Who is the best basketball player in the history of the game? This question has divided basketball fans so deeply that it is a kin to a politicians from rival parties debating controversial policy issues.
Fans in every sport ask this question, but the passion it conjures up in basketball does not exist in baseball, football, hockey, or soccer. These other sports have great players with comparable skills and statistics to one another, but you don’t hear avid baseball fans embroiled in a screaming match because one thinks Babe Ruth was better than Micky Mantle. So what is it about basketball that makes this debate so intense?
For one thing, of all the major sports, basketball seems to highlight individuality more then the others. Dozens of times during a game, basketball players challenge each other one on one and as fans we get a sample every night of similar players going head to head and seeing who comes out on top. It’s that ever present scene of singular competition that fosters in basketball fans a greater need to crown the greatest of all time more so than any other sport.
This debate has gone through an evolution over the years with arguments between fans of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and Magic versus Bird. The latest, and possibly most intense, version of this dispute is between Michael Jordan and Lebron James.
It seems that ever since the mid 1990’s when Jordan’s greatness was firmly established, that the conversation that used to occur between contemporaries has now transformed into new challengers chasing the legend of Jordan. For a brief period there was Allen Iverson and the most serious challenge prior to Lebron was Kobe Bryant, but with his Lakers floundering and career winding down, Kobe will fall short of MJ’s level of excellence in the hearts and minds of NBA fans.
Lebron is still at the top of his game and clearly the most dominant player of his generation, but here are the top ten reasons he’s not quite like Mike.
What analysts and scouts say about your game while you are still in high school or college is pretty much out of your control and some would say Lebron should not be faulted for being a dominant high school player. It is reasonable to say that the expectations of both Jordan and James were vastly different as young players. Lebron was seen as a man child who could have been an All Star in the NBA at the age of 17 while Jordan was famously cut from his high school team. Lebron was the undisputed #1 overall draft selection while, as inconceivable as it may seem today, Jordan was selected third overall. You could say that Lebron was never going to be able to reach the heights that others set for him, but the standard for that hype was always set by the exploits of Michael Jordan.
9. It Must be the Shoes
How an athlete is marketed and the image they present to the public has become synonymous with their stature in their sport. You see it with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer’s signature logos incorporating their initials, but it was Michael Jordan’s association with Nike that gave birth to the athlete/commercial giant. Throughout the 1990’s, every young kid, whether they played basketball or not, wanted a pair of Air Jordan shoes. Jordan’s image, leg spread and basketball in hand on the side of a shoe is an iconic figure that transcends sports.
8. Fade Away
It seems that all great players have that one go to move, when their team is down and they need two points to stop a run and breath new life into their squad. That one move that they are known for, that the other team is helpless to stop. Magic had the no look pass and Kareem had the sky hook. For Michael Jordan, it was the fade away jumper. Jordan’s incredible athleticism allowed him to jump back away, several feet from the basket and the defender to get his shot off. Then, while hanging in the air, he could focus on the rim and heave up a 20 foot jump shot that never seemed to miss. The incredible strength and control needed to perform this kind of shot can’t be overstated. Lebron is a great player and there is nothing he can’t do on the court with a basketball, but he just doesn’t have that one move that makes the crowd say “unstoppable.”
7. Unforgettable Moments
No one who witnessed it will ever forget seeing Michael Jordan win the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest with his gravity defying take off from the free throw line. Today the Slam Dunk Contest is left to the NBA’s lesser known high flyers as a spring board into the limelight. This was not always the case and in 1988 the competition featured Michael “Air” Jordan and The Human Highlight Film, Dominique Wilkins. Jordan knew he had to produce an incredible dunk to beat out Wilkins and what he did instead was create an impression on the basketball world. Conversely, Lebron has stubbornly refused to compete in a single Slam Dunk Contest, so we are left wondering what unforgettable moment he may have provided us.
6. Two for the Price of One
Without sounding disrespectful to the many great team-mates that Michael Jordan played with, the most acclaimed of course being Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, the moment Jordan played his first game for the Chicago Bulls, they became Jordan and the Bulls. Pippen was the only player other than Jordan to be part of all six championship runs. Lebron has won two championships and he was only able to do so by joining up with two perennial all-stars in Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Wade was the best player on a championship team before Lebron took his talents to South Beach and Bosh was the only legitimate scoring threat with some mediocre Toronto Raptors teams. During Lebron’s Miami years, he was able to rest and have two other franchise type players carry the load, where Jordan really had only one running mate who could lead a team in scoring.
5. Last Minute Man
A big part of Jordan’s legend was his ability to perform in the clutch. His mystic among team-mates, opponents, and fans grew to heights untouched because of his uncanny ability to execute when the game, series, or season hung in the balance. In all other close basketball games, each team will find reasons to hope and believe that they will pull out a win, but if you were playing Jordan’s Bulls and you were only up a couple points late in the 4th quarter or heaven forbid, you were tied, no one believed you could win. Over his career, Michael Jordan made 25 game winning shots, which alone is more wins than Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Orlando achieved last year. Statistics show that Lebron has made an impressive 17 career game winning shots, but as he ages, and with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving as viable last minute options, it is difficult to imagine Lebron matching MJ in this category of greatness.
4. Planning vs. Competing
We’ve gone over some of Jordan’s iconic moments and they all directly relate to his incredible play on the court. It could be argued that the most famous exploit that James has produced is his off court, off season press-conference announcing he was leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to play in Miami with his All-Star buddies. It is impossible to imagine Jordan demanding a trade to play with his good buddy Charles Barkley in Phoenix, as he wasn’t built that way. Jordan was a competitor not an conductor. Jordan’s competitive juices forced him to beat his opponents whether they were friends or not. Lebron stacked the deck in his favor to make things easier and turned the competition into allies. Lebron avoided competition, while Jordan sought it out because he understood you have to beat the best to be the best.
3. NBA Finals
Michael Jordan reached the NBA Finals six times over his career and won the Championship each time, a perfect six for six. He also garnered Finals MVP honors in all six trips to the Finals. It is in those numbers that Jordan’s greatness can truly be seen, as on six occasions he was the best player on the best team and played his best when the pressure was at its most intense. James has two championships in five finals appearances and he has won the Finals MVP twice. Lebron has lost in the Finals to the powerful San Antonio Spurs and The Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks, but were those teams better than the Utah Jazz of the late 90’s led by Karl Malone and John Stockton or the Seattle SuperSonics with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp? Jordan met the best that the rest of the NBA could muster and came out on top each and every time, while Lebron has a 40% success rate thus far.
2. Played Sick and Hurt
In 1997, while playing game five of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, Michael Jordan was experiencing flu-like symptoms. We have all experienced the flu and the thought of getting out of bed with a feverish temperature and clogged sinus often seems impossible. Managing to get up a flight of stairs in that condition is a daunting task, so playing basketball at the highest level on the grandest stage against arch rivals would be unthinkable, except for Michael Jordan. During that game, he scored 38 points and even though he looked like he might keel over at any moment, he played through it and the Bulls went on to win the series and the Championship. Lebron James sometimes has trouble with cramps during NBA playoff games and needs to be carried to the bench to sit and watch. We’ll assume that it’s tough to play through, but Jordan’s ability to fight through pain is unparalleled.
1. Will to Win
In today’s sporting landscape, there is a great deal of emphasis in attaching a players worth to his statistical accomplishments. How many points/steals/rebounds does he get and with the growth of analytics in sports, those stats are broken down to the most minute details and used to evaluate players. As much as statistics are important, there are still areas of sports and a player’s game that can not be measured, like their will to win. Michael Jordan was famous for wanting to win and beat the other guy more than any other player. He would challenge teammates to be better and take over games offensively and defensively to ensure victory. No player in any sport can really challenge MJ in that category, so Lebron not measuring up is no surprise.
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