LOS ANGELES -- Not since the biggest culinary quandary of our time and maybe all time -- ketchup or mustard on a hot dog? -- has a debate stirred emotions, drawn lines, fractured families and friends and caused even the sanest of souls to lose control:
Who’s the greatest player ever, Michael Jordan or LeBron James?
It is never really settled. After making a fuss, the topic just sits there alone, like cold soup, ready to be reheated whenever people need a reason to get riled up. Everyone brings their own prejudices and preferences into the mix, trying to make a compelling case, frantically tossing in and out more numbers than a deadline-stressed accountant on April 14, pumping up their guy in order to put down the other guy.
God created sports bars and water coolers and Skip Bayless for this very reason, to bring the mother of all basketball arguments to the forefront and mash it and mash it and mash it again into a paste without really coming up with a definitive conclusion. Each side digs in and no one is suddenly convinced and crosses over to the other side.
Instead, MJ vs. LeBron seems certain to keep us divided as a nation.
The tug-of-war rope is destined to gain tension once again, now that LeBron has passed Jordan for fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Doing so took a bit of an ax to the Jordan throne, once believed to be untouchable and impenetrable.
But fret no more. It is my job, as your humble referee, to introduce sanity and reason to explain, once and for all, the merits of this touchy G.O.A.T. debate and provide clarity and an answer that will, of course, satisfy no one.
(Note: There’s no reason to weigh the spin-off benefits of each player. Jordan boasts unprecedented clout as a product pitchman and LeBron has the reach via social justice and good deeds done through youth programs back home in Akron. None of that has a voice in pure basketball matters when it comes to the G.O.A.T. discussion, even though each player has made a mark beyond basketball.)
Because the current climate demands it once again, we begin.
The Case For LeBron ...
As a society, we tend to be swayed by the moment, by the living and the breathing. Whatever is happening live and immediately leads us to dismiss anything or anyone that happened before ESPN. And among other things, this is why LeBron has momentum. He is right now. He is today. He is right in front of us.
Most of his career has taken place in the social media age, which makes the larger-than-life even larger than life and brings the power of persuasion to the masses worldwide. When LeBron sneezes, for example, laptop screens in China need to be wiped clean.
But don’t get it twisted; LeBron’s obvious gifts and legacy are very real, no matter the medium.
Let’s list the honors, in order of weight: Twelve-time All-NBA first team, three Finals MVPs, three NBA titles (one in Cleveland, which should count double), four Kia MVPs, nine Finals trips in 15 seasons (including eight straight), 15 All-Star Games and five All-Defensive first team honors.
He’s the most unselfish scorer in league history, the only player to rank among the top 10 all-time in points and assists. Not since his rookie season has LeBron failed to lead his team in at least three major statistical categories. He has been, at times, the best point guard on the floor, the best shooting guard, the best power forward, the best small forward.
His ability to lift mediocre teams consistently could be unmatched by anyone. The Cavs were poorly run through much of his time in Cleveland and that actually worked in his favor from an optics standpoint. His 2007 Finals team was arguably the weakest finalist ever, as the Cavs’ Finals starters were a combination of Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
He’s had signature moments, such as his Game 5 outburst against the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, deflating the Boston Celtics with 45 points and 15 rebounds down 3-2 in the 2012 East finals. And the chase-down swat of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, among others.
That’s all good … but here are the nit-picks.
LeBron has two stains on his legacy that can’t be bleached: When he checked out against the Celtics in the 2010 East semifinals, and the 2011 NBA Finals when he never checked in against the Dallas Mavericks. Those are not up for debate. They are vitamins to the argument that LeBron wasn’t wired like Jordan when it came to winning and producing in moments of truth.
Also, in a far lesser vein, one of LeBron’s three titles was secured when he missed a desperate 3-pointer in the clutch with his team facing elimination. The ball took a fortunate bounce off the rim and into the palms of Miami teammate Chris Bosh, who instinctively threw to Ray Allen and the rest is history. Another title was clinched when Kyrie Irving, not LeBron, dropped the trophy-winning shot in Game 7 of the 2015 Finals.
Those are the details in the fine print that says LeBron’s career is a fraction shy of perfection, and feel free to ignore that or concede as much. Which leads to this …
The Case For Jordan ...
The vast majority of sports fans born years too late to witness Babe Ruth were rewarded with Babe in baggy shorts from the mid-1980s to early 2000s. Jordan was the first NBA player to rise higher than the game, to tap into those parts of society that didn’t follow sports or athletes, to become a cultural icon. Not to the extent of Muhammad Ali. But beyond anyone else of Jordan’s generation, by far.
He did so by winning championships and dropping memorable performances regardless of when and where he played. Folks in Sacramento, for example, were just as likely to see Jordan’s brilliance in February as those in New York in May. Jordan didn’t take nights off, didn’t coast, didn’t save himself. He got up for everyone.
And Jordan spent 18 months of his prime -- he was 30 at the time -- dealing with a mid-life crisis that caused him to leave basketball for minor-league baseball. Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets, who repeated as champs in Jordan’s absence (‘94 and ’95), are forever grateful.
Let’s list the honors, in order of weight: Six NBA titles (while going six-for-six in The Finals), six Finals MVPs, five regular-season MVPs, 10 All-NBA first teams, 10 scoring titles, 14 All-Star Games, nine All-Defensive first team honors and one Defensive Player of the Year Award.
In the post-Celtics dynasty era of the 1960s, he’s the most efficient modern-day winner. He constantly raised his game to meet the stakes and never failed on the biggest of NBA stages. Jordan was the result of flair meeting talent and bloodthirsty spirit.
The signature moments: His God-disguised-as-Michael-Jordan 63-point barrage on the Celtics in the first round of 1986. The “Shrug Game” in the 1992 Finals. The “Flu Game” in the 1997 Finals. The legacy-calling, Bryon Russell-falling shot against Utah in The 1998 Finals (which was preceded by the most underrated play in championship history: stealing the ball off Karl Malone). Setting up Steve Kerr for the Finals clincher in 1997. The reverse-flip against the Lakers in the 1991 Finals (Marv Albert voice: “Oh, a spec-tac-ular move, by Michael Jordan!”). And, of course, the jumper over the fingertips of Craig Ehlo and the Cavs in 1989, among others.
It’s nearly impossible to chip away at Jordan’s basketball imprint, especially once he got help on the Bulls and vanquished his boogeyman: the Isiah Thomas-led “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons. It’s perhaps cruel to punish him for his two Washington Wizards seasons (2001-03), when Jordan was aging (and yet also an All-Star) and soon caved to nagging injuries caused by all those Bulls playoff runs.
Still, Nick Anderson did pick him clean in a crucial playoff moment in 1995 when No. 45 made a hasty, midseason return to the NBA. Jordan -- like other greats during his time -- took advantage of an NBA watered down and weakened by the addition of expansion teams in the late ‘80s. And while on the subject of questionable competition, did he beat anyone special in the NBA Finals?
The legacy of Jordan will be held to a higher elevation by the stubborn generation that saw him play, a generation that will not allow anything LeBron does (or anyone who comes after LeBron) to rob them of their moment.
Likewise, if you ask a segment of the current generation about Jordan, some may ask innocently: “You mean the guy on the shoes?” Which leads to …
The Reason This Exercise Is Futile ...
There are two:
LeBron isn’t done yet.
And Jordan played in a different era.
Shouldn’t LeBron serve his entire career before anyone classifies him and what he’s done in the NBA? Granted, he is on the back-nine and, at 34, struggling to put the Lakers in the playoffs. He also dealt with a semi-major injury for the first time ever, missing more than a month this season. But there’s still another 2-3 years at a high level should he stay healthy, and if the Lakers add the right pieces around him this summer, maybe another Finals run, too.
As for Jordan, keep in mind he played his career when the game was more physical and restrictive to offensive players. Defenders could hand-check Jordan without penalty. Had Jordan played in today’s NBA with no hand-checking and freedom of movement, is it unrealistic to say he could’ve averaged 40 points for a several-season stretch?
In addition, the 3-pointer wasn’t as widespread as now. Surely, Jordan – who averaged 1.7 3-pointers per game -- would’ve incorporated the shot more into his weaponry.
Doesn’t that make the LeBron-Jordan comparison more apples-to-oranges than you might think? Different players, different eras and a handful of conditional factors make this murkier than anyone wants to believe.
Besides, the most accomplished crib-to-retirement basketball player was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who never got cut from his high school team (Jordan) or lost a state championship game (LeBron), won three NCAA titles in three years (freshmen were ineligible for the varsity, keeping him from going four-for-four), six NBA titles and sits atop the career scoring heap.
So if we simply must have this debate, then upon further inspection, weighing all the important factors, judging the facts evenly, wiping away any biases and understanding the difficulty of it all, there can only be one answer, and it is … ketchup.
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