Revisiting the Age-Old Debate: MJ vs LBJ
Recently, the media has reignited its focus on Michael Jordan amid the airing of the widely-watched documentary series, The Last Dance, a look back at the Bulls’ 1997-98 title-winning season through the lens of Jordan’s whole career.
Recently, the media has reignited its focus on Michael Jordan amid the airing of the widely-watched documentary series, The Last Dance, a look back at the Bulls’ 1997-98 title-winning season through the lens of Jordan’s whole career. As such, fans have renewed the discussion surrounding his title as the greatest of all time (GOAT). Many fans, fueled by recency bias, have crowned current Los Angeles Laker LeBron James as the best to ever play. Although he has been hugely successful in his own right, he does not match Jordan’s skillset, clutchness, and six National Basketball Association (NBA) championship rings.
In his skillset alone, Jordan is the better player. His picture-perfect mid-range jump shot allowed him to turn in both directions for his signature fadeaway. Even if defenders could predict Jordan’s shooting location, they were still helpless, as Jordan could rise over them gracefully and get his shot off. Complementing his effective mid-range game, he attacked the rim with purpose and ferocity. Jordan’s unbelievable jumping ability in the paint gave him the famous nickname “Air Jordan.” He soared, and once he was up, he could adjust his movement to finish with a violent dunk or an effortless layup off the glass. Jordan’s scoring was not only effective but also efficient. He never wasted movement; every step had purpose. All his decisions on the court were calculated, so it’s no surprise Jordan finished his career with a 27.91 Player Efficiency Rating—the highest of all time, and throughout his career, he led the league in scoring in 10 seasons.
Defensively, Jordan also made a strong case as the best of his time, leading the league in steals three times, winning the Defensive Player of the Year in the 1987-88 season, and earning the NBA All-Defensive First Team honors nine times. Though only 6’ 6”, his patience, long wingspan, and high vertical jump allowed him to protect the rim against taller opponents, and his analysis of passing lanes allowed him to steal passes intended for a swift dunk at the rim. Though he didn’t come into the league as a physically strong player, he developed quickly and could lock down any player at the defensive end.
Jordan’s ability to limit the opponent’s best player while also dropping 30 to 40 points consistently earned him the Most Valuable Player award five times in his career. Beyond his consistency, Jordan was the best when the lights shined the brightest, as he continually delivered when the game hung in the balance. His clutch play started while in college playing for the University of North Carolina. In the 1982 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Championship, Jordan hit the game-winning baseline jump shot to secure North Carolina’s victory over Georgetown University as a freshman. When he played for the Chicago Bulls, he hit many notable game-winners. In 1989, with only three seconds left in a win-or-go-home game between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, Jordan double-clutched in mid-air and hit a foul-line jump shot to send the Bulls to the second round when they were down by just one point. In his final moments as a Chicago Bull, Jordan again showed his greatness. Against the Utah Jazz in game six of the 1998 NBA Finals, he set himself free with only seconds left and shot a wide-open mid-range jumper, securing the Bulls’ second three-peat in eight seasons.
There are clear reasons why many have regarded Jordan as the GOAT of basketball for over two decades. Jordan could score at will with any type of shot and his attack on the rim seemed so effortless it felt like he could fly. He also had the instincts and determination to keep an opposing player scoreless on any given night. Jordan’s six championships aren’t merely a result of Jordan’s points, rebounds, assists, or steals, but Jordan’s ability to step up when greatness demanded him to. His play was unparalleled, and Jordan cemented his legacy as the GOAT through his ability to play the best when it mattered most.
People say that Jordan’s intangibles, drive, and tenacity make him the greatest, but Lebron’s numbers don’t lie.
Going beyond a points per game comparison between the two, James has performed more dominantly in the regular season. One of his greatest traits is his ability to serve his teammates, demonstrated by his high number of assists. Lebron has averaged 7.4 assists per game in his career and has improved over time, putting up a career-high 10.6 assists per game during the COVID-19 stopped 2019-20 season, while Jordan averaged 5.3 assists per game across his career. Lebron grabbed 1.2 more rebounds per game than Jordan, showing James has done the dirty work better too, but the most intriguing comparisons concern scoring. Jordan’s points per game numbers are impressive, but he did so with a high amount of shots per game. Across his 15 seasons, Jordan had three years where he shot fewer than 22 times per game, with his highest being almost 28 attempts per game. James has only exceeded 22 shots per game once in 17 seasons. Jordan scored more because he gave himself more opportunities to score. James takes the cake in scoring efficiency with a higher career field goal percentage. James’s all-round numbers are staggeringly good compared to Jordan, including scoring when you account for efficiency.
However, the regular season does not mean everything. Jordan supporters point to his playoff record when making their case, but it’s not that simple of an argument, as James has faced better competition than Jordan ever did. James’s archnemesis, the Golden State Warriors, are arguably the best basketball team ever, and James’s Cleveland Cavaliers faced them in four consecutive NBA Finals. In three of those seasons, the Warriors had over 65 regular season wins, but Jordan never once faced a team in the Finals with a similarly good record. The teams Jordan faced also did not have the same star-power. In addition to the Warriors’ “big four” of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant, James faced Oklahoma City Thunder as well as the powerhouse San Antonio Spurs—teams who had three and four players destined for the Hall of Fame, respectively. Never once did Jordan face a team with three all-stars, let alone a team with four future Hall-of-Famers. Jordan’s playing easier teams makes Jordan’s 6-0 Finals record seem less impressive against Lebron’s 3-6 record.
Scottie Pippen is known as Jordan’s sidekick, but considering Jordan spent most of his career with Pippen, it begs the question, how did Scottie Pippen impact Jordan’s legacy? Many overlook the role Pippen and other solid players played for the Chicago Bulls. Considering Jordan only won 10 percent of playoff games without Pippen, while James has won 56 percent of playoff games without another all-star on his team, who was the better individual? James can carry a team single-handedly in a way Jordan could not. In all the Finals James has won, he led his team in points, rebounds, and assists, as well as steals in two and blocks in one. Even in the years James played with stars like Dwayne Wade or Kyrie Irving, James was the man leading his team to victory. Jordan, conversely, got tremendous help from his teammates, namely Pippen. In all six of his NBA titles, Jordan rarely topped his team in a non-scoring metric, leading for assists in 1991 and 1997 and steals in 1991 and 1992. For further evidence, take the 1993 and 1996 Finals. In those years, Pippen led in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, and he was second in points both years, but everybody remembers Jordan’s drive. Scoring is not everything and James has been versatile and self-reliant enough to single-handedly lead his team to the top of the basketball world.
Jordan’s killer mentality is what set him apart, and with the “Last Dance” documentary, viewers are seeing a glimpse of it, but it should not distract from the fact that James has had a career as great, if not better, than Jordan’s, minus the titles. Maybe by the time it’s all said and done, Lebron will reach six titles and ultimately become the undisputed king of basketball, but until then, the great debate will live on.