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It is the question that stirs so many sports debates: Who is the greatest of all time?
The question of basketball’s GOAT was raised again following the airing of The Last Dance the epic 10-part documentary on the Chicago Bulls quest for a sixth NBA title.
Michael Jordan, who drives the entire project, is brought back into focus some 23 years later. It’s not like anyone had forgotten Jordan, but a nearly month-long run of weekly episodes brought him back to the forefront. Naturally, it opened the GOAT debate again.
For these purposes, we’ve limited the argument to just two players: Jordan and LeBron James.
Both were clear-cut greatest players of their respective generations, but who was the best?
Jordan: Now that we’ve all had a 10-episode reminder of what a take-charge kind of guy Jordan was, is this category even up for debate? Jordan had no sacred cows, no player he wouldn’t challenge and no length he wouldn’t go to in order to motivate a teammate. Physical intimidation (punching Steve Kerr and Will Perdue), was just the beginning. He would verbally eviscerate a teammate if he believed it made him a better player and, based on The Last Dance , he believed this was effective with every teammate he ever had, with Scottie Pippen the lone exception. Jordan justified this approach to himself and his detractors during The Last Dance when he said no one on the team would ever say he asked them to do something he hadn’t done himself. This is probably true and it ignores the fact the bar is not set the same for every player. That said, it’s fair to say Jordan got the most out of every teammate he ever played with, even if it cost him some personal relationships.
James: In his own right, James, like Jordan, is a once-in-a-lifetime leader. By virtue of his own abilities on the basketball court, he immediately has the respect of every player with whom he steps on the court. But, unlike Jordan, teammates of James say there is — and always has been — an effort to befriend all of his teammates, so that when he did have to come down on them for a lack of effort or discipline or focus, it didn’t come across as mean-spirited. It was just trying to get the best out of them. It’s a small distinction, but it’s probably the difference between James’ teammates’ opinions of him and Jordan’s, some of whom openly refer to him as an a–hole while still conceding he is the greatest of all time.
Jordan, despite playing in a predominantly two-point scoring era, was as inventive and effective as any scorer in the game’s history. He sits fifth overall among NBA scoring greats, two spots behind James, who has basically three times as many three-point attempts and makes as Jordan, not to mention two more full seasons under his belt. Jordan also did his scoring in an era in which defence was extremely physical. Ask Charles Oakley or Bill Laimbeer or Rick Mahorn about defence today and you get either an eye roll or a smile. Defenders today are extremely limited in how physical they can get with an opponent. Jordan dealt with that on a nightly basis and still averaged more points per game than LeBron did. For that reason, more than any other, Jordan has to be considered the better scorer.
James: You always get the feeling while watching LeBron James that he could, in fact, score at any point he wanted — he just chooses to share the load. Where Jordan had to be coached to give up the ball, James is a much more willing sharer. His mix of size and athleticism makes him a tough man to stop and almost impossible when he’s coming in with speed. Obviously, James’ three-point game gives him an edge over Jordan on sheer totals, but in terms of pure scoring, we would still give the edge to Jordan. We’re basing that on the belief that had Jordan played in this era, he too would have refined his three-point shot and made more use of it.
Jordan was a lockdown defender, earning nine all-defensive teams nominations, compared to just six for LeBron, who has had the luxury of playing two more seasons. Jordan also won a defensive player of the year award in 1987-88, something James has never done. The big difference here, though, is that James clearly takes defensive series off at times, something Jordan wouldn’t allow himself or any of his teammates to do. Jordan doesn’t have the bulk or size that James does, but he would defend the perimeter as well as anyone in the game certainly then — and perhaps now. (Although Kawhi Leonard might have an argument.) In his 13 seasons in Chicago, Jordan averaged 2.5 steals a game, almost a full steal a game more than James in his prime.
James: At 6-foot-9 and a chiselled 250 pounds, James was certainly the more versatile of the two men when it came to defence. He can guard 1-through-5 while Jordan was limited to 1-through-4 back in the day when centres were appreciated for their size and bulk as opposed to now, when they actually stretch defences out stepping out to the three-point line. James, when he’s interested, can be a lockdown defender, but anyone who has watched him knows this isn’t consistently the case. For Jordan, it always was — and that is what gives MJ the edge despite the inches and pounds he gives up to LeBron.
James: Clearly, because of the way he approached team-building and chemistry, James was far more interested in sharing the scoring load than dominating it. James won’t be confused with Magic Johnson in the passing department (few are), but he is inventive and has elite court vision, knowing exactly where each and every teammate is at all times. James has averaged 7.4 assists per game so far in his career — and that’s only going up, based on the league-leading 10.6 assists per night he was averaging when the season was put on hold. The presence of one Anthony Davis in that Lakers lineup has a lot to do with that.
Jordan: It’s tough to call Jordan a ball hog, if for no other reason than he averaged 5.3 dimes a night over his career but it was clearly not his focus. Jordan was there to put the ball in the hoop and there’s every reason to believe that, without Phil Jackson, he’s likely much less of a passer than he ever was. Jordan had early-day three-point specialists around him like Steve Kerr and John Paxson, but with James, entire lineups were built with outside shooters. James has played with the likes of Mike Miller, Kyle Korver, James Jones, Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen, J.R. Smith and Channing Frye to name just a handful. Teams doubling James paid the price and bumped his assist totals with regularity because of this.
Jordan: The drive, that fanatical need to win, has rarely been as amplified as it was with Jordan. His all-or-nothing approach to championships was all-consuming. Yes, he has his shoe deals and, later in his career, his off-season movie projects, and even his golfing. But for the most part, it was all basketball, all the time for Jordan. He stepped away for a season to play baseball when it all became too much, but went right back to that single-minded approach in his hoops return. Win the Larry O’Brien or the year is a failure — that was his mindset. He didn’t get involved in team-building or asset acquisition to grease the wheels. He simply worked with what showed up at training camp.
James: Perhaps, again, it’s due to the era he plays in, but James has been far more hands-on in more areas of team construction than Jordan ever was. He orchestrated the Heat’s golden era when Dream Team teammates James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade all teamed up in Miami, where he won two of his three titles. Even on his third championship, now back in Cleveland, he was joined by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on another elite roster. Knock it if you must, but that ability to put these things in motion is another area that sets him apart from his peers. He may not have the “killer” instinct of a Jordan, but he knows what it takes to win in today’s NBA.
Jordan: He launched — OK, maybe he blew up — the shoe era. And for that, his influence away from the court can never be discounted. As for societal issues, though, Jordan purposely avoided that spectrum. He focused on basketball. Away from the court, he enjoyed wagering on his golf game or at the casino. Beyond that, there wasn’t much else. The story as told in The Last Dance when he failed to back Harvey Gantt against racist senator Jesse Helms at the request of Jordan’s own mother paints an unsympathetic picture of MJ. In his post-playing days, he has become a little more outspoken. He defended James when Donald Trump attacked him and defended the rights of NFL players to take a knee during the anthem. But there was none of that during his playing days.
James: Probably the most clear-cut win for James is in this arena. James, unlike Jordan, has spoken often and loudly about any number of issues within society that he has deemed unfair. He has not worried about backlash or hurting his bottom line. He speaks openly and intelligently, whether the issue is NFL players taking a knee, the lack of gun control, or the abuse of power by law enforcement in the U.S. when dealing with African-Americans. Not bad for a guy who, in 2012, was named “America’s Most Disliked Athlete” by Forbes. He’s come a long way from the “Decision” that earned him that dishonour.
HEAD TO HEAD
MICHAEL JORDAN (retired) LEBRON JAMES (still active)
TOTAL PLAYOFF GAMES
ALL STAR NODS
ALL DEFENSIVE TEAMS
TOTAL NBA SALARY (non-endorsement) Jordan: $93,285,000
AVG YEARLY NBA SALARY
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