Under The Bleachers: The LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan Debate

Above: LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan
Above: LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan

As LeBron James readies for his fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance – and second such appearance with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers – an old and ongoing debate has started raging again, pitting “KIng James” against Michael Jordan in a battle to determine the greatest basketball player of all-time.

We do this all the time in sports – compare and contrast stars from differennt generations and different eras against each other while pretending like there is a correct answer to the question “Who was better?” when the reality is that the games change so much from era to era that it’s impossible to say whether Kareem was better than Russell or if Gretzky was better than Howe and both are better than Crosby.

What’s interesting about the LeBron v. Michael debate, however, is that it’s one of the few times people aren’t just looking at overall success because if it were just a matter of counting rings, MJ wins 6-2 and holds the “I won every time I got there” trump card too. But that’s not the sole metric people are using. It’s not even the chief metric and that’s a good thing because that doesn’t come close to providing a resolution to this debate.

Michael made six Finals – three straight before and after his baseball sabbatical – and never lost. LeBron will be playing in his sixth NBA Finals starting next week at Oracle Arena and has two rings in five trips thus far, but this is where context comes into play.

The Cleveland team LeBron single-handedly carried to the Finals in the 2006-07 season had no business being there. This is how that team lined up:

C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas
PF: Drew Gooden
SF: LeBron James
SG: Sasha Pavlovic
PG: Larry Hughes

Bench: Boobie Gibson, Anderson Varajao, Damon Jones, Eric Snow, Donyell Marshall

In his fourth year in the league, James carried that group to 50 wins, second place in the Eastern Conference and a Finals appearance, where they got swept by the San Antonio Spurs. In his fourth year in the league, Jordan’s Bulls posted a similar 50-32 record, but got bounced in the second round of the playoffs by the Bad Boys Era Detroit Pistons. It would be four more years before MJ & Co. made the Finals and hoisted their first Larry O’Brien Trophy.

From a statistical standpoint, people that side with LeBron point to his superior rebounding and assist totals, but often neglect to mention that (a) James has two inches on Jordan and plays forward, and (b) that Mike still posted career averages of six rebounds and five assists while scoring more per game overall than King James. It’s one of those “there different players” arguments that stats don’t accurately cover. If Mike wanted to be more unselfish or LeBron wanted to score more, they could, easily, and the numbers would be even closer.

And here’s the other thing that somehow often falls by the wayside: the NBA wasn’t nearly as watered down and wide open as it is now when Jordan was playing.

There weren’t only a couple teams in each conference that had a legitimate shot at winning the title each year; there were four or five teams at were real contenders and getting through to the Conference Finals was a real accomplishment. That hasn’t been the case in the Eastern Conference for the last few years, which isn’t designed to take away from LeBron’s accomplishment, but is simply a point of fact.

Games were called differently, there were far more plus defenders in the league – which makes Jordan’s scoring ability even more ridiculous – and all the advancements in sports nutrition and science had yet to fully kick in. Guys weren’t taking supplements and eating designed meals at designated times, plus travel wasn’t as good as it is now.

MJ also never took a two-week sabbatical early in the season to get his body right or benefitted from a coach opting to give him an extra day off here and there the way LeBron has. Over Chicago’s six championship seasons, Michael missed four games total; LeBron has never played a full 82 game season yet.

There are ways to swing this in either man’s direction, but perhaps more important than determining who is the undisputed greatest is determining why it even matters? Why do we have to declare there to be only one? Can’t we all agree that Michael Jordan and LeBron James are two of the absolute best to ever laced’em up and leave it at that?

You’re never going to convince a die-hard Bulls fan that anyone other than their No. 23 is the best in NBA history, just like any that came up during King James’ reign is going to side with the guy they saw far more often. That’s just the way it goes. It’s why Top 5 and Top 10 lists should be open groupings, not actual rankings.

My personal basketball Top 5 is MJ, LeBron, Bill Russell, Magic and Kobe, but you could give them to me in any order and I wouldn’t argue. I can make a case for any of them at the top and wouldn’t be all that upset if you argued against any of their inclusions because, as Michael Smith and Jemele Hill often say, “It’s My Five!”

If you want to stump for one player over the other, cool, do you.

Me? I’d rather just say they are both sublime talents that I’ve been blessed to see play the game I love and give them their place in the pantheon of all-time greats.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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