ESPN’s release of the highly-anticipated documentary “The Last Dance,” chronicling Michael Jordan and his career with the Chicago Bulls in the 1980’s and the 1990’s, has created inadvertent byproduct: reigniting the often fierce debate among NBA fans as to whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the NBA’s “Greatest of All Time” (GOAT).
It is the position of us here at TheSportsDrop that Jordan is the unquestioned “GOAT.” But even we have to acknowledge that the supporters of LeBron James have their argument – with the caveat that some are better than others.
What are those arguments, and which one of them ends this debate once and for all? Take a look for yourself.
Michael Jordan Won All Six Championships With The Team That Drafted Him
After Michael Jordan was selected with the 3rd overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, he was heading to a Chicago Bulls franchise that had never made it to an NBA Finals. Having any hope of winning an NBA title meant he’d have to go through three of the greatest dynasties in NBA history, in the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Detroit Pistons’ teams of the 1980’s. But when it was all said and done, Jordan brought back six NBA Championships to Chicago.
He never quit on his teammates in the Eastern Conference Finals. He didn’t have to leave town and join up with his All-Star buddies to win a title. Instead, he took his beatings, licked his wounds, and worked harder than anyone in NBA history to reach the top of the basketball mountain.
LeBron James Is One Of The Most Gifted Passers Of All Time
In the 2003 commercial for his custom Nike Air Zoom Generation shoes (most commonly referred to as the LeBron 1), the late comedian Bernie Mac tells the assembled basketball congregation how “the soul of the game” blessed LeBron James with the gift of court vision.
Even as NBA scouts tried to poke holes in the skillset presented by James when he was still a kid in high school, everyone recognized the fact that his passing ability (and court vision) alone could propel him to being an All-Star player in the NBA. Throughout his career, James ability to dish the ball to teammates in so many different ways could be even more impressive than any of his other statistical accomplishments.
Michael Jordan Was Consistently One Of The Best Defenders In The NBA
Amidst all of his incredible attributes and accomplishments, we tend to overlook the fact Michael Jordan was one of the greatest one-on-one defenders of the past few decades. Jordan was named a First-Team All-NBA selection nine times during his career, which is tied for the 6th-most selections in NBA history.
Jordan actually led the league three different times in steals per game, and his career-average of 2.35 steals per game is actually the 4th-highest in NBA history. Considering how much of the scoring load that he was asked to take on offense, the fact that he would devote this much energy on defense is almost unimaginable.
LeBron James Ushered In The Player Empowerment Era
For better or for worse, LeBron James changed the entire “power structure” between NBA franchises and professional basketball players.
James’ formation of the Miami Heat super-team of the early 2010’s, the moves to bring Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers, and even to ensure Kevin Love was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers illustrate how he almost singlehandedly shifted the dynamics between NBA franchises having power over their players (exemplified by Chicago Bulls’ General Manager Jerry Krause breaking up the greatest dynasty in NBA history) to current players dictating both their own professional destinies, and those of NBA franchises as well.
Michael Jordan’s Unapologetically Destroyed His Competitors
There are literally countless stories of opposing NBA players making the terrible mistake of trying to talk trash between or during games against Michael Jordan, and paying for it by watching Jordan proceed to annihilate both the opposing player and his team. The old-timers say it all the time, because it’s true: Jordan garners so much respect because Jordan’s sole purpose in his basketball life was to vanquish his opponents.
There’s no universe where Jordan would be photographed smiling and laughing on a banana boat with Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, or scheming up ways to join forces with guys like Isiah Thomas or Clyde Drexler.
LeBron James’ Accomplishments Came Against Better Opponents
Michael Jordan might’ve exhibited the basketball equivalent of homicidal tendencies when playing against his peers, but there are many who’ll argue that he played against a level of talent that was far below what LeBron James has faced throughout his career.
There’s little question that James’ arrival into the NBA was part of an almost unprecedented “talent boom,” with many of his contemporaries likely to be ranked among the game’s greatest players when it’s all said and done. And he didn’t just beat individual players, exclusively; don’t forget that James’ led the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title over the Golden State Warriors team that won an NBA record 73 regular season games.
Michael Jordan Has A Countless Number Of Clutch Performances
The number, variety, and significance of Michael Jordan’s performances in the clutch could fill a library by themselves.
From the game-winner in the 1982 NCAA Championship against Georgetown to the shot over Craig Ehlo in the first round of the 1989 Eastern Conference Playoffs to the 38 points in the “Flu Game” in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals to the shot over Byron Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, no past or present NBA player would ever dispute the fact that Jordan was the last person they would ever want to see with the ball in his hands, in a “final shot to win the game” scenario.
LeBron James Is Perhaps The Most Physically Gifted Player In NBA History
In the NBA “GOAT” conversation, the proponents of LeBron James would tell you that Michael Jordan would be overwhelmed by James unprecedented physical skillset. James has the height of a power forward, the size of an NFL defensive end, and the vertical leap of an Olympic track and field athlete.
Others have described James as being some supernatural experiment by our maker, who decided to create another version of Magic Johnson, while also bequeathing him with the leaping abilities of Julius Erving and the musculature of Bo Jackson.
Michael Jordan Was An Unstoppable Scorer
In the world of SportsCenter and Social Media, if and when a particular player would go for 50 points in a game, the NBA world goes crazy for at least a brief moment in time. But Jordan’s gift for putting the ball through the hoop was so otherworldly that he made 50 or 60-point scoring outbursts seem routine.
No player outside of Wilt Chamberlain matched the number of 50-point games recorded by Jordan (31), and even Chamberlain falls short of Jordan when it comes to career scoring average — Jordan’s career per-game average of 30.12 points remains tops in NBA history.
LeBron James Was Dominant For A Longer Period Of Time
The fact that in his 17th year in the NBA, and a season in which he turned 35 years old, LeBron James averaged 25.7 points (11th in the NBA) and 10.6 assists (1st in the NBA), is absolutely mind-boggling. If the season were completed in a typical fashion, James would’ve been right there with Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in the league MVP voting.
But what’s perhaps even more mind-boggling is the fact that James made his first NBA Finals appearance all the way back in 2006 (his 3rd season in the NBA), and after missing the playoffs only one time after said appearance, he was leading a team considered to be one of the favorites to return to the NBA Finals in 2020.
Michael Jordan Has The Better Career Resume
Asking Michael Jordan to reduce his NBA career resume to one page would be like trying to condense the entire internet onto one webpage. The 6 NBA Finals MVP awards, 14 All-Star selections, 10 All-NBA First-Team selections, and 10 NBA Scoring Championships are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to Jordan’s recognition and awards.
And though Jordan actually ranks second in NBA history in most NBA MVP awards received (five), one simple fact — of which we were reminded in “The Last Dance” documentary — sticks out the most: Jordan is the only player in the history of the NBA to win the league scoring title, Defensive Player of the Year, and MVP in the same year (1988).
LeBron James Was The More Statistically Dominant Player
Michael Jordan surpasses LeBron James in the ability to shoot the basketball; there’s little question about this. But the pro-LeBron James camp will point to the fact that James had a much grander impact on the game, as evidenced by his advantage in both career rebounds (6.2 vs. 4.7) and assists (7.4 vs. 5.4) per game.
Even in Jordan’s prime, he only averaged 7.0 rebounds and/or 6.3 assist one time during the course of his career, while James met or exceeded those totals in 13 of his 17 seasons in the NBA — while still remaining the ballpark of career scoring average per game (30.1 for Jordan vs. 27.1 for James).
Michael Jordan Won Six NBA Championships
As actor Jason Segel so eloquently stated in the movie “Bad Teacher”: Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships was the only argument needed, to prove his case about him being better than LeBron James. And that’s not even considering the fact that Jordan probably could’ve added two more championships had it not been for his first retirement.
Like it or not, championship wins define the legacy of the game’s greatest players. And for all of LeBron James’ incredible career accomplishments, the truth is that James has as many career championship wins (3) as Jordan won before his first retirement — after which the latter would go on to win three more.
LeBron James Made It To Eight Straight Finals
For all of Michael Jordan’s dominance, there’s one postseason accomplishment that he failed to achieve, but LeBron James did. James is literally the first player in a generation, and the first non-Boston Celtics player in NBA history, to make eight appearances in the NBA Finals.
And whether or not people appreciate the unconventionality of it, he led two different franchises to the NBA Finals, winning titles with both of them. And as mentioned, he could very well pull off the feat of taking the Los Angeles Lakers back to the NBA Finals as well.
Michael Jordan Never Lost In The NBA Finals
Championships aren’t won by simply getting your team to the doorstep. The most important, if not the most difficult, part is kicking down that door, and claiming that championship as yours. Between 1992 and 1998, Michael Jordan played in six NBA Finals, and he won all of them. That 6-0 record is perhaps even more impressive than the simple fact that he won six titles.
For all of the arguments about the longevity, consistency, and level of difficulty over that James has accomplished, there’s no escaping the proverbial “Trump Card” in the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate: James has lost as many Finals as Jordan has won.