In the weeks leading up to the NBA Finals the conversations comparing LeBron James and Michael Jordan began percolating more frequently in basketball circles. While some are ready to declare LeBron the greatest player in the history of the game, others seemed resigned to the fact that a conversation would need to be had if LeBron once again conquered the Warriors. That conquest did not come to fruition this June, so where does that leave our conversation?
That conversation presupposes that greatness is built on one bullet point on a resume: championships. Through fourteen seasons LeBron has three of those in eight trips to the NBA Finals. In Jordan’s fourteenth season he was suiting up for the Washington Wizards and had completed his career in the Finals with a perfect six-for-six record. A line in the sand has been drawn – so how do the two stack up through fourteen seasons a piece?
Next Man Up
If nothing else, looking at the early years of both James’s and Jordan’s careers is a reminder of how dependent each player was on the roster around him – super star or not. When considering non-championship seasons, LeBron shouldering the load for a 2007 Cavaliers team whose next best player was Larry Hughes all the way to the Finals is an apex accomplishment unequaled by Jordan, who never reached the Finals without Scottie Pippen. The talking heads bemoaned James’s Miami teams much like the current Golden State group, but so called ‘Super Teams’ have been a part of the NBA since Oscar Robertson was traded to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks. Jordan’s Bulls are no exception, they added Dennis Rodman to an already championship caliber team en route to their second three-peat after being bullied by Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic.
The primary difference between the teams surrounding LeBron and Michael is how those players were acquired by their respective teams. The NBA has shifted in the time since Jordan’s Bulls so that most contenders are built through free agency. While the Bulls drafted Jordan and acquired Pippen before he played a minute in the NBA, James used free agency to arrive at each of the Heat and Cavs before winning a ring with those franchises.
Put aside momentarily the fact that the Cavs were the team to draft LeBron in 2003. James signed with the Heat as a free agent in 2010, teaming up with Wade (drafted by Miami) and fellow free agent Chris Bosh and began the first season he would ever play with another All-NBA player. Both James and Wade were mainstays on the All-NBA teams for their first three years in Miami, and in the fourth year when Wade didn’t make the cut (in part due to injuries) James departed again via free agency. Signing in Cleveland as a free agent, he partnered this time with Kyrie Irving (drafted by Cleveland) and Kevin Love who arrived via trade. Kyrie made his first All-NBA team immediately upon LeBron’s arrival but has not made one since due to both injuries and what may very well be the highest level of guard play in NBA history.
LeBron took team building into his own hands to find a supporting cast capable of winning a title. Michael, on the other hand, had Pippen emerge into an All-NBA player beside him on the Bulls with an already very-good Horace Grant. The Bulls added complimentary pieces like Rodman, Tony Kukoc, and even Steve Kerr throughout their runs much like Miami and Cleveland augmented with Shane Battier, Channing Frye, and Kyle Korver; but the Bulls were built upon a foundation of two home-grown All-NBA players. Each James and Jordan have exactly one title to their names in a season as the only All-NBA player on their respective teams, while only James has seen a teammate take home those honors (Irving in 2015, Wade in 2011) in a season he didn’t also win a championship. That said, Jordan’s abrupt retirement in 1993-94 and late re-entry in 1995 wasted two such seasons from Scottie Pippen.
Pippen’s presence on those 90s Bulls teams is curiously underappreciated in the Jordan-James debate. MJ was himself an all-time defensive great, but Scottie is considered by many to be the best defensive wing ever (at least until Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green unleashed their prowess onto the league). LeBron’s defense shone through in the Cavs-Warriors trilogy – it’s the sole reason the scorecard isn’t 3-0 in Golden State’s favor to date – but look through the lineups of Heat and Cavaliers teams he played with and you’ll struggle to identify the best two-way teammate of the group. Chris Bosh likely deserves the title, though being relegated to center duty against the Spurs limited his defensive impacts. Shane Battier may be the next-best candidate and he’s… not Scottie Pippen.
No one is questioning Jordan’s defensive abilities, but it’s fair to consider how his game and the outcomes of his playoff series may have changed if he had been forced to exert himself to the level LeBron has on that end of the floor. Michael was blessed with a combination of a world class defensive stopper at the wing and a rule set which diminished the concept of help defense. Come late April each of the last twelve years, LeBron has embraced the responsibility of guarding the opposing team’s best player and engineering his team’s offense. Every season Michael hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he had a teammate (Pippen) on the NBA All-Defensive Team. LeBron has never had one, period.
Much is often made of the players Jordan prevented from ever winning a title. Though attributing an individual player’s lack of championships to one person seems a foolhardy exercise (some of these players won playoff series against Jordan/James, still others spoiled opportunities in years they never faced him), but below are the notable players each Jordan and James have thus far boxed out from championships.
Mark Price, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Charles Barkley, John Starks, Kevin Johnson, Larry Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott, Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber, Dikembe Mutombo, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin
Gilbert Arenas, Vince Carter, Joe Johnson, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Paul George, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Brook Lopez, Isaiah Thomas, Paul Millsap, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry
Jordan’s list looks more impressive at the moment, though many of the competitors LeBron has cut short have much of their careers ahead of them – including individual accomplishments to add merit to LeBron keeping them from a ring and potential championships which would remove them from the list. Jordan’s career arc is neatly encapsulated in his list – he starts by beating the Cavs in early rounds, then conquers the Knicks and fends off the competition after his first title. There was no falling action after the apex of his Bulls career save for the hiccup to the Magic in 1995 when he returned from his baseball experiment. LeBron’s list is a work-in-progress. Many of those names may be forgotten in the annals of basketball history, while newcomers may still rise only to be thwarted by the King.
King of the Court
Measuring a player by who he prevented from winning championships is a flawed methodology, but observing the rivalries which led to or prevented ticker tape parades provides a more accurate picture.
For Jordan it’s fairly simple; as above, his career followed a fairly linear path, playing out like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Jordan faced his trials as a young player attempting to conquer Larry Bird’s Celtics teams and at times looked overmatched by Joe Dumars and the Bad Boy Pistons. Bird was the only other player in the Eastern Conference to take home MVP honors while Jordan was in the league, those accolades coming in MJ’s rookie and sophomore campaigns. Enter Phil Jackson, the mentor and the revelation of the Triangle Offense as Jordan transforms from pure scorer to well-rounded player. Those Celtic and Pistons rivalries ended with Jordan on top, after which he only needed to lose one game to Magic Johnson’s Lakers before throttling the Bulls to three consecutive championships. Once MJ won, he didn’t stop winning. Save for that Magic season, where the onus of the loss lies more with the Bulls frontcourt than anything from Jordan. He conquered Barkley, Penny Hardaway, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp without breaking much of a sweat. Reggie Miller developed the Pacers into a legitimate contender from the Central Division, but they were overpowered in their one playoff meeting against Jordan’s Bulls. Karl Malone won an MVP that should have gone to Jordan by all accounts, so Jordan stole two championships from his grasp. From the season Michael stepped foot on the court in June for his first Finals, he appeared to be the best player in every playoff series he took part in.
The same can’t be said for LeBron. James entered the league with a ready-made rival in Carmelo Anthony that Jordan never had; the first debates around James used Carmelo as the foil for comparison. It wouldn’t be until nine seasons later and a second team for each player that the two would face off in a playoff series, where LeBron’s Heat dismantled Carmelo’s Knicks. In the intervening years LeBron made a Finals and lost to Tim Duncan’s Spurs in a sweep. Those Spurs were undoubtedly a more well-balanced team and LeBron had arrived early after dispensing of the Pistons, but still looked overmatched. The next three years in Cleveland ended in May, where Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Dwight Howard each looked to be the best player on the court in respective playoff series. Perhaps LeBron was being asked to do too much in carrying underwhelming Cavalier rosters on both ends of the floor. He certainly felt so, and left for South Beach. That first season in Miami, LeBron vanished in the Finals loss to Dirk Nowitzki. His teammate Dwayne Wade appeared as the Heat’s best player for the series. The Heat reigned supreme in the Eastern Conference for James’s stay in Miami. Challengers in the form of Paul George and Jimmy Butler (and to a lesser extent Derrick Rose) provided ample evidence for LeBron’s physical gifts, mental acumen, and developing greatness. LeBron easily dispensed of a Thunder team – which not unlike his Cavaliers seemed to arrive too early – though not by shutting down Kevin Durant. Durant was hailed as the league’s next star during those 2012 Finals even when losing in five games despite going mono-a-mono with James. Two more consecutive Finals appearances gave James both a win and loss against the Spurs, as well as a new challenger in Kawhi Leonard. Imagine if those Bulls-Jazz series had swapped Scottie Pippen for Jeff Hornacek. Kawhi is the closest thing we’ve seen to Pippen over the past two decades, watching him rival James has been astonishing and James – at times – appeared equaled if not lesser than Leonard. The Warriors teams LeBron played since returning to Cleveland are not his rivals – he has said as much. Their best players in 2015 and 2016 were their prolific backcourt and James faced them without at least one of Kyrie or Love in nearly half of their thirteen Finals games. The addition of Durant this year provided a foil for James on Golden State, and, much as in 2012, he was all of James’s equal if not superior.
The forgotten man in all of this is Kobe Bryant, the man who fancied himself the rightful successor to his Airness. A cruel combination of Mike Brown, Danny Ainge, and somehow Mike Brown again robbed us of ever seeing Kobe and LeBron face off in the Finals so we are left with a handful of rather meaningless regular season games and the few All Star game sequences from the past two decades where anyone bothered to play defense. Win or lose, LeBron’s legacy would look different given the opportunity to face off against the man he took the reins from as the league’s best player.
Great players have signature moments – lots of them. When narrowing down the field for MJ and LeBron, it’s excruciating to differentiate between their greatest performances so instead we’ll focus on literal visuals drummed up by a simple caption.
For Jordan, it all starts with ‘The Shot’ – a term Cleveland has tried rather unsuccessfully to re-appropriate for Irving’s clincher in the 2016 Finals, the 1998 Dunk Contest which has been forever encapsulated on his eponymous sneakers, and the ‘Flu Game’ in Salt Lake City swinging the 1997 Finals back in favor of Chicago.
It gets trickier with LeBron who owns some impressive scoring games, in-game dunks, and win streaks. LeBron’s two most memorable moments to this point are ‘The Block’ of Andre Iguodala in the 2016 Finals to keep the game within reach for Cleveland’s first championship and then ‘The Decision’. Yes, the latter happened off the court, but the image of LeBron sitting in the Boys & Girls Club in his checkered button-down stating his intentions to take his talents to South Beach might be the most recognizable moment of his career. The rallies in Miami and emotional return to Cleveland are nearly as memorable, but are also direct results of his decision. Does LeBron have a true career-defining offensive moment? There is still time.
Not One, Not Two Not Three…
Twelve. We are twelve years into LeBron’s ‘prime’ with no signs of slowing down. It seems possible – if not likely – that LeBron’s prime will last longer than Jordan’s entire career. Jordan’s entire career was fifteen seasons thanks to his multiple retirements, LeBron will hit year fifteen in the Association next year in Cleveland, who right now are favorites to reach the Finals again next June.
Growing up in Chicago in the 90s, watching the Bulls in June was appointment viewing. For those growing up the past decade anywhere on the planet, LeBron James playing for a title has become one of the few constants left. Two more trips to the Finals and James will eclipse Bill Russell’s Celtics for the most consecutive appearances. That matters. Not so much the record, but the durability. Yes, LeBron enjoys playing in an era where both medical staffs and travel luxuries have exploded exponentially beyond what any previous athlete could have dreamed, but this is unprecedented. When those Celtic teams finished their runs the NBA had seven other teams. Both Jordan and James played at a time when each conference had seven other playoff teams.
Just for comparison here’s Bill Russell’s chart:
*NBA Playoffs Were Two Rounds
**NBA Playoffs Were Three Rounds
In thirteen total seasons, Russell was eleven-for-twelve in the Finals. His final season was the first for the NBA’s All-Defensive designation and both he and teammate John Havlicek took home honors. In a shallow league, he played on teams with multiple Hall of Famers due to no fault of his own and time after time foiled Wilt Chamberlain while boxing Elgin Baylor (and five other HoFers) out of a ring altogether.
The NBA Mount Rushmore will likely be fluid so long as the game is played – it’s that very fact which keeps us watching. First Russell and Jerry West, then Kareem, followed by Bird and Magic giving way to Michael before Duncan, Kobe, and now LeBron. The game is constantly evolving and the debates should ask for the greatest player through this point in time, not of all time. Eye-tests, statistics, intuition, and what-have-you there will never be a consensus way to measure greatness in an activity that celebrates individual accolades and team accomplishments both over time and in one-year snippets. LeBron James is likely one of the five, if not three, greatest players with two first names to play in the NBA thus far. That much seems agreeable to all parties. So, do we still need to talk?