No matter what LeBron James does, he’ll always be judged against the career and accomplishments of Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan. Despite the fact the two played different positions in different eras, the debate is constantly being reevaluated.
As LeBron hoists his fourth NBA Finals MVP with his third franchise in Los Angeles, it’s time to evaluate things once and for all: if LeBron were to retire today, he’d retire as the greatest NBA player of all time — the GOAT.
The GOAT (Greatest of All Time) discussion in basketball is a polarizing one. There is something so fundamentally American to the ethos of Jordan that a threat to his legacy can feel like a threat to us personally. Jordan was a winner whose toughness knew no bounds. He represented something as a cultural icon that we can all cling to — a feeling of invincibility.
There’s a disconnect here with LeBron. He doesn’t quite have the perceived swagger or the outward tenacity of Jordan. He doesn’t quite occupy this same sense of invincibility in our minds — but he should. LeBron is a better scorer, passer and rebounder than Jordan. He’s better in clutch moments with as many playoff buzzer-beaters as Jordan and Kobe Bryant combined, according to The Ringer. He’s also owns the record for the most wins in NBA playoff history, according to NBA Statistics.
Those engaging in the GOAT debate often omit such individual statistics to focus on one thing: each athlete’s respective record in the NBA Finals. Those who argue Jordan is the GOAT often cling to his unimpeachable 6-0 record in the NBA Finals. Compared to LeBron’s 4-6 record at the same stage, Jordan seemingly shines.
The first thing to note here is the GOAT conversation has never been just about championships. NBA greats such as Bill Russell and Sam Jones from the Boston Celtics dynasty of the ‘60s have more championships at 11 and 10, respectively. Even Robert Horry, a role player from Jordan’s era, has more with seven, according to Basketball Reference. If the GOAT conversation is all about championships, shouldn’t these guys get some consideration?
The second thing to note is the circumstances under which each won their championships. Jordan benefitted from a stable franchise. He went to the Finals six times with the same franchise, coach and robin in Scottie Pippen. LeBron, on the other hand, often has to deal with dysfunctional teams. He has been to the NBA Finals 10 times with five different head coaches, three franchises, and a hodgepodge of robins ranging from Dwayne Wade to Zydrunas Illgauskus.
Before Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson, not only did Jordan miss the Finals, his team never achieved a winning record or playoff series victory, according to Basketball Reference. Jordan needed the stability of a coach like Phil Jackson. He needed the talent of a player like Scottie Pippen. Without them, he wasn’t the same player.
LeBron, conversely, led a team without any hall of fame coaches or players to the NBA Finals as a 22-year-old. As a 35-year-old, in his 17th year, LeBron led his team back to the Finals for the ninth time in 10 years. Jordan retired after year 15.
Despite this, many hold tightly to Jordan’s perfection in the NBA Finals. Of LeBron’s six NBA Finals losses, only one — the 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks — is a resounding blemish. LeBron faced historically good teams in the NBA Finals such as the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors dynasties, sometimes beating them with less talent. In 2016, LeBron beat the best regular season team in NBA history — the 73-9 Golden State Warriors — in an epic series comeback.
Either way, would it have been better for LeBron’s legacy if he lost in the first round each of those six years he didn’t win the Finals? Such logic applied to any other player sounds ridiculous. Jordan lost three times in the first round — something LeBron has never done — according to Basketball Reference. Yet, LeBron’s Finals losses are often criticized more than Jordan’s early career first round woes.
Despite still being an active player, LeBron has already amassed more points, rebounds, assists and blocks all time than Jordan, according to Stathead. Not only does LeBron have more points than Jordan, he has done so on a better field goal percentage despite Jordan often being considered the better scorer. LeBron is the only player in NBA history who is top-10 all time in points and assists, according to Basketball Reference.
Though it’s easy to cling to the ‘90s nostalgia of Jordan’s three-peats, it’s time to acknowledge the dominance of LeBron. What LeBron has accomplished by winning championships as the best player on three separate teams has separated him from anyone else in NBA history. Rather than compare his every move to Jordan, let’s enjoy his greatness — we haven’t seen anything like it before.