Comparisons are a staple of sporting discourse. There is an overwhelming desire to pit X versus Y, to start unanswerable debates on who deserves GOAT status.
We have Messi vs Ronaldo, we have Hamilton vs Schumacher, and of course, there’s LeBron James vs Michael Jordan.
LeBron vs Jordan - Who Is The GOAT?
Two players who made the NBA betting landscape their own throughout their careers, two players who have devout, partisan followers. It’s a generational divide as much as a question of taste.
People growing up in the 1990s witnessed Jordan control the NBA and become one of the most famous people on the planet. The younger generation have seen James be the NBA’s best player for over a decade.
Although so frequently compared, James and Jordan are different as athletes and people.
Their role as playmakers is one of the main contrasts on the court. James has – often irrationally – been criticised for his desire to pass rather than score. There’s an argument to be made for LeBron as the greatest passer in league history.
Jordan’s score-first mindset is perhaps more perception than reality. He averaged 9.9 assists per 100 possessions in 1988/89.
When he wanted to, Jordan could take advantage of the defensive attention he attracted and pick out open teammates. Some of Jordan’s playmaking out of double teams was extraordinary.
While LeBron has often played alongside point guards, he has spent most of his career operating the team’s main creator. In 2019/20, he took the step to be the full-time point guard and led the league in assists.
Jordan was always accompanied by a true point guard and/or Scottie Pippen, who carried the burden of the playmaking responsibility.
James is clearly the superior playmaker, but Jordan’s ability to pick apart a defence when required shouldn’t be underrated.
If Jordan’s career started 10 or 15 years later, maybe he operates as the primary playmaker for his team, running pick-and-rolls throughout the game.
Jordan’s leadership is infamous. He was a bully. Certain personalities could not survive alongside his ultra-aggressive, alpha leadership style.
Jordan was unafraid of confrontation and demanded the obsessive will-to-win from his teammates that he possessed.
LeBron is far less confrontational. He has been criticised for passive aggression at times, particularly when he takes to social media with not-so-subtle jabs at his teammates or coaches.
James galvanises teammates not by testosterone-fuelled aggression, but by building relationships with everyone on the roster. James’ handshakes and celebrations can be corny, yet it’s an effective part of his leadership.
Both embraced the leadership mantle. It’s a part of NBA stardom that does not come naturally to every All-NBA talent.
James and Jordan, albeit in very different ways, were well-suited to being the leader on and off the court, and it’s an important part of their greatness.
Judging them as leaders, of not just teams, but of franchises, depends on each individual.
Would Dennis Rodman have succeeded alongside LeBron? Could Jordan have pulled together a roster with Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith and other conflicting personalities?
There’s a segment of NBA fans for which this conversation always boils down to 6-0.
The tidiness of Jordan’s Finals record aids his mystique of invincibility. James, in contrast, has lost more Finals than he’s won, but he’s been to the Finals several more times than Jordan.
LeBron’s fourth ring obviously helped his case. If the Lakers win another one or two, the case for Jordan as the GOAT becomes very tenuous.
LeBron will almost certainly finish his career as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He’s climbing the all-time assist list, too, and holds an array of postseason records.
Reducing two careers as spectacular as LeBron and Jordan to rings is not only simplistic; it is boring.
And if it’s all about team success, neither can compare to Bill Russell. If longevity is king, then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar deserves greater recognition in any GOAT conversation.
The question about team success is also fascinating. Jordan won his titles with the same coach and co-star – is that worth more than LeBron being the centre of three different title winning teams?
Do LeBron’s moves from team to team undermine his success? Some would argue it does – he fled Cleveland (twice) and Miami when the teams didn’t look strong enough to win a title.
Jordan’s mid-career break to try his hand at baseball is a factor, too. Affording himself the luxury of a hiatus from the NBA helped to recharge, to refocus on the game and perhaps rebuild that desire to win title after title.
With LeBron extending his contract with the Lakers, we can only project what his CV will look like when retires.
It would be a surprise if he finished with fewer than five rings. Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record is well within reach. He will probably be third all-time in assists.
Michael Jordan’s net worth may be far greater than LeBron’s, but their basketball legacies are much more comparable.
They defined generations. Jordan brought millions of new fans into the sport across the world. James led the player empowerment boom in the NBA.
Both, like many of sport’s deities, have fanbases independent of their teams. Fans have followed LeBron from Cleveland to Miami to Cleveland and now to Los Angeles.
Jordan was a hero to so many people. Everything he did, whether with the Bulls, Birmingham Barons or Washington Wizards, was worldwide news.
Any comment he makes is immediately viral even in 2020, and as his Charlotte Hornets languish in the midriff of the Eastern Conference.
Their careers came years apart. The world was a different place. The NBA has changed from both business and basketball perspectives.
Yet, LeBron James and Michael Jordan have inseparable legacies. Their impact on the NBA, and sport as a whole, has been immeasurable.
The LeBron versus Jordan debates will continue for a while, even if it’s an argument that neither side can win. They are the two greatest players in the history of basketball, which should be universally accepted by this point.
Every basketball fan will have their preference. All we can say for is that LeBron’s case as the GOAT will only improve – what he has to do to surpass Jordan is a matter of subjectivity.
*Credit for the main photo belongs to Bill Kostroun, File / AP Photo*
FIRST PUBLISHED: 11th December 2020