"The Last Dance" is over. Now Yardbarker's Pat Heery and Sean Keane debate (again) the biggest question of all: Who's better, LeBron or MJ?
Heery: For the past five weeks, ESPN spoiled us with "The Last Dance," its 10-part series on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. As expected, the documentary was great, and it allowed all of the major talking head shows — "First Take," "First Things First," "Undisputed," etc. — to do what they do best: debate MJ vs. LeBron ad infinitum.
But I don't need Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe to pull out a bunch of selective data and subjective hot takes to tell me which player is the G.O.A.T. Why?
Because I have eyes. I have watched basketball my entire life. I have obsessed over stats since I learned how to count. And LeBron James is not only the best basketball player, but he's also the greatest athlete we've seen or will ever see. By the time he calls it a career, LeBron could very well be the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (he’s currently third), an absurd accomplishment considering he’s generally considered a “pass-first” player. He will probably finish No. 3 all time in assists (he’s currently eighth), which is mind-boggling considering he didn’t start playing point guard until this season.
And he’ll probably finish in the top 35 in rebounds (he’s currently 49th), which again would be impressive because he’s not a true big man. By the time his career is over, LeBron will be the only player to have a career “triple-double” as he will have over 10,000 in all three statistical categories — he’s currently at 34,087 points, 9,298 assists and 9,353 rebounds.
“The Last Dance” may have reinforced the fact that Jordan had the perfect career — we’re never going to see another superstar go six-for-six in championships with two separate three-peats — but in my eyes, there’s more to greatness than rings. And, in my opinion, LeBron has an edge over Jordan in enough of those greatness categories to make him the G.O.A.T.
Keane: I admit that James is the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen, and I’m confident that he would have been a Hall of Famer as an NFL tight end or an Olympic gold medalist as a decathlete, and now that we know he saved Carmelo Anthony from drowning during a banana boat vacation, I think he could have also been a world-class water polo player. But is he the greatest basketball player of all time? As Jordan would never say, I wouldn’t bet on it.
I can’t help but go with Jordan, the best and most important basketball player of all time. LeBron is probably the most talented player ever — there’s not a lot of 6-foot-9, 250-pound guys who can lead the league in assists — but he’d have trouble beating MJ. There’s just been no one as competitive and individually relentless as Jordan, who won the title in each of his last six full seasons in the league. LeBron just spent too many years falling apart in the playoffs, including when the Mavericks shut him down in the 2011 FInals by putting J.J. Barea and 38-year-old Jason Kidd on him.
Yes, LeBron went to eight straight Finals, but the Eastern Conference of the 2010s has to be a historic low point for NBA talent east of the Rockies. Jordan had to defeat the Bad Boy Pistons, the Knicks of Pats Riley and Ewing, Reggie Miller and the Pacers, plus a 61-win Miami Heat team. The toughest teams LeBron had to beat to make the Finals were an aging Celtics squad and a way-too-young Celtics squad.
Keane: Am I being unfair to LeBron’s postseason performance? And can we truly decide who's better before we see their respective performances in "Space Jam"?
Heery: I think you may have found the ultimate MJ-LeBron tiebreaker: "Space Jam." Jordan led the Tune Squad on an epic 48-2 second-half run after the squad got ahold of his secret stuff, and had 44 points, including the game-winning dunk at the buzzer. You're turn, LeBron.
While topping MJ's "Space Jam" performance will be difficult, I have no doubt LeBron will do so, because ever since that Dallas meltdown you mentioned from the 2011 Finals, LeBron always shows up in big games. Since 2011, LeBron has faced elimination 16 times and has won 12 of those games, averaging an eye-popping 35.6 points, 11.5 rebounds and 7.6 assists. For his career, he's 14-10 when facing elimination and has averages of 33.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists.
Compare that to Jordan, who faced elimination 13 times, winning six, losing seven and averaging 31.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists. Both are/were clearly transcendent — no other player even sniffs those types of numbers. But even including that hideous Dallas performance, LeBron is objectively better in every measure if we're looking at the most pressure-filled playoff games.
So while LeBron's perplexing playoff failures earlier in his career must be noted in this debate, they should be presented in the same context as MJ's playoff letdown against the Magic in 1995 is always presented: Our hero turned failure into motivation and stormed back with a vengeance to reclaim his throne. Which is exactly what both legends did after facing adversity.
Context is something that routinely gets lost in all of these MJ-LeBron debates. MJ supporters will hang their hats on Jordan's 6-0 Finals record but hold LeBron's 3-6 Finals record against him, ignoring the fact that LeBron overachieved with some absolutely dreadful Cleveland rosters and dragged teams that had no business getting past the second round all the way to the Finals. Seriously, look at the 2007 Cavs roster. Look at the playoff rosters he carried through the East in 2015 and 2018. Hell, even the 2014 Heat were unworthy of making the Finals (Wade and Bosh combined to average only 32.7 points in the playoffs while LeBron averaged 27.4.). We shouldn't be holding those four Finals losses against LeBron — we should be awestruck by the fact he made the Finals.
Another contextual aspect of the debate that often gets overlooked is the NBA's talent during each player's respective prime. No matter how you slice it, there's simply more talent in the NBA today than ever. When Jordan played, there was a handful of overseas players who made an impact in the league. Today, eight of the 24 NBA All-Stars were born outside the USA. When Jordan won his last title, there were five teams with fewer than 20 wins — and that was before tanking became a thing. Only this year's Warriors (15-50) would have flirted with less than 20 wins.
Also, in a world without live NBA games, people are watching old Finals and playoff highlights from the Jordan era — just look at how ugly and inefficient the basketball used to be. Ask yourself whether each team's fourth- or fifth-best player would even make an NBA roster today, let alone get minutes (the answer is "no" more often than not). Yes, MJ ran through an impressive number of Hall of Famers during his career, but how many of those rivals could hold a candle to the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant or Steph Curry if they played today?
Heery: Am I missing an important contextual argument that swings in MJ's favor? And is there possibly something to the idea that LeBron is more talented than MJ, but MJ squeezed just a little bit more out of his potential than LeBron did?
Keane: I would certainly buy the argument that LeBron has more talent than MJ, but it's hard to say that LeBron has gotten as much out of his potential. In fewer seasons, Jordan has twice as many titles and one more MVP Award — and he'd have more than five if he had not gotten so jaded by dominating the league that he had to play minor league baseball just to give himself a challenge.
Jordan is one of two players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in a season (Hakeem Olajuwon is the other one). And not only did MJ never lose a Finals series, but he also never even went to a seventh game. LeBron has a broader skill set; Jordan has a more useful one. Jordan is simply better at getting buckets, especially in the half court, and especially when things slow down in the playoffs. Jordan still has the highest scoring average in NBA history at 30.1 ppg., and in the playoffs, he averaged 33.4 to 28.9 for LeBron, who plays in a much higher-scoring era.
The overall talent level in the league might be higher, but there are also more teams now. If Jordan could beat Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley, he could handle Steph and Giannis. Hell, LeBron is only 1-3 against Curry in the Finals. With Jordan, it didn't seem to matter if he was playing Clyde Drexler or Gary Payton, or Stockton and Malone. Jordan's intensity on both sides of the ball meant he just beat everyone in front of him for a decade, aside from every AA pitcher with a decent curve.
I also disagree with giving LeBron extra credit for Finals losses when he dragged inferior teams there, because he put together a lot of those teams! Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh weren't great in 2014? Well LeBron James is the one who had them sign four-year contracts with Miami in 2010. The same thing holds for his Cleveland teams. The guys didn't help LeBron enough in the playoffs? LeBron picked those guys! J.R. Smith was only on the floor to forget the score in 2018 because LeBron wanted him there — and let's not forget that the team lacked flexibility because it gave Tristan Thompson, signed to LeBron's sports agency, a massive contract.
Keane: Here's a question to ponder: If they switch eras and situations, which guy benefits the most?
Heery: I think MJ ends up playing more of a lead guard role a la James Harden if he were in this era. His statistics would have been even better. At the same time, would he have been as focused and unflappable during the social media era?
As for LeBron, he would have been the best athlete in the league no matter which generation you dropped him in. However, would he have gone to coaches who were innovative enough to use him as a point forward or point guard? Or would they have been tempted to have him play a more traditional position, as many coaches would have done? The assists are what make LeBron so special — that, and obviously, his career longevity.
Heery: Lastly, which game was MJ’s greatest performance? And how does it compare to, say, LeBron’s Game 6 at Boston in 2012?
Keane: There are a lot of choices. There's Game 6 in the 1998 Finals against Utah, in which Jordan gets a steal and a game-winner, at the expense of Karl Malone and Bryon Russell, but he pushes off on that shot and only collects one rebound and one assist. I’m hesitant to pick the Flu/Bad Pizza Game in 1997, just because of the uncertainty. His trainer claims he got food poisoning; others suggest it might have been too much partying. I'm going with a different Finals performance: Game 4 in 1993. Facing Charles Barkley and the Suns, Jordan scored 55 points on 21-for-37 shooting, with eight rebounds, four assists and only one turnover. Barkley had 32 points and a triple-double, but Jordan and the Bulls held on for a 111-105 win that kept Chicago from heading back to Phoenix down 3-2.
I think LeBron's 45-point monster game against Boston — with 15 rebounds! — is the most individually dominant performance I've seen, especially given the emotional stakes attached to a road elimination game against a Boston team that had knocked him out of the playoffs in 2008 and '10. I'd give it to MJ very, very slightly, only because it was the Finals, and I think the Suns were better than Boston.
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