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MJ or LeBron: Why there's a clear winner in the race to be basketball's GOAT

Can't we just enjoy the greatness of today's players without pointing out that MJ was better? (Image: Flickr/Jason H Smith CC-BY-2.0)
Roar Guru
3rd June, 2018
26

From what I can tell, in today’s climate, there are three modern day sports debates that consume respective fans with a passionate and, at times, aggressive fervour.

Who is the greatest of all time (the GOAT) between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer? Or what about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi?

And then there is the third debate about LeBron James and Michael Jordan, the difference with this one being that, unlike the other two comparisons, this involves players from different eras.

After LeBron’s Game 1 performance in the 2018 NBA Finals, a show of greatness that some say is beyond compare, the debate is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, but continues to rage.

It rages rightly or wrongly.

In the 90s, despite being raised in a rugby league-mad Newcastle with a football-crazed Italian grandfather, I loved basketball, and the only reason for that was Michael Jordan. In fact, the only reason I have any interest in the debate is because of MJ.

It becomes so easy to say that I look back on Jordan with childhood nostalgia and rose-coloured glasses to immortalise him as being better than he truly was.

It has only been in adulthood and the revisiting of Jordan’s games, statistics, career highlights and history that I can appreciate how great he was.

32,292 career points, 1072 games, 30.1 points per game career average, five MVPs, six NBA championships, six Finals MVPs, two three-peats, 14 All-Star appearances, and ten scoring championships.

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Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls

(Image: Flickr/Jason H Smith CC-BY-2.0)

The only seasons that he did not average 30 points per game were his rookie season (still an impressive 28.2), his second season (when he only played 18 games due to injury), his half-season return in the 1994/95 season (and even then, 26.9 average) and his two seasons with the Wizards (he was 40 years old).

The statistics are impressive, and still do not do him justice when you factor in the social phenomenon he became, with shoes, endorsements, and fighting cartoon aliens in Space Jam.

Icon comes to mind, and as John Lennon said about Elvis: Before Michael Jordan, there was nothing.

LeBron James, equally, is another phenomenon, and if you missed out on his Game 1 performance against the Golden State Warriors last week, you missed a performance of sporting greatness that had to be actually seen to be believed.

51 points away to the reigning NBA champion, and with the game in the balance, LeBron should be showered in adulation and lauded for single-handedly winning a game that is instead being remembered for a refereeing debacle (think the A-League VAR in the US) and JR Smith, who is now a global meme.

LeBron, his career not yet done, has stats to make even Jordan’s eyes water.

31,038 career points, 27.2 points per game average, 1143 games, four MVPs, three NBA championships, three Finals MVPs, 14 All-Star appearances, and one scoring championship.

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Now, LeBron has not been as prolific when it comes to his scoring prowess, having averaged 30 or more points per game in a season twice, one of which (2007-08) he averaged exactly 30.0 and won the scoring champion trophy.

However, this is where the argument gets interesting.

LeBron James at the Cavaliers (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

If you ever want to see sporting commentary bordering on the spectacularly and hot-takingly arrogant, get on YouTube and look up mainstream media NBA commentary.

It is a sight to behold, and in particular, Nick Wright is the hot-takingest supreme ruler when it comes to making declaratory statements that laud King James, whose commentary borders on LeBron fandom.

Nick will tell you that LeBron dominates Jordan in all career stats: more points (well, at least, he will), better shooter, better passer, better rebounder, more efficient scorer (LeBron shoots 50.2 per cent career, Jordan 49.7 per cent), more versatile defender, the more valuable player, and Nick lists a whole bunch of instances about LeBron making his teams better with him, worse without him.

It’s a pretty case-shut argument that is hard to disprove.

Except that his argument is not as decisive as Nick would have you believe, and as is always the case, you need to go deeper.

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The argument goes that Jordan scored more points per game because he took so many more shots per game, but because LeBron shoot with a better efficiency, he is therefore the better shooter and more valuable member of his team.

That is debatable. Jordan averaged three more shots per game than LeBron.

And the reason it is debatable is because, whereas Jordan sacrificed personal stats for the ultimate glory of team victories, LeBron continues his pursuit of individual stats, believing that championships will be the by-product.

Now when it comes to comparing individuals, I am not going to use team accomplishments to compare those individuals.

LeBron’s record of three championships from eight appearances should not be a black mark simply because Jordan ‘only’ managed to make six finals series (all of which he won). Making eight finals appearances is a major accomplishment in itself, and besides, Bill Russell won 11 championships, trumping everyone.

However, there has been one hallmark about LeBron James teams that immediately separates his teams from Jordan’s, and that is the LeBron-centric set up of the Cavs and Heat teams, as opposed to the more team focused and coached champion Bulls teams of the 90s.

LeBron’s teams have been built around him, with perimeter shooters creating the space for him to drive to the basket.

LeBron James

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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A high percentage of LeBron’s points scored at the bucket results in the 0.5 per cent better efficiency, given it is harder to miss from one yard than it is from five and beyond (where Jordan took the majority of his shots). And given LeBron’s physical prowess over Jordan, it makes sense driving to the basket more.

However, so heavily LeBron-focused have his teams been that conditions have been catered for him to flourish, while he only has a team of support players. Even Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the other two of the big three at the Heat, took support roles to LeBron’s lead during his four years, and when LeBron failed to fire (see the 2011 NBA finals), the team suffered.

Oh, that better scoring efficiency that LeBron is lauded for? Remember that season he won his scoring championship? For that season, he has the 37th all-time scoring efficiency for 30+ points season averages.

Jordan? He has four of the top 20 best 30+ points season shooting efficiencies of all time.

Meanwhile, Jordan was the star of his team, but he wasn’t the focal point. In that second three-peat team in the 90s, with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, Jordan didn’t need to dominate to win championships, he simply needed to do his job.

He has the championships to show for it.

Michael Jordan

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

LeBron James, in his eighth finals appearance, and having dominated Game 1, is instead looking down the barrel of his fifth series loss, and wondering what JR Smith was thinking as he ran the clock down with the scores tied.

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And I would argue that individual statistics will only go so far in telling you who the better player is in a team sport.

For that example, I use Russell Westbrook.

Russell Westbrook compiles triple-doubles for fun, and he is widely ridiculed as a stat-padder who doesn’t give his teams the best chance to win a championship (to be sure, his team the Thunder were Round 1 losers in the playoffs this year).

In the first six seasons of Jordan’s career, he was criticised for being too dominant (i.e. selfish) a player that was costing the Bulls championship glory.

To be sure, in the 1990/91 season, when Jordan won his first championship, he averaged a full 2.1 points per game less than the season before, the point being that he became less dominant.

Why? To win championships. A lot of them.

However, in doing so, it appears that it is costing Jordan in the argument as to who is the greatest player when compared to LeBron.

So it feels like some want to have their cake and eat it too. Jordan was too selfish to win championships, but when he played a more team-oriented role, he was no longer as good. As a great sports commentator once said to me: people see what they want to see.

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LeBron, according to some, is statistically superior (and only in some categories) and therefore the better player, regardless of the fact he has fewer rings.

Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James

(Source: Wiki Commons)

Of course, you apply that criteria to Russell Westbrook, and he’s just a stat-padder who won’t win a championship.

Jordan was the greatest basketball player I ever saw, and for mine to this day, the greatest athlete I have witnessed in my time. None of this factors in his psychological drive to compete and win.

Whether it be individual honours or team accomplishments, LeBron still has not been able to enter the zeitgeist the way Jordan has, and still does.

Now the purpose of such a comparison is not to denigrate LeBron’s career, accomplishments or ability.

But time is inevitably capable of one thing consistently, and that is to dilute achievements, just as surely as time will dilute LeBron’s career when the next superstar arrives.

So now, more than ever, is the time to remember that as great as LeBron is, Jordan is still better.

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And Jordan is still the greatest of all time.