LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan: The GOAT Debate
DIG YOUR COPY OF LEBRON VOL 2
It's fascinating to watch an argument develop.
Of course, before it can develop, it must exist. Something has to pull an idea out of the mud and lift it into the light so that people can see and hear it, think and take sides. It's not always clear when something like this happens or why, but at some point the argument's existence is recognized. Accepted. Regardless of which side you are on or whether you think the argument itself is valid, its presence will be confirmed. It exists. It is real.
When was this particular argument born? The possibility may have occurred to some as early as 2007 when a 22-year-old LeBron James dragged an over-filled Cleveland Cavaliers roster into the NBA finals. For others, it may have been 2008 when certain numbers – 30 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists over the course of an entire season – proved too incredible to ignore. Then came back-to-back MVP awards in 2009 and 2010, a collection of accomplishments that fell far short of the career dreams of most gamers, let alone a man who was only 25 years old.
Of course, nobody had to take it seriously until they won a championship. That finally came back in Miami in 2012 and 2013, and that made the argument undeniable. A tangible thing. Ten years, four MVPs, two titles and the feeling that it was far from finished. Whatever you thought of LeBron after his first NBA decade, no one who got the game thought they were out of the conversation. An acronym so overused that it should hardly be mentioned here, but for the record, yes: The greatest of all time. Whether you thought he was the GOAT was irrelevant. It just mattered that a case had to be made.
That was seven years ago. The argument has actually evolved. It doesn't look like 2013.
Do you remember 2016 Do you remember the last month
The development was slow and gradual in some places and dramatic in others. The accumulation continues, one man climbs up so many career lists that it seems unfair. How does he stay so healthy? How can he stay so good for so long? This is also part of the development. The extent to which LeBron changed the argument has strengthened his case in predictable and unforeseen ways.
DIG YOUR COPY OF LEBRON VOL 2
The thing about evolution is that it goes on. That is the point. And what sets LeBron apart, at least for this moment, is that he still leaves, even if no one else is in the dispute. Any other name you might want to bring up on this argument is retired and anchored in Springfield. Only LeBron is still active – and not only active, but simply plays the string, as so many sizes do. Year 17, and it still inspires new arguments, like what it means not to give the MVP award to a man who averaged 25, 10, and 8 in the regular season and in the playoffs on the way to just under 28, 11 and 9 another title. With LeBron, there is always so much more to argue about.
But that's not an issue. Seasonal arguments come and go. This one is bigger. Full. And as LeBron goes on and moves on, he forces the argument to do the same. Year 17, and the world is still waiting for #WashedKing to show up, and then he goes and posts career high assists in career poor minutes and the argument develops again.
And now we're here waiting to see what's next. The other guys – maybe you have half a dozen names on your mind, but more likely just the one – are waiting too. Most of them are likely to be okay with this. Michael Jordan … well, who can say that. But all he can do, all any of them can do is wait. Wait and see what else LeBron does and for how much longer. The development of the argument is out of their hands. Only LeBron can influence it now.
But no, that is not entirely true. Only LeBron can change the facts of the argument – that's true enough. But it's the rest of us who decide the narrative, set the conditions, select the particular stats and milestones and frozen moments that we argue with, whatever it may be. As long as the argument exists, you can choose your fighter and present your case. For some of us, there is nothing LeBron can do to change our position. For others, LeBron has already done more than enough.
Think of this as a plea for peace, common sense, or just plain common sense: it's time for us to move beyond the argument. It is time for the world's most passionate, dedicated basketball fans – by reading these words in this magazine, you are pretty much defaulted – to see the impossibility of a debate that transcends eras and styles and a thousand other variables. and to accept this impossibility as a blessing. A thing of beauty. Knowing that you can or don't have to choose and that you may be right either way.
Michael Jordan, as others have extensively documented, had excellent timing. Five years before it was drafted, the NBA was considered a second-class league with no star power or national relevance. Jordan would eventually take the league to unprecedented heights, but the dirty work of lifting the NBA out of the gutter of public perception had already been done in the few years leading up to his arrival – mostly from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, with notable support from Julius Erving on the way. When drafted in 1984, Jordan joined a league that was growing in popularity. A media landscape has been dramatically changed by ESPN, and the idea of marketing has been reinterpreted by Nike. Jordan, the player, still had to be remarkable, and so was he, but the work of crafting and promoting his legend was hardly a solo act.
LeBron James played his first NBA game six months after Jordan played his last, but he might as well have joined a completely different league. In many ways, it was Jordan's League – not literally in 2003, of course, not with Shaq and Kobe along, and Allen Iverson already an icon – but to the extent that Jordan's place in the history of the game was undisputed. The "GOAT Debate" was not a debate at all. Most just accepted that it was Jordan, and then it was everyone else. The cases you could make for the others – Russell's defense and leadership, Wilt's sheer statistical dominance, Oskar's completeness, Magie's death and vision, West and Bird defining the clutch – were all absorbed or devoured by Jordan. The breadth of his capabilities, the depth of his competitiveness, and those half-dozen rings were just too much to argue with.
That was where LeBron stepped in, a Jordan who was obsessed like any kid of the 80s but was also already a student of the game and possessed a combination of size, strength, vision, athleticism, speed and basketball intelligence that all those years later any attempt at a concise comparison is still dull. While there was a Jordan in his game, there were traces of Oscar and Bird, references to Wilt, and loads of Magic Johnson. LeBron's Pass – his ability to find and make passes, even as a freshman that many of the League's point guards would be reluctant to try – was one of his greatest assets. The irony is that it was viewed as a crutch in developing the argument as well.
It will be a distant memory by the time you read this, but the forty hours or so between games 5 and 6 of this year's finals brought a taste of the torrent LeBron endured early on in his career: he would rather pass than the game winner to take. Jordan never would. This was both historically ignorant – Steve Kerr says hello – and talked about how skewed the argument was from the start. Logically, being a passerby at Magic Johnson's level was held against LeBron for keeping him from being a Jordan caliber clutch.
But again: the argument has evolved. Maybe it's the 11 finals with a triple-double, one more than Magic and Bird combined and exactly 11 more than Jordan ever managed. Making triple doubles in the finals look like light work is as good a definition of "clutch" as any other you can think of.
If this argument has any certainty, it is in the different ways in which the players themselves have made their case. In epochs when style, pace, and office changed so drastically, everyone put on the game in ways that sometimes seemed unstoppable. As he reminded us all in the sometimes selective review last spring, Jordan did so with a unique, almost sociopathic, focus. Once he found the coach and winger he needed to win titles, he couldn't imagine playing without her. smaller teammates, meanwhile, were essentially intimidated into competency or thrown aside. His legacy and greatness are forever tied to a single trainer and system.
LeBron? The trainer, the system, and even the Robin to his Batman have all proven to be flexible; Success and failure have come more and more to his terms, where and with whom he thought it was right at the time. A willingness to switch franchises, seen as a threat to his legacy when he first left Cleveland for Miami, has helped define it over time. Every time he left a team, two years later he won a championship with his new team. Call it ring hunt if you will, but the rings weren't there until he brought them.
Michael Jordan changed the game of basketball. LeBron James is still changing it. Jordan could still be the guy you want to take the final shot. LeBron may be the guy you want to start 7 in a game and play for 44 minutes. You can choose any number of criteria or, again, choose not to choose at all. You can take the idea that there isn't a single greatest ever, that there are at least two correct answers, neither of which does anything to mitigate the other's.
The argument has evolved, as has the game and its players. Among the greatest is only one, 17 seasons and immeasurable effect already in the books. The only wrong choice is not to appreciate it while you can.
DIG YOUR COPY OF LEBRON VOL 2
Ryan Jones is an editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Photos via Getty.