No, you are not tired of debating LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
Welcome to what will be a central portion of every basketball debate many of us will have for the rest of our lives. This is not an article that will be outlining who is better, rather it will hopefully provide perspective and a basis for being fair to both greats during the discussion.
Michael Jeffery Jordan is the greatest image of basketball in my lifetime. That may never change. Whenever his name comes up there are YouTube videos playing in my head of him crying while caressing the trophy in the locker room. There he goes leaning, physically drained on Scottie Pippen leaving the court after the “Flu Game.” Who can forget the nonchalant “I can’t believe it either” shrug after his 6th three-pointer against the Portland Trail Blazers. His Airness will rightfully be hailed in NBA lore as the ultimate clutch performer and the embodiment of competition and killer instinct.
LeBron James is the generationally transcendent player of our time currently. He will end his career next to the top of every major statistical category for both regular season and playoffs. Where Mike is known for his finesse and poise in singular plays LeBron is heralded for superhuman feats of strength, endurance, and determination over extended periods of time. Durability and physical superiority define his game and his legacy. Never before have we seen a human at 6’8 270 lbs be able to operate on a basketball court like King James can. However, James draws the ire of many due to career moves he has made and seemingly falling short in big moments.
Let us take some time to explore and then debunk some popular myths when it comes to the MJ vs. LeBron debate.
“MJ Wouldn’t Have Lost That Game”
This might be my favorite one when it comes to discussing the two GOATs. Because some are just too young and others are just loyal to the era, Michael Jordan has a Teflon coating around his career in terms of playoff success. The narrative is that when it came to money time, Jordan always delivered due to his superior “killer instinct” and aggression. I will now detail his early attempts at playoff domination.
84-85 First Round Loss to the Milwaukee Bucks 3-1
85-86 Swept First Round By Boston Celtics
86-87 Swept First Round By Boston Celtics
87-88 Second Round Loss to Detroit Pistons 4-1
88-89 Second Round Loss to Detroit Pistons 4-2
89-90 Eastern Conference Finals Loss to Detroit Pistons 4-3
While he was great, do not underestimate the value (and necessity) of experience and a complete roster to achieve playoff success. MJ’s wins/losses were not simply defined by “he refused to lose.” You can keep that story as a cute motivation tool to use with your kids.
“LeBron Doesn’t Have That Killer Instinct Like MJ”
This is my least favorite because what does “killer instinct” mean? Webster’s dictionary has it as a “relentless determination to succeed or win.” For many people, they define it as MJ routinely taking the last shot regardless of the circumstances. The word is often used in a synonymous fashion with “clutch.” Killer instinct and clutch expand beyond the last 8 seconds of a 48-minute game. Clutch athletes have big moments in dire situations like LeBron has done his entire career. Remember Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals with The King dropping the last 25 points to lead the upstart Cavs to victory?
People often overlook LeBron’s clutch moments in his career because they cannot be confined in a single game-winning highlight. That is a disrespect to the totality of the game of basketball.
“Oh Yeah Well Who Do You Want Taking The Last Shot?”
It’s Jordan man. That should be wholly universal and accepted. The nature of taking a shot with time dwindling down is the creation of space. The elite iso players in our game create space with a combination of quickness, deception, and footwork. One definitive difference between Michael Jordan’s game and LeBron James’ game is the ability to create space in a phone booth. MJ, Kobe, Kyrie and other guys of that nature have the ability through ball handling and deceptive jab stepping to create a window to get a shot off at any time.
LeBron is not that player.
LeBron’s game is downhill and taking away space not creating more. Due to this aspect, he was never truly suited to have the ball in his hands in a situation where you need specifically him to take the shot. He is at his best attacking the basket and forcing the defense to either foul or double him. Do not confuse his lack of game-winning shot attempts as being timid. LeBron knows what he can and can’t do, which is something Paul George (0% on game-winning attempts) can learn from.
Jordan is 6 for 6 in the Finals!
This is the default Jordan fan argument whenever there is a debate. It is remarkable that Michael Jordan never lost in the Finals and more impressively never got to a Game 7. However, Jordan’s list of Finals opponents is far from impressive.
People applaud MJ’s ability to dominate defense in the “hand checking” era where the defense was “tougher.” Michael Jordan thrived on his ability to draw fouls and force teams to get physical with him in an effort to limit his greatness. The second underrated change that happened in the early 2000s was the elimination of the illegal defense rule. This now allows teams to mix up man and zone concepts all over the court. Without going too in depth, under the old rules help defenses had to wait until the catch to come over and double. Under the new rules, defensive gurus have taken advantage by sending soft doubles to elite players so that the pressure is there from the catch.
Stars now have a harder time getting to their spots and teams are fouling less. It is actually HARDER for a player like Jordan to score today. I have to believe that these issues may have caused Jordan to slip once or twice in the championship. He certainly would’ve had to pass more and take more jump shots.
Michael’s opponents were also not very impressive. LeBron James played Tim Duncan three times. He had to deal with Dirk Nowitzki with Jason Kidd at the helm. He played an Oklahoma City Thunder team with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. He has played an all-time Warriors team for three straight years while being guarded by Defensive Player of the Year candidates the entire way.
The greatest players MJ beat to win a championship were Magic Johnson (end of his career, announced he was HIV positive 5 months later and retired) and Clyde Drexler who was good, but not as great as some of the all-timers LeBron had to vanquish. Barkley, Stockton, and Malone all have zero rings and had their chances to win while Jordan was either gone playing baseball or losing in the Conference Finals.
Each of LeBron James' 8 NBA Finals opponents had a better postseason net efficiency than the best team Michael Jordan ever faced pic.twitter.com/IUzaUsDmLK
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 14, 2017
The Way It Is
When it comes down to it, Michael Jordan has a legacy that will never be touched by anyone. The combination of his heroics in timely moments combined with the lack of social media have created an aura about His Airness that will stand the test of time. He also has the most prolific and popular athletic sneaker….ever. His game lends more to the casual fan as well. The ball is always in his hand and he alone is the one that ultimately determines the game. LeBron will be remembered for not always having the gall to have the game decided by his shot. The first 47 minutes pales in comparison to the last sixty seconds if the game is close. There is something to be said for coming up big in a
His game lends more to the casual fan as well. The ball is always in his hand and he alone is the one that ultimately determines the game. LeBron will be remembered for not always having the gall to have the game decided by his shot. The first 47 minutes pales in comparison to the last sixty seconds if the game is close. There is something to be said for coming up big in a vacuum when your team needs it the most and perhaps LeBron’s inability to do so individually will harm his legacy when it is all said and done. LeBron is a more efficient scorer from inside and out, a better passer, rebounder, and can defend more positions than Jordan. However, there are parts of the game that you cannot quantify with numbers and advanced analytics. That is where Jordan continues to reign supreme.