On the LeBron vs. Jordan Debate

Beatles or Zeppelin? Godfather or Goodfellas? Jordan or LeBron? Some debates seemingly have no end. LeBron vs. Jordan is officially in that category – there will never be a consensus on this topic and I’m not sure there ever should be. It’s a fascinating, dynamic debate for which it is difficult find a starting point, let alone a path to navigate. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

The LeBron vs. Jordan debate has raged on for the better part of the past decade. Jordan loyalists refuse to concede any ground to LeBron lovers, which makes for arguments characterized by a cartoonish antagonism that prevents them from showing the most basic respect to someone who has been the best player in the NBA for over a decade. LeBron lovers are a bit more grounded, though just showing Jordan anything resembling a semblance of respect would qualify as being more grounded than the average Jordan loyalist. So who is better? Who knows, though perhaps a bit more analysis will help me come to a conclusion.

One of the failures of this debate is the insistence of its participants on making it about statistics and accolades. There really is no need to get into either one. The statistical debate is a tie in the best case for Jordan and a decisive victory for LeBron in the worst case for Jordan. That’s the long and short of it. Discussing accolades is likewise a wash and largely irrelevant to getting to the meat of the debate. Luckily for Jordan loyalists I’m not a pure stats guy, nor do I believe anybody should be. As important as statistics and analytics are, and as large a role as they have played in in transforming today’s game, basketball doesn’t exist on a stat sheet. Basketball exists on the hardwood and as such the human element plays a big role in determining games, making intangible factors an undeniable element of any coherent conversation regarding the game. If Jordan is to win it is largely based on this argument, and he has one hell of a case in his favor. Let’s compare the case for both.

The case for LeBron is a lengthy one. It includes the heights his game has reached and his sustained greatness, both of which separate him from all other all-time greats. His statistics are unlike anyone else’s we’ve ever seen – nobody else is expected to register 27/7/7 on 50% shooting night in, night out. For most NBA players that’s a career night. For LeBron that’s a Tuesday, and one for which he can expect endless criticism. Especially in the playoffs. He has been putting these numbers up and performing at an MVP level for a dozen years. He has repeatedly shown that he can play the game at a level previously thought impossible, at times looking like he can beat an NBA team with four high school varsity players as his teammates. His game seems to age like wine, as I and all sports fans ran out of superlatives to describe his level of play in the 2018 playoffs. We’ve never seen an individual run like LeBron’s 15 years in the NBA in any sport.

On the court he is instinctive and intellectual, breathtaking and inspiring, a marvel of human exceptionality. As a leader he is an outgoing, high-level communicator with more of a firm touch than a domineering presence. One gets the sense that teammates would rather not disappoint LeBron more than they are scared of pissing him off. He is infamously unselfish, a trait which is oddly the basis for much criticism. He is perhaps too loyal to his teammates, making front office demands which have led to players such as James Jones, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson getting rewarded with roster spots and big contract extensions.

Fifteen years in and basketball fans still can’t believe they are witnessing his brute physicality and unique athleticism. He has iconic playoff and Finals moments – all one has to say is no-headband LeBron or The Block or 25 straight – and NBA fans immediately know the reference. He can defend every position on the floor – well. He is impossible to guard and an absolute force of nature in the open court. LeBron has revolutionized the game forever moving forward and, in short, it is seemingly impossible to overstate his greatness.

Jordan, likewise, has a great case in his favor. He averaged 30/6/5 on 50% shooting for his career, which includes two seasons at the ages of 38 and 39 in which he averaged 22.09 and 20.0 ppg, respectively, for the Washington Wizards. He is the most iconic athlete in all of history. He is a player whose athletic gifts and abilities made him seem more like an artist than an athlete, which is a stark contrast to the sheer brute strength and athleticism of LeBron. As such his highlight reel is as aesthetically pleasing as any in all of sports. He is as defined by his competitiveness and determination as he is his incredible abilities, whereas the most legitimate criticisms of LeBron are those which question his competitive drive and desire. Jordan was a killer on the court from day one. LeBron, however, has only recently begun to make a case for such a label. He imposed his will through sheer determination; LeBron seems to have been born to dominate and does so seemingly without trying. Jordan was a defensive menace who, while not as versatile as LeBron, was an absolute shut down defender night in and night out. He won both a scoring title and defensive player of the year award in the same season. He rightly earned a reputation as one of the most clutch athletes in the history of American sports. He is the most influential basketball player of all time. Jordan revolutionized the game forever before LeBron did and helped the game reach a global audience through his transcendent ability. If there were ever an argument for the natural revelation in sports, Michael Jordan playing basketball would be it.

As a leader Michael was a ferocious and domineering presence, entirely unlike LeBron’s outgoing, friendly leadership style. The stories of Michael Jordan in the locker room and practice are legendary, from the merciless teasing of teammates performing below Jordan’s standards to the intensity Jordan brought everywhere he went, his presence could not be ignored. Just ask Steve Kerr. Teammates would either shape up or be shipped out because Michael Jordan suffers no fools. It’s hard to imagine Jordan putting up with a J.R. Smith, let alone embracing him. It’s just as hard to see Jordan advocating for big contracts for players such as Tristan Thompson, who looks about as comfortable with a basketball in his hands as he does in a faithful monogamous relationship. Jordan understood these moves would handicap a team, especially in a salary cap driven league. LeBron demands such players be given large contracts because he likes them; Jordan has the kind of cut throat personality that would allow him to say “screw those guys” and demand that his GM sign winners. I don’t think Jordan has any friends. Jordan understood that if he had to rely on a J.R. Smith or a Tristan Thompson come Finals time his chances at that next ring were smaller than they had to be. LeBron either does not understand this or thinks he can overcome such ineptitude. Point, Jordan.

In short, the biggest distinctions between the two are idiosyncratic. It is in their personality quirks where the two differ most, certainly more than their on-court production. There are endless debates to be had about who is the more productive player on the court. These are debates with no possible way of being settled, as rule changes and the evolution of the game have made such things impossible to quantify and compare. The stat nerds and those who bow down at the altar of analytics will try, but they are making the same arrogant mistake all materialists make – they truly believe they can quantify the human element. Does anyone expect Jordan to be any less productive in a more athletic, less physical, faster paced league? Likewise, does anyone really think the hand check rule or a more physical game would have made LeBron any less productive? The answer to both questions is an obvious and resounding “no”. The degree to which their production would be affected is something that cannot be quantified by simply “adjusting for pace”, as the stat nerds would suggest. These are impossible and, I’d argue, foolish points to debate as they cannot be reliably quantified. As such, the argument for Jordan or LeBron comes down to one’s preference in personality and playing style. In that case, give me Jordan.

Jordan loyalists, however, completely overplay their hand. Inherent to their arguments is the notion that Jordan would have led LeBron’s Cleveland teams to victory in 2015, 2017, and now 2018. That’s absurd. We don’t even know if Jordan would have dragged those teams to the Finals, though I find it hard to believe that Jordan would have lost to either DeMar Derozan or whatever the rookie in Boston’s name is. Outside of favorable injuries to Golden State there is no way in hell the Cavs could have won either of those series and it’s a miracle that they won in 2016, so such suggestions are absurd and should be treated a such.

It is, however, likelier that Jordan would have helped Miami win in 2011 – Jordan was a killer from day one and would never have played hot potato with the ball the way LeBron did in that series. On the other hand, does Jordan bring the Cavs back from down 3-1 in the 2016 Finals? Does Jordan even allow that to happen? Those two questions are up for debate, as is the 2014 Finals which featured a machine-like Spurs team going up against a paper-thin Miami roster. I’ll let the reader speculate on those situations. Perhaps I’ll revisit them in another column.

Ultimately, Jordan wins based on being the more reliable player – there is no history of Jordan shrinking in the biggest moments. The killer instinct running through his veins can never be shut off, nor can the demands placed on those around him by him. While I can understand how one can think LeBron is better, I disagree on the basis of what qualities I want in a leader. LeBron being considered the GOAT in no way diminishes Jordan and is completely understandable. I still take Jordan though.

I came into writing this piece thinking I would take LeBron over Jordan. I’m starting to realize I was seduced by the moment and his other-worldly level of play over the past four years. Since returning to the Cavs he has somehow been better than he was in Miami and none of the Cavs failures in the Finals rest on his shoulders. Absolutely none. Upon further review, however, I realize what I value most in a player. Consistency in terms of competitiveness and late-game killer instinct swing the entire debate for me. While late-stage LeBron has completely shed the ghosts of 2011 and the earlier portion of his career, when the killer instinct simply wasn’t there, he loses some points for ever having to shed those ghosts in the first place. Jordan, from day one, was Jordan. You knew who you were getting – a competitor, a killer, and a complete jerk. I value that consistency over LeBron’s erratic, moody behavior even if I have to concede that it might come at the cost of a bit more production. It’s just easier to build around.

Kneeling for Naught

By George Coyoy

The NFL has been at the center of a political controversy over the past two years, with a national debate raging on over the phenomenon of professional football players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. This debate reached a fever pitch in the 2017 season, resulting in large swaths of fans tuning the NFL out altogether. Ratings and ticket sales plummeted, which put the NFL in a compromising position. This was bad business and NFL executives knew it, so the league decided to change its policy regarding the national anthem. What was once a hands-off approach to player conduct during the national anthem became one that is more regulated, but still gives players options. Players can now choose to stay in the locker room during the anthem or come out and stand while the anthem is played. Players can even choose to demonstrate during the national anthem, though now they will be fined for doing so. This, to me, is reasonable. Others engaged in the debate seem more caught up in useless conversations about how things should be, and as a result are missing what the situation actually is. Let’s take a step back and understand the situation for what it is.

Naturally, this policy has only thrown fuel on the fire. Liberals are crying because they weep for every missed opportunity to demonstrate how much America sucks. Conservatives are characteristically split, with some cheering the decision, others chastising those who are cheering the decision, and others with their own thoughts ranging from indifference to inanity. With everyone eager to play partisan football, many are missing the broader point – how one feels about this policy is absolutely irrelevant in the face of the devastating public backlash the NFL experienced in 2017. A failure to respond would have been a death wish for the league, especially with the NBA’s skyrocketing popularity and Vince McMahon’s next attempt at professional football lurking in the shadows. The NFL should be commended for coming up with a solid compromise that neither compels player participation during the anthem nor accepts disrespect of its fans. Perhaps the best criticism of this policy is that it came a year too late.

Why the Policy Makes Sense

Make no mistake about it – this was purely a business move. As it turns out the NFL is a product and, as such, the most important people to the NFL are not its players but its fans. Yes, fans – the people who bestow relevancy upon the league by supporting it with their wallets and eyes. The anthem protests rightly struck a nerve with fans who were sick of watching grown men protesting a country that made them millionaires for playing a children’s game. What made this protest particularly insulting was doing so during the national anthem, a tradition which is supposed to be a moment of unity for Americans. Yes, part of that which unifies us is the right to protest, but choosing to protest during the national anthem is classless, tasteless, and, from a pragmatic point of view, only hurts the cause for which one is protesting. That millions of fans were disgusted with this display and thus stopped supporting the NFL is neither surprising nor besides the point. It is the entire point, and one’s opinions on their feelings of disgust or on the legitimacy in their feeling so is entirely irrelevant.

That hasn’t stopped the moralizing, the preening, the self-righteous takes from getting hurled from sea to shining sea. Narcissistic commentators have proven more interested in trying to sound clever and morally upstanding than presenting the situation in its proper perspective. Commentary has become catharsis rather than truth seeking. The opinions from the overtly left-wing world of sports journalism have been categorically critical, with many criticizing this policy as un-American and the more constitutionally illiterate commentators proclaiming that this is a violation of the players’ first amendment rights. In reality, this is a very fair, pragmatic policy that is neither passive nor heavy handed.

Let us consider the policy. Players can choose to remain in the locker room during the national anthem if they do not wish to participate. If a player decides to participate, he can still protest during the anthem, though now he does so under threat of penalty. How this is “un-American” is unclear, as it gives the individual the freedom to choose if and how he will participate in the national anthem. Freedom of the individual is the ultimate American value. Freedom of the individual also means the individual’s actions have consequences and one consequence of protesting the national anthem is a fine, which is perfectly fine from a business point of view. Over the past two seasons, some players decided to protest during the national anthem. In response, fans decided to have a protest of their own in the form of tuning out of the league altogether. This led to a significant drop in ratings and ticket sales, largely due to the player protests during the anthem. For the league to sit on its hands and acquiesce the players and ignore the fans would have been business suicide. Compelled participation in the anthem would have likewise been a nightmare scenario for the league’s relationship with the player union. Thus, the league landed on this extremely reasonable policy. The NFL got something right for once, and all parties involved should be reasonably happy with the result. Yet players and media seem to be upset with the policy, particularly with the fines.

Taking issue with the fines is peculiar, considering that the kneeling protests are such a loser with the NFL’s fan base. The kneeling has a provably negative effect on the league’s bottom line. Profits are hurt as a direct result of kneeling during the national anthem, making them an act that ultimately affects all of the players, coaches, and everyone affiliated with the league. Businesses that see a sharp loss of revenue have not been known to shrug their shoulders and ignore the actions that have led to said loss of revenue, particularly when the cause of the loss is known. In punishing the kneelers, the NFL is addressing the source of its loss in ratings and revenue. It is punishing those whose actions are known to hurt the league’s profits, and thus a proper response. A mother doesn’t allow a child who is ruining her possessions to continue to do so, she instead shows the child that such actions will be met with punishment in order to deter the unwanted behavior. Likewise, as a business, you don’t allow an employee to take action that demonstrably upsets your customers to the point where they no longer want to purchase your product. This is the exact opposite of salesmanship.

Something tells me that that point will not stop the illogic of the left-wing ideologues constituting sports journalism, nor will it stop the know-it-all know-nothings of the rest of the left-wing news media from moralizing over an issue involving a league they never much cared for anyway. They will continue to moralize and politicize while never realizing that their opinions are entirely irrelevant. What is relevant is the collective opinion of millions of fans who saw these incoherent protests and said “enough”.

Why the Protests are Ineffective

That brings us to the issue of the kneeling itself. Many argue that this is in itself an act of patriotism, that protesting the anthem in the name of injustice is as American as eating apple pie in a muscle car. Allow me to suggest that protesting the anthem is the exact opposite of patriotism and is only detrimental to whatever it is one is protesting. The anthem isn’t supposed to be about abstract symbolizations of individual political stances, the anthem is about celebrating that which unifies all Americans. There are other avenues of protest and choosing this particular one to do so is akin to being that guy who protests saying grace before a family dinner because of whatever beef he has with the supposed moral failures of Christendom. It’s inane, obtuse, and about as useful as having your mouth on your elbow. It’s simply a jerk move. Rather than using that which unifies our country to further divide it, perhaps choosing a more useful avenue – one where the message can be more precisely (and thus effectively) articulated rather than abstractly symbolized – would help further the conversation. That, however, is the main problem – the kneelers are poor communicators. They protest at an absurd time in an absurd way – by protesting a celebration of our most deeply held, universally shared values in an abstract fashion.

And therein lies the biggest communicative problem for the kneelers – their protest is centered around an abstract symbol. Not a catch phrase, not signs with their message concisely articulated, not effective chanting, but an abstract symbol – kneeling. As such, their protest is open to multiple interpretations, rendering whatever their message actually is irrelevant. What one person thinks is “protesting injustice”, another person thinks is a sign of disrespect. Trying to tell the person who sees the kneeling during the national anthem as a sign of disrespect that they’re “wrong” doesn’t help change his mind. It’s like telling someone who is convinced that “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie that it isn’t, in fact, a Christmas movie. In short, using an abstract symbol as their method of protest won’t win anybody over who isn’t already on the side of the kneelers.

Even worse for the kneelers, when the conversation moves from the kneeling itself to what the kneeling represents, the answers are lacking in substance and consistency. Granted, nobody ever confused football players for attorneys, but if your protest doesn’t have an articulate, singular message, it won’t wind up being a very effective protest. Ask one player what the protest is about and it’s “police brutality”. Ask another and it’s “racial injustice”. Ask yet another and it’s “inequality”. The reasons goes on and on and on, making this a protest without a singular message. A protest lacking articulate messengers and a singularly articulated message will find itself in a losing position, particularly when its primary method of communication is an abstract demonstration that can easily be interpreted as disrespectful of a deeply respected and honored tradition that unifies a country. It is simply a foolish course of action.

Moreover, protesting during the anthem is reductive, an act which boils America down to one single grievance. Rather than treating the anthem as a unifying moment in which we collectively appreciate America for all that it is – its creed, its occasional failure to live up to that creed, its beauty and ugliness – protesting during the national anthem over one issue reduces the country to that one issue, as if nothing beyond that issue exists or is important. Again we see the problem with the chosen avenue of protest. It is obtuse and awkward, one which forces people to choose between a positive, unifying tradition and an incoherent, imprecise protest. For most gracious Americans, this is an easy choice to make.

To be sure, protesting police brutality and/or racial injustice is a cause worthy of the effort required. Not once have I come across anyone questioning the right to protest in the name of this or any other cause. What is being questioned is the timing of the protests, which is foolish. Perhaps re-examining the chosen avenue of protest would help further the cause of the kneelers, because as of now they are kneeling for naught.