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.