated in a 6-0 record in the NBA Finals and a legacy as truly the greatest of all time. Though Jordan cringes at the thought of those words escaping through anyone’s lips, James forever lives in the shadow of his greatness as the “other” 23.
Today’s NBA fans, and sports fans alike, determine greatness through statistics and analytics. Yet stats fail to account for the “it” factor on the court and the immeasurable, intangible qualities that don’t show up in the box score at the end of the night. Even if you are one of these nerds, Jordan’s stats support the narrative that LeBron still has his work cut out for him.
Welcome to the Show
Both players made a splash in their first season, taking home Rookie of the Year honors. Lebron averaged just under 21 points while dishing six assists and pulling in five boards per night, bearing a significant amount of the Cleveland Cavaliers load as a 19-year old. Jordan dropped an unheard of 28 points while matching LeBron’s six dimes and topping him with six boards and two steals per night, en route to his first All-Star appearance, an event LeBron didn’t take part in until his second season in the league. Jordan continued his domination into the postseason, averaging 29 points per game in four games. LeBron failed to reach the playoffs.
The Numbers that Matter (Sort of )
When taking any stats into account, it’s important to note that James already surpassed Jordan in both games and seasons played. James will likely add several more seasons to his resume. But at this moment in time, the numbers speak for themselves.
Jordan’s 32,292 career points was surpassed by James, but his NBA record 30.2 points per game will never be touched by James’ 27.6, especially with LeBron opting to distribute the wealth in the later stages of his career. Per game and career totals, LeBron holds the categories of assists and rebounds while Jordan takes the cake in steals. Blocks are a toss-up. Likewise, their field-goal and three-point percentages can go either way(Michael didn’t take threes often) but Jordan had a career 83% from the charity stripe, ten greater than James’ 73%. Don’t get me started on the amount of time Lebron has choked in this situation.
James has played, and will continue to play, in more playoff games than Jordan. Michael arrived and took care of business, Lebron likes to stretch it out. So it goes without saying that his totals top all of Jordan’s. But Jordan’s 33.4 points per game is nearly four better than LeBron’s 28.9. Again, James averages more assists and rebounds per contest, while Jordan averages more steals per game. When it mattered most, Jordan thrived under the pressure. To compare, watch Game 6 of Mavs vs. Heat where Lebron James had a +/- of -24. Horrendous. Jordan would have never lost to the Mavs.
LeBron has made 15 appearances in the All-Star game and 14 All-NBA teams, to Jordan’s 14 and 11 respectively. Jordan currently holds more season MVP accolades with five to James’ four, and it remains to be seen whether Lebron has enough left in his tank to bring home two more and surpass Jordan.
The Numbers that (Actually) Matter
What scenario plays out in every ten-year-old boy’s mind while they shoot around at their backyard hoop? The arena is packed and roaring in the fourth quarter of a decisive game in the NBA Finals. They are down one point. As the clock ticks away, just seconds remain and the ball is in their hands. Three, two, one. They put up a shot before the buzzer sounds and, swish, the ball drops through the net and the crowd goes wild. World Champions.
Regular season statistics are one thing. Accolades, all-star appearances, and MVP’s separate the average from the spectacular. But championships transcend players into an elite brotherhood atop the pinnacle of the basketball world. Championships are where stars shine brightest and where legends are born. When analyzing these important numbers, the debate becomes a no-contest.
I also don’t want to hear the same lame and lazy argument. You know the one: “Robert Horry won seven championships. Is he better than Jordan?” Wow…breaking new ground with that one Copernicus. We all know that there are different tiers of players. Lebron and Jordan are on the same platform. They will be compared by championships…no matter what you say
Jordan was a legend, making six appearences in the NBA Finals and retiring (for a third time) with a perfect 6-0 record at the games biggest stage, claiming Finals MVP honors in each of those appearances. He was clutch, always hitting the biggest shots in the most pressure-filled moments of the game. Dropping 38 points while on the verge of passing out in the famous “Flu Game”. Taking his final series into his own hands – stealing the ball from Malone in the post and sending Russel stumbling to the ground as he stepped back and drained the go-ahead bucket. Btw that clinched Game 6 on the road – an exclamation point at the end of a near-perfect career.
LeBron may have more appearances in the Finals, but the old saying “Quality over Quantity” prevails. James has competed in more NBA Finals series, but his 3-6 record is more of a testament to his inability to reach the “ultimate-level” of NBA greatness. The Warriors might be the best team ever….but the Mavs weren’t….neither were the Spurs. What’s the excuse for those? The moment in which James skyrocketed above all other players in league history, in his own mind, was when his teammate took the ball down the court and hit the game-winning three-pointer, while he stood in the corner as a mere spectator. Included in James’ “impeccable” Finals career: an eight-point dud in that same Mavericks series.
A Different Era
Michael Jordan wouldn’t survive in the 2019 NBA. He’d likely be arrested for murder. The league is constantly evolving, like all sports, and it’s not always for the best. Gone are the days of true competition. Players are buddy-buddy off the court, train with each other in the offseason, and that camaraderie translates onto the floor. They joke with each other on the way to the huddle, converse throughout the duration of the game, and at the end of the night, win or lose, it’s all smiles and fun, friends being friends. Michael Jordan doesn’t exist in the 2019 NBA, and likely never will again.
Plain and simple, on the court LeBron lacks the mental toughness and killer instinct that made Michael Jordan into the dominant force that he was. Every night, Jordan played with a chip on his shoulder the size of LeBron’s ego, never letting go of that moment when he was cut from his High School varsity squad. Jordan didn’t just want to beat the competition, he wanted to dominate them. One didn’t dare look into his eyes, let alone giggle and converse amidst the competition. If he could, he would take any team one-on-five.
Jordan played in the era of hustle, physicality, and defense. Granted a different James, James Harden, may be the culprit at the forefront of the demise of hustle-based basketball, but today players simply step out of the way of LeBron en route to the hoop. Jordan’s exemplary ball handling skills stifled defenders selling out their bodies for the team, and when he didn’t create the separation, he posterized them. He was beaten and battered. Everyone sold out for the cause when playing Jordan. Bill Laimbeer and the Detroit Pistons may have been charged with physical-assault for the things they did to Jordan if those games took place today. It didn’t matter. Jordan persevered and it was that killer instinct which led him to the promised land.
He demanded the ball be in his hands when the game was on the line. If the other team was in possession, he’d take it from them, no questions asked. It was that complete and utter desire to slaughter his opponents that led him to nine first-team All-Defensive honors and a Defensive Player of the Year in a legitimate defensive era, to lead the league in steals three times and scoring in ten separate seasons. And most importantly, to a perfect 6-0 record in the NBA Finals.
LeBron James may very well be the culprit in deterring the game from that pure and natural state. On the floor, it often appears that James is auditioning for the next “Space Jam”, flopping across the floor as if he was hit with a Clubber Lang left-hook every time someone makes a move towards the general vicinity of the ball. But when his NFL-build steamrolls through the lane, initiating contact like a fullback on fourth-and-one, the whistle remains silent and the only sounds echoing through the arena are the whines and cries of LeBron pleading his case to the referees when he misses a contested layup. More often than not, he is the beneficiary of the “Star Factor” and the leagues blatant sheltering of its money-making superstars.
Once defeated, James will ALWAYS make an excuse: shoulder injury – wrist was broken – groin should have kept him out six months.
Off the court, the world is a mere bystander in LeBron James’ real world 2K Franchise Mode. The originator of the Super Team, James created the norm within the league to abandon all loyalty and stability, opting to join forces with fellow All-Pro’s to create a “dynasty”. His hubris most notable in the 2010 airing of “The Decision” in which he announced he would “take his talents” to South Beach, abandoning the city he grew up in and the fans who made him the man he is today. LeBron was primed as “the chosen one” dating back to his sophomore year of high school, and the Cleveland faithful built up the “King” to a point where he embodied and believed that he was above all.
This phenomenon reached a new high (or low) in the recent saga between Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. Another case of a star-player abandoning a mid-tier city and its franchise for the limelight and aspirations to play alongside fellow superstars in a nightly rendition of the All-Star Game; disrespecting an organization mid-season and failing to honor the agreements of a legally-binding contract. And there is a familiar face behind the scenes, calling the shots.
You guessed it. LeBron James. James reached a new low in respect for the game. When called out for possible tampering in comments regarding his mindset that “it would be amazing” to play alongside Davis, LeBron responded “They can’t control me. And I play by my rules”. James’ killer instinct is only present while courting players from franchises which they are currently committed to, and his self-deception extends far beyond his misguided claims of “GOAT-ness”.
Mr. “Play-By-The-Rules” met with Davis for a romantic post-game dinner-date following the Lakers defeat of the Pelicans in Los Angeles in December. But it can only be a coincidence that, less than a month later, Davis’ top preference for a landing spot in his demanded trade would be alongside the “King” in L.A. Sure LeBron, keep telling yourself that.
Greatness versus “The Greatest”
Greatness is defined as the quality of being great, distinguished, or eminent. Both James and Jordan are distinguished within the world of basketball and the NBA. There is no doubt that both players join (or will join) an elite group of superstars that will forever be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Don’t get me wrong – Lebron James is a great basketball player.
But the greatest requires one to be the most distinguished of the distinguished, the most elite of the elite, the best of the best. LeBron James has displayed an inability to make that leap, with blemishes in his on-court record and questionable actions in his off-court decisions.
If there is still any question marks in the M.J./LeBron debate, two videos serve as the final verdict. One naive and self-righteous man believes he is entitled to deem himself the “greatest of all-time” while he is still playing the game. One cringes at anyone making that claim towards himself, understanding the rich 72-year history of the league and the different eras of greatness, each unique and incomparable to the rest.