LeBron James is the greatest player in NBA history.
There, I said it.
If someone who has been in a coma since the fall of 2003 suddenly awoke and wanted me to describe who this LeBron James fellow is, I would simply say, “He is a more explosive, athletic “Magic” Johnson with as high a basketball IQ and a more varied offensive game than the former Laker great. Oh, by the way, James is a vastly superior defender.”
Think about that. It is not hyperbole. By all accounts, “Magic” is easily one of the eight greatest players in league history. By reasonable deduction, James is in the discussion along with Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only contenders to be christened as the GOAT. My all-time Top 10 would be Wilt Chamberlain, Magic, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Oscar Robertson, and Kobe Bryant, in that order.
LeBron’s peak value is longer than that of Jordan, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar’s.
“King” James ascended to the throne as the league’s best player in the spring of 2007 when he led the Cavaliers to The NBA Finals against the Spurs. Can anyone name who the second-best player on that Cavs roster was? Try. I dare you.
13 years later, James is, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the sport’s best player.
That’s a decade and a half of brilliance and dominance. He has been the best player during three different presidential administrations.
In comparison, Jordan had three separate eras in his career. The first nine years ended with three consecutive championships. After a two year sabbatical, he won three-straight titles. Jordan retired again, for three years, before spending his final two seasons with Washington.
That’s five years of R&R for MJ. Talk about load management.
Russell, the greatest winner in team sports history, had a 13 year career, winning 11 championships during that span. His dominance was more subtle than any other legendary player. He … just … never … lost.
Abdul-Jabbar is the league’s all-time leading scorer. In his 20 year career, he won six league MVP’s and six championships.
It is impossible to compare centers with mid-sized players, whose skill set is more diverse. Thus, this exercise will focus on the endless Jordan vs. James debate.
The casual fan would say that Jordan was the superior scorer. Jordan averaged 30.1 points per game while James has a career average of 27.1 points per game. The difference is only three points per game. Certainly not as one-sided as some would think.
Both shoot/shot roughly 50 percent from the floor – LeBron (.504) Jordan (.497) – which is amazing when you consider that an other all-time great player, Kobe Bryant, shot .447 from the floor during his 20 year career.
Both Jordan and James were/are elite defenders. In his prime, James could guard a wider range of players with the ability to defend point guards all the way to power forwards. In addition, James has a clear edge in rebounds per game (7.4 to 6.2) as well as assists per game (7.4 to 5.3).
The narrative for the past decade is that Jordan was the far better post-season performer and a superior “clutch” player. To the LeBron haters, why let numbers get in the way of a good yet false story?
It is tough to argue against the fact that Jordan was 6-0 in NBA Finals while LeBron is 3-6. A player should not be punished for dragging several overmatched teams to the Finals where they ultimately lost to all-time great teams. See the 2007 Spurs as well as the 2017 & 2018 Warriors.
Upon further reflection, Jordan played very good, not great teams in his six trips to the Finals. His victims were:
- The 1991 Lakers with a past their prime Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
- The 1992 Trailblazers with future hall-of-famer Clyde Drexler and … who? Buck Williams, Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey!
- The 1993 Suns were led by the Great Charles Barkley and … an injured Kevin Johnson.
After a two year sabbatical, Jordan won three more titles.
- 1996’s Championship came against the Sonics who were led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Meh.
The toughest opponent Jordan faced in the Finals was the Utah Jazz led by future Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton. Jordan and the Bulls beat the Jazz in back-to-back Finals. In my humble opinion, both Stockton and Malone were always overrated. Stat compilers. That’s a different debate for a different day.
In an era dominated by big men, Jordan faced the following centers in his six Finals: Vlade Divac, Kevin Duckworth, Oliver Miller, Sam Perkins & Greg Ostertagg (twice).
In LeBron James’ 9 Finals here are the players he has had to go up against:
Four Times each:
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
Three Times each:
Kevin Durrant, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobilli and Tony Parker.
The “King” has also faced future hall-of-famers Kawhi Leonard (twice), Dirk Nowitzki,
Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Talk about facing the iron.
Jordan sycophants would say that Jordan faced tougher opponents than James to get to the Finals. Jordan beat the over the hill Pistons, a solid, not spectacular Cavaliers team, the rugged Knicks, a young Shaquille O’Neal, the middling Miami Heat and a past their prime Pacer team.
Other than the Pistons, his Conference Finals opponents had none or just one future hall-of-famer in Patrick Ewing, Shaq, Alonzo Morning and Reggie Miller.
Sorry, but LeBron’s quality of opponents in the Finals were vastly superior to Jordan’s Eastern Conference & NBA Finals’ opponents.
The biggest misconception of the Jordan-James debate is that Jordan was always clutch while LeBron is unwilling to take the big shot.
In game tying/go-ahead field goals with under 10 seconds left in postseason games:
LeBron James 12/23 (52%)
Michael Jordan 7/15 (47%)
Kobe Bryant 5/22 (23%)
Those are facts. Not opinions.
The only advantage that Jordan has over James is in championships. Last I checked, it’s a team sport. If we are only using the number of titles to rank players then Bill Russell is in a class by himself.
John Havlicek won eight NBA titles compared to three by Larry Bird. Does anyone on god’s green earth think that Havlicek was better than Bird?
In baseball, Yogi Berra won more World Series Titles than any other Yankee. Does anyone think that Berra was better than Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle?
The short answer is NO.
I’m smart enough to know that six is greater than three. I’m also smart enough to know that six is greater than zero. Getting to the Finals and losing is better than losing in the first or second round of your conference playoffs.
Think of it like the Olympics. A silver medal is better than not medaling at all.
Despite being 35 years old and in his 17th season, LeBron is still dominant and impactful. He is currently leading the league in assists while creating a league best 53 points per game. The Lakers lead the Western Conference and are favored to win the franchises 17th title, which would tie the Celtics for the most in league history.
Jordan, James, and Tiger Woods are the most famous and scrutinized athletes of the last 40 years. Jordan and Woods eventually melted from the heat of expectations. James has, for the most part, dealt with excessive demands on and off the court with class and dignity. Unlike Jordan and Woods, James has been willing to speak out on social issues while putting tens of millions of dollars into education.
The Jordan-LeBron debate will go on well after James retires. Pick your side and go at it. I only get turned off when people say there is no debate.
By the way, who was the second best player on the 2007 Cavs, who lost to the Spurs in the Finals? Larry Hughes.
The same Larry Hughes who is now more famous for being Jayson Tatum’s Godfather.
John Sapochetti is co-host of “The Sap & Kat Show” which is heard on FullPressRadio
Follow him on Twitter