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If you’re reading this, the odds are high that you’re an NBA fan who spends time debating about the relative credentials of Michael Jordan and LeBron James for the league’s GOAT — its Greatest (Player) Of All-Time. The odds are also high that your arguments are trash.
You’ve probably made blustery, baseless assertions punctuated by misleading and often stupid memes. People you’re debating probably call you a “Stan.” You probably deserve it. The majority of NBA GOAT arguments today — especially involving Jordan and LeBron — depend on misplaced emotion, false logic, ignorance to facts, and extreme homerism.
This is about dispelling that nonsense. On the off chance that your arguments are on point, please send this to your friends with the perspective and educate him or her.
Let me start by saying that I have a horse in this race: Michael Jordan is, to me, the greatest basketball player ever.
I say “to me” because believe it or not, my fellow Jordan fans, Michael Jordan does not have dibs on the GOAT belt. I have him in a top tier with LeBron, Kareem, Wilt, and Russell. Just outside that group are Magic, Bird, Oscar, and West, and just outside that group are Kobe, Shaq, Doc, Elgin, Duncan, and Moses. No, I am not forgetting anyone. Yes, I am open to someone convincing me I’m wrong.
Those nine players at the top — MJ, LeBron, Cap, Wilt, Russ, Magic, Bird, Oscar, West — represent to me the greatest of the great in NBA history. If I’m short-changing anyone in the next six, I suspect it’s Erving and Baylor, the former because his best seasons were in the ABA, the latter because he never won a ring.
Michael Jordan is my number one. He had everything I want in a candidate:
Several peak skills with no glaring holes
Passes the eye test as the league’s best player during a stretch of multiple seasons
Best player of his generation
Best player on multiple championship teams
Elevated his game to another level in championship series
Amassed a historic trove of honors and achievements
This is why I care about dispelling all of these ridiculous debates happening every day online, on the radio, and in person. MJ was the ultimate competitor. His greatness doesn’t depend on your terrible arguments, and quite frankly I doubt he’d want them.
Likewise, LeBron is one of the greatest players I’ve ever witnessed. He deserves better than misguided cheap shots fired at him from every direction by knuckleheads who wouldn’t know Clyde Frazier from Clyde Drexler.
This goes for everyone I named. If someone is in the GOAT conversation, it’s because they were AMAZING at basketball. Dial down the homerism, get your facts straight, and give these players and debates the respect they deserve.
It is LeBron’s 8th NBA Finals. He has been the best player on his team in each of those years. Naturally, this postseason has driven LeBron-tinged hysteria to nauseating levels, nearly all of it centered on the premise that we’ve all agreed that Jordan is the greatest (we haven’t) and that we’ve all agreed that LeBron has already passed every other player (we haven’t).
Therefore, here are the worst 12 LeBron-Jordan GOAT arguments that I will now debunk one by one, followed by the only four legitimate LeBron-is-GOAT arguments that currently exist. Please feel free to reference this article in your future debates in order to sidestep embarrassing bullshit.
“LeBron only wins because he plays on Superteams”
From 1979–80 to 1987–88, Magic Johnson (the #1 overall pick in 1979) won five championships while playing at various times with three other #1 overall picks (Kareem, James Worthy, Mychal Thompson); a league MVP (Kareem in 1980); a Defensive Player of the Year (Michael Cooper, 1987); five All-Stars (Kareem, Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, A.C. Green); one of the game’s greatest scorers coming off the bench (Bob McAdoo); an additional 20-point scorer (Byron Scott); and arguably the greatest coach in NBA history (Pat Riley).
Meanwhile, from 1980–81 to 1985–86, Larry Bird won three championships while playing at various times with Hall of Famers in their prime at point guard (Dennis Johnson), power forward (Kevin McHale), and center (Robert Parish); a former MVP as 6th man (Bill Walton); the only player to lead the NBA in points and assists in the same season (Tiny Archibald); a former All-Star (Scott Wedman); and another All-Star (Danny Ainge).
Some of these acquisitions came from terrible trades that the Lakers and Celtics pulled off. Seriously, look at how the Lakers got Magic and Worthy, and how the Celtics got Parish and Mchale. The Big 3 of the 1980s Lakers and Celtics had no business playing together, yet there they were, gifted to each other like a rich kid’s Christmas.
So I ask you: if these aren’t “Superteams,” what are?
LeBron didn’t have Red Auerbach wheeling and dealing on his behalf. So he made his own luck. He coordinated with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (and nearly Carmelo Anthony) to sync up their free agency and team up together. He then left Miami after four years and teamed up with two more All-Stars in Cleveland for another run at multiple titles.
Because of these two moves, people try to discredit LeBron’s championships. Perhaps you’ve even done it. You have to stop.
First of all, with the exception of Hakeem in 1994, every star player who has won a championship since the NBA-ABA merger has had an All-Star teammate within one season of the title. All LeBron did in 2010 and then 2014 was ensure that he had the same tools as the players against whom he is judged.
Secondly, people act like LeBron and Wade were equals during the Heatles run. They weren’t even equals in 2010. LeBron was far and away the best player on Miami those four seasons. Here are their All-NBA placements during their time together, along with the year before and year after:
2010: LeBron, 1st team/MVP — Wade, 1st team
2011: LeBron, 1st team — Wade, 2nd team
2012: LeBron, 1st team/MVP — Wade, 3rd team
2013: LeBron, 1st team/MVP — Wade, 3rd team
2014: LeBron, 1st team — Wade, n/a
2015: LeBron, 1st team — Wade, n/a
In fact, the Heat lost the 2011 Finals because their best player (LeBron) played arguably his worst ever series. Wade was fantastic against the Mavs and it wasn’t enough. You know why? Because he’s not LeBron.
This is where people forget one of the most critical facts about Michael Jordan: his power is enhanced by the perfect team mate. I call the 90s Bulls “the Jordan and Pippen Bulls” not to be polite to Scottie, but because it’s the truth. Scottie’s talents allowed Michael to maximize his. Replace Pippen with any other superstar of the era and we win 3–4 championships, not six, and we certainly don’t reach the vaunted 6–0.
Jordan even said so in 1995 after the loss to Orlando, as trade rumors swirled around pippen
Call me when LeBron says that about Wade or Kyrie. This “Superteam” nonsense is mostly just branding, especially in LeBron’s situations. He’s never gone to a Finals with a 1st team all-NBA teammate. Jordan did it in ’96, Bird in ’87, Magic in ’80 and ’84, Shaq in ’95, ’02, and ’04, and Kobe in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2004. And for all of you Kobe fans out there who like to foolishly blurt out that “Kobe didn’t need help” in an effort to discredit LeBron, even Kobe disagrees with you:
Lbj doesn't need to prove that @PaulBrahan I had Shaq + Pau Mj had Pip Magic had Worthy + Kareem etc AND we all had great teammates
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 14, 2015
“LeBron hand picks his teammates! Jordan would never do that.”
You don’t have to hand pick your teammates when your GM has already given them to you.
I know, I know — Jerry Krause said that Michael Jordan never asked him to acquire anyone. If that is true, it must be because Jordan asked Jerry Reinsdorf.
Along with trying to influence the Bulls’ drafts early in his career, MJ pushed hard in 1991 for fellow UNC Alumnus Walter Davis. Four years later as the team sought a new power forward, MJ went to a New York nightclub to personally recruit Nets big man Jayson Williams.
Like I said, Magic, Bird, Kareem, Duncan, and especially both Shaq and Kobe — these guys were provided rosters they needed to compete for championships. Until LeBron took his fate into his own hands with his move to Miami, he didn’t have the same good fortune.
Furthermore, when did we decide that an NBA star’s championships are only valid if they meet precise roster hierarchical specifications? We don’t do that in other sports. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are both franchise players, yet we don’t discredit their three Cups together. When the Phillies assembled a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, we didn’t declare them “cheaters.” We stood back and said, “Holy crap! Let’s see what happens!” The Cowboys won three Super Bowls with Hall of Famers and Pro Bowlers at 10 of 11 offensive positions — we don’t shoot down Emmitt Smith because of that.
The bottom line is this: when an NBA GM pulls off great drafts, signings, and trades, even if they have fleeced a competitor (like Pau Gasol arriving in L.A., for instance, ahem ahem, cough cough), we don’t accuse that GM of somehow soiling the sanctity of the game or whatever other piece of b.s. we’re tossing around that day. Instead, we give them an award! Executive of the Year!
Yet when players take control of their own futures, suddenly they’re “cowards” or “cheaters” or, heaven forbid, “ring chasers.” Fans and media take twisted pleasure in skewering stars for not winning rings and then setting the parameters for how they are allowed to win. Knock it off.
“LeBron abandoned Cleveland and then Miami! Jordan would never do that.”
Please stop. You sound like a jackass who just wandered out of the womb.
MJ signed an eight-year deal with the Bulls in 1988, which expired after the 1996 season. He always said that he would honor his contract, but he also always said that he would never be a slave to one. If the Bulls didn’t acquire Pippen in 1987 and the team never turned into a championship contender, you can damn well be sure that Mike would have walked after the ’96 season.
How do I know this? Because he almost did anyway, coming within 30 minutes of joining the Knicks in the summer of ‘96.
Magic, Bird, Duncan, and Kobe get way too much credit for staying on one team their entire careers. Magic and Bird had to retire early; there’s no way of knowing if they would have taken some kind of short-term deal elsewhere in year 15, 16, or 17.
And Duncan and Kobe both flirted hard with free agency. Duncan gave Orlando a shake, while Kobe Bryant literally spent the first part of his MVP season trying to get traded.
But sure, slam LeBron for leaving Cleveland and Miami. You don’t sound like an idiot at all.
“LeBron couldn’t play in the 80s and 90s”
And speaking of sounding like an idiot, enough already with this “LeBron couldn’t play in the 80s or 90s” nonsense.
Let’s break this down piece by piece, starting with the first point that needs to be made: there is no such thing as the “80s and 90s NBA.”
When it was happening, 1990s NBA was considered an insult to the beautiful legacy of the 1980s NBA. All we heard in the 1990s was how the Bad Boys and Pat Riley’s Knicks and Heat had sullied the game, turning it into a “wrestling match,” a far cry from the majesty of Showtime and the thread-the-needle offense of Bird’s Celtics.
In 1994, Sports Illustrated actually used the NBA Finals as a jumping off point to explain why the NBA sucked. So please, let’s all stop pretending that the 80s and 90s were one fluid era with the same fans, principles, and players.
Secondly, how in the bloody hell do you figure LeBron James, at 6’8 and 250 pounds with a career scoring average of 27 points per game over 14 seasons, couldn’t hang with players of different eras? Have you seen the small forwards Larry Bird guarded? Do you really think Magic Johnson or James Worthy is locking up LeBron? I’ll ask of you what Andy Dufresne once asked of Warden Norton: how can you be so obtuse? Is it deliberate?
The beauty of this is that you can’t throw me in the hole for a month. I’m right and you’re not. And if you want to say I’m wrong, go right ahead. But are you going to tell Michael Jordan he’s wrong too? Because in 2013, he told writer Wright Thompson that he could only think of four current players who would be successful in his era: LeBron, Kobe, Duncan, Dirk.
“Yeah, but LeBron never lost in the first round and Jordan did!”
This is one of those asinine pro-LeBron anti-Jordan arguments that fall apart as soon as anyone with a 1st grade education jumps into the discussion. Yes, Michael Jordan lost three times in the first round. They were his first three seasons. LeBron didn’t make the playoffs until his third year.
If your argument is that it’s better to miss the playoffs than to lose in the first round, then you should just stop reading this article right now because I don’t know what to tell you. MJ averaged 29.3, 43.7, and 35.7 points per game in those three series. In 1986, after missing 64 games with a broken foot, he scored 49 points in Game 1 against one of the greatest single-season teams of all time, on their home floor where they were 40–1.
They vowed to lock Jordan up, so he went for 63 the next game and took them to double overtime, leading the soon-to-be three-time reigning league MVP Bird to famously call him “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
To quote Bill Zorzi on The Wire, why don’t you shove a broom up his ass and he’ll sweep the floor too.
“LeBron has more boards, assists, and playoff points than MJ!”
LeBron heads try to discredit MJ by pointing to his counting stats. Congratulations: you’re officially taking one of the worst arguments in sports. If LeBron is GOAT because he has more rebounds, assists, and playoff points than Jordan, does LeBron then lose GOAT status because he is 83rd all-time in rebounds and 12th in assists?
He’s got more points than Jordan in the playoffs. That’s awesome and should be applauded. Are we just going to ignore that MJ’s scoring average is greater?
And if we’re super stoked for counting stats, then are we counting MJ’s 10 scoring titles to LeBron’s one? Or MJ’s three steals titles to LeBron’s zero? Or MJ’s nine 1st team all-defensive honors to LeBron’s five?
And when people call LeBron the greatest “all-around” player ever as some kind of consolation prize, are we counting MJ’s 1988 when he became the first and only player to win the scoring title and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season while also winning the MVP and the dunk title?
Again, think about the skillset needed to be the game’s best player, best scorer, best defender, and best dunker. That’s usually four different people.
But sure, keep counting all of LeBron’s numbers when it suits you against Jordan without counting other people’s numbers (like Magic’s assists or Wilt’s rebounds, for instance) when said counting would be problematic for LeBron, and I’ll be over here counting on you to screw up your GOAT argument for a guy who actually has a decent one.
“LeBron is a flopper”
Yep. This is true. LeBron flops. And this knocks him out of the GOAT discussion how exactly?
Flopping is just another version of working the refs, something every NBA superstar in my life (and from what I can tell, most before) has done. MJ used to slap his own wrist to fake the sound of a foul. I mean for goodness sake, Mike may well have had referees bringing him women after games. You think they were capable of officiating him fairly? Come on.
But fine, LeBron flops. Let’s ban him forever or something.
“LeBron is not clutch! He needed Ray Allen to bail him out!”
The second part of that statement is true: no shot that I know of has literally prevented one team from losing a Finals, leading to that team ultimately winning the Finals.
But to use that as proof that LeBron is not clutch is dumb.
First of all, LeBron hit one of the illest game-winners I’ve ever seen, when he drilled this fallaway three over 6’10” Hedo Turkoglu in Game 2 of the 2009 ECF to tie the series 1–1. He bagged a game-winner in his first postseason. He pulled a win out of nowhere against my Bulls in 2015 with this shot to avoid a 3–1 deficit in the 2nd round.
His postseason breakout performance was his 48-point performance in Game 5 of the 2007 ECF on the road against a recent champ, and his greatest postseason performance was Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals.
Secondly, as even LeBron noted, MJ depended on shooters to help him win championships, namely John Paxson and Steve Kerr.
Third, here are LeBron’s lines for his three clinching Finals games:
2012 Game 5: 26 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists
2013 Game 7: 37 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists
2016 Game 7: 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists
His last two Finals are the greatest back-to-back Finals performance I’ve ever seen, and I am every one of my friends’ biggest Michael Jordan fan friend.
If LeBron James isn’t considered “clutch,” what is the point of even having the word?
“LeBron is not a killer”
Again, this is so picky and subjective that it becomes nearly irrelevant. For example, the word is often associated with Kobe, and while it definitely fits, Kobe famously shot 6–24 in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, scoring 23 points.
Are those the stats of a “killer”?
I understand the “killer” critique. It’s an attitude. LeBron doesn’t have it, at least not the way that Jordan, Kobe, Magic, and Bird had it. But so what? Can we point to any one key loss and state unequivocally that the problem was LeBron’s failure to be a killer? Is that why he lost to Boston in 2010 or Dallas in 2011? Or was it just because he played like ass?
Can a guy with four MVPs, three Finals MVPs, and two gold medals really lose any and all claims to GOAT status because he is allegedly missing (or is allegedly deficient in) an intangible that doesn’t even always pass the eye test?
I’m not convinced.
“LeBron can’t go 6–0 in the Finals. And he lost 4!”
Let’s be clear here before the revisionist historians spit shine away the truth: Michael was considered the greatest ever when he had three, four, and five rings. The basis for MJ’s GOAT credentials is NOT that he has six rings, or that he went 6–0 in the Finals, or six for six on Finals MVPs. The basis for his his GOAT credentials is that he was the best player in the league from 1988 to 1998, and had extended stretches of dominance in both the regular season and the playoffs.
MJ’s 6–0 is special because he took his game to a higher level when the stakes were highest, and was always the best player on either team. MJ never had his ’07 LeBron moment, but if he somehow dragged the Bulls to the Finals in 1988, I don’t see how that Bulls team is beating peak Showtime.
there is no guarantee the Bulls would have won in 1999. Both Jordan and Phil Jackson stressed the importance of needing a power forward after losing to the Magic in 1995; there is no guarantee that if the Bulls had somehow reached the Finals that year that they would have defeated Houston.
And if Michael never retired in 1993, there is no guarantee that we would have just kept cranking out championships. I don’t believe it. Neither does Jordan:
“People say if I hadn’t played baseball for a year and a half, we would be going for our eighth championship in a row. But I don’t think so. After our three-peat, the atmosphere on the team wasn’t the same.”
The question is not whether Jordan went 6–0. The question is whether he was always the best player in the Finals. He was. And that’s what should matter for LeBron too. He gets tagged with a loss in 2007 even though no one expected Cleveland to break through. The Spurs roughed him up that series, but man, the guy was 22.
He had a terrible series in 2011, no doubt, but after that he has been the best player in the Finals each year, and should have won Finals MVP on the losing team in 2015 a la Jerry West in 1969.
Let’s put it this way: if you think LeBron can’t top Jordan because he can’t go 6–0 in the Finals, or because he has some losses, then you think Jordan is GOAT because of his Finals record. In which case you’re ignoring the entire first half of his career that built to that. He’s GOAT because he has both. Let LeBron play out too.
“LeBron has no claim to GOAT because he lost to the Mavs”
If you’re going to declare LeBron unworthy of GOAT because of one bad series, then you damn well better know the history of every other GOAT candidate and any bad series they had. You better hold Magic and Kareem responsible for losing to the Rockets in 1986, and Bird for getting swept by the Bucks in ’83, and Shaq for getting swept SIX TIMES, and Duncan for losing in the 1st round three times, and Shaq and Kobe for losing to Detroit, and Kobe and Hakeem for missing the playoffs in their respective primes, and MJ for failing to bring the Wizards to the playoffs.
You’d better know all that and more if you insist on taking LeBron to task for every single flaw that you only know because you happen to be alive during his career.
“LeBron’s beating a watered-down league!”
Ah yes, the competition argument. I’ve saved the best for last. We’ve seen a lot of debates about levels of competition between Jordan and LeBron. Different people guage “competition” in different ways, some via Hall of Famers, some via All-Stars, some via 50-win opponents.
Me? I value the All-NBA teams, because they’re not affected by conference or popularity, and they speak to the best of the best of NBA talent.
However, you can’t understand the level of competition without also understanding the strength of the team of the player in question.
Therefore I looked at the number of All-NBA players LeBron, Jordan, and their historical peers played in the playoffs, (Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, Magic, and Bird) along with the number of All-NBA players who were on their respective teams.
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but I’ll make a few points:
Michael and LeBron have been the best player on each of their Finals teams. Bird was too, but didn’t win the Finals MVP in 1981, one of his three championships. Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe, and Duncan all won titles as their team’s second or third best player.
In series in which a player lost, LeBron and Bird have had one fewer All-NBA player than his opponents. Jordan and Duncan have had two fewer. Kobe is even. Magic and Shaq have more.
In the NBA Finals, every player except LeBron has had the same number or more All-NBA players on their team than the other team. LeBron has four fewer.
This idea of LeBron’s “weak East” is also kind of a fallacy, considering that other people just as foolishly flip it and argue that MJ “never faced a great team in the Finals.” Bullshit. Again, if you insist on picking apart LeBron’s GOAT creds to this degree, then you have to be ready to do it for everyone equally while challenging your own memory and facts.
If you think the ’92 Trail Blazers or ’97 Jazz weren’t great teams, you weren’t paying attention.
LeBron’s actual GOAT arguments
Are there legitimate arguments for LeBron as GOAT? Why yes there are! There are four, by my count.
The GOAT credentials
Let’s look again at the GOAT credentials I listed above for Jordan. LeBron checks all the boxes.
Several peak skills with no glaring holes — Check. He can obviously score, pass, rebound, and defend. He’s also a career 50% shooter, and has shot under 50% for a season just once since 2010. He can shoot from deep, with a career clip of 34% from three. His foul shooting is mediocre at 74%, but I call that mediocre for a superstar, and his free throws are by no means a “glaring hole.” We’re not in Shaq territory.
Passes the eye test as the league’s best player during a stretch of multiple seasons — Check, I gave LeBron my “Best Player” award every season starting in 2009. That’s nine years and counting.
Best player of his generation — Check. See above.
Best player on multiple championship teams — Check. He’s got three Finals MVPs and earned them all.
Elevated his game to another level in championship series — Check. See his Finals clinching game stats above. I’ll also note that he came within 1.2 assists per game from averaging a 35-point triple-double in the 2015 Finals, and that in the 2016 Finals he became the first player in NBA history in any series to lead both teams in total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks in a series.
Amassed a historic trove of honors and achievements — Check. He’s won just about every award possible, led the league in scoring, finished in the top 5 in scoring every season from 2005 (his 2nd season) to 2016 (his 13th).
The Eye Test
You watched Jordan. You obviously watch LeBron. If your conclusion is that you would draft LeBron first in a big pickup game, for whatever reason, then fine, that’s a GOAT argument. I would say the biggest reason one might pick LeBron over Jordan in said pickup game is size: MJ never had to face a perimeter defender who had LeBron’s size and technique, because none existed.
The closest person to LeBron on the defensive end in Jordan’s era was Scottie Pippen, and from everything I’ve read and heard, Jordan could score when he needed in practice on Pippen.
But this is ultimately unprovable, and if you think LeBron would be able to nullify Jordan, then so be it.
The Stat Game
We have to let LeBron play out the rest of his career, but let’s say he wins two more titles plus two Finals MVPs plus one more MVP and passes Mike in scoring. He may be able to accumulate enough numbers that you would have at least a statistical argument.
The stat argument doesn’t sway me, but again, I could at least understand if someone made that case.
The Longevity Game
This to me is the most interesting argument.
Whether you believe MJ simply got bored and uneasy in 1993 and then decided to retire in mourning when his father was killed (as I do), or you think he was secretly suspended by the NBA for gambling and gambling-related activities, the fact remains that for whatever reason, Michael Jordan could not maintain his interest in basketball without getting burned out or without needing the absolute best situation.
In 2013, Mike told Ahmad Rashad that during the second three-peat, all he wanted was to keep playing until the team lost. “They can’t win until we quit,” he bragged after winning ring #6. But he also didn’t want to rebuild, and ultimately retired in January of 1999 when Phil left and the championship run was over.
He obviously couldn’t stay away from the game for good; he returned three years later with the Wizards and teased a comeback at age 50 during his Hall of Fame speech. But Mike never allowed his career to have the dip back down that most of the greats have after they reach the mountaintop.
Whether boredom, annoyance, secret suspension, or intolerance of rebuilding, I think a case can be made that the greatest basketball player of all-time should be someone who never willingly removes himself from the game of basketball, and instead allows time, nature, and opponents to run their collective course.
In that light, LeBron James churning out season after season of 25+ points per game, 1st team all-NBA, and leading his team year after year to the m*****f****** NBA Finals is a standout piece of his GOAT resume. The NBA season is a grind. Since he was 18 years old, LeBron has embraced and met the challenge of grind upon grind upon grind upon grind.
If you love basketball, you should feel blessed to have LeBron James in your sports life.
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