By In Basketball

Michael v LeBron

NBC SportsWorld:

The question before the court is a simple one: If you were starting a basketball team that was playing the Devil’s All-Star team for your very soul, and you had the first pick of every player in the history of the NBA, would you take Michael or would you take LeBron?

The Great Debate

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120 Responses to Michael v LeBron

  1. Brian says:

    The problem with picking James first, though, is that MJ would then use that slight to utterly destroy your team! There’s no way to win.

  2. Steve says:

    Joe, Joe, Joe…….JORDAN WAS WAYYYYYYYYY BETTER! I know you are from Cleveland, but James is not a leader and James is not a clutch player like Jordan and many of the greats you list. When Cleveland won their championship and needed the big shot Irving took it and Irving made it. James made nothing. In addition, he had choked just as many times as he was good. I still have images of James dribbling it off his foot at the end of a key championship game. When James is losing he goes quits and sulks. Jordan did not give up on his team, he helped bring the players needed to win the championship. When the going got tough on Cleveland the first time he bolted. And I can argue with you that those Heat championship teams were Wade’s championship teams. There is something to a basketball player other than measurable or stats. Sure you can score 20 plus points if you arch the ball up. Did James ever make his surrounding players better? Heck, I can argue that Kevin Love was a better player for Minnesota. To be the true best player you have to take over GAMES. The more I think about things, Jordan has gotten better than James the longer I type. Who cares if James is built better than Jordan. I really don’t think James is a tough player. Look at James meltdown in game 4 (the game Green got suspended). I can go on and on. I think Isiah Thomas often gets overlooked (you don’t even mention him). What he did for those Pistons teams was tremendous and because Isiah was a small guy and not built like a James or even Jordan no one considers him. What he did at his size should be applauded not ignored. I see John Stockton and Stephen Curry get rated as better PGs on ESPN rankings. What a freakin joke. Personally give me Isiah over James. Isiah was a much tougher and clutch player than James easily. So what he was half of James size. I am sorry just because James is the best player in the league now does not make him best ever. Honestly, there should be no debate…as a Jordan hater, he was still better than James.

    • MikeN says:

      James melted down repeatedly, but those Heat championships were his. KG bullied him so much and he finally took over in Game 6, with Wade being injured enough that LeBron was forced into a lead role.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      James took mediocre teams to the finals, both last year and in his previous time in Cleveland. I’m not saying he is better than Jordan but you are coming up with anecdotes to show why he choked, but most of the teams he has been on were not that good. And, remember, how many championships did Jordan win his first seven years in the league. The Pistons pretty much shut him down when they needed to. (Remember the “Jordan Rules?”). I’m pretty sure you could find plenty of examples in those early years of Jordan not being a significant factor against the Pistons. People forget that now.

      I think this is awfully unfair to LeBron. And I love it when fans talk about a player not being “tough” as if that actually means something coming from some guy who is watching from his couch.

      Frankly, I think the whole notion of deciding whether Jordan is better than James or vice versa is silly and pointless. They are/were both great players and have won multiple championships.

      • Steve says:

        Come on Marc, he took mediocre teams to the finals against mediocre competition. Look at who he faced this year to win the championship? And the East was actually stronger this year than it has been in years! Jordan had a much tougher road and was 6-0 in the finals. Lebron is still 3-4. Lost more than he has won. The Heat underachieved big time. And Lebron bailed on the Cavs the first time. Michael never bailed. He never gave up on his team. Lebron felt that the only way he could win was to assemble a team of superstars. Heck, as I said before that Heat team was really Wade’s team. If Lebron was a better competitor he would have recruiter Wade or Bosh to come to HIS TEAM. That is what a real superstar does. Sure he came back but after the Cavs got the first pick in the draft THREE times! I do applaud Hernandez above for recognizing the accomplishments of Irving. Others hear talk like Irving is a nobody. He arguably is a top 10 player. He plays clutch and is only 24 years old.

        • Curious George Mikan says:

          Michael never bailed. He never gave up on his team.

          Remind me again what Jordan’s PPG was in 1993-94 and 1994-95?

          • Steve says:

            Jack, I got your back. Only reason anyone here says James is better is because people have short term memories. I hate Jordan. He is scum, but better scum than James.

          • Sereniza says:

            MJ never bailed. He retired. After delivering a three-peat. Not the same as what LBJ did to Cavs in 2010.

      • Andy says:

        You had me until silly and pointless. C’mon, it’s fun! Also, it’s fair, because it’s how these guys measure themselves.

    • James says:

      Good thing Jordan always made the game winning shot. No one like Steve Kerr or John Paxson would ever take a winning shot in the finals. Certainly Jordan wouldn’t get pulled for a scrub like Bobby Hansen and watch from the bench while the team comes back from a huge deficit to win a game.

      I loved watching Jordan and would probably give him a slight edge, but why does he get credit for losing early in the playoffs? He lost to Boston twice, the Pistons 3 times.

    • Mark says:

      James a choker? Have you bothered to look at his numbers in playoff elimination games? Or just decided that you don’t like Lebron and that’s that?

      • Steve says:

        I don’t like Jordan either. Actually probably hate Jordan more but he was a WAY BETTER player than Lebron. Yes. Lebron chokes. How many points did he get down the stretch of the last game seven even? Big time players don’t disappear. I am tired of wasting my time with you guys. Lebron is the star of the most recent championship of course he is the best all time.

    • MikeN says:

      Jordan was so selfish, he cost his team the finals in 89. After finally listening to Doug Collins who threatened to bench him, he put up a slew of triple doubles to take his team to the playoffs and they pulled off two straight upsets, then he reverted to form and had to get Phil Jackson to coach the players around him to serve Jordan’s ego.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Look, he’s been to 7 straight finals. He may or may not be judged ultimately as better or not better than Jordan. But, Jordan had a great surrounding cast & while Jordan made memorable shots, other players had big games as well. Nobody wins by themselves. Jordan sure never did.

    • john4psu says:

      I love and agree with what you wrote and you had me till Isiah over James.

    • John Baranowski says:

      Great article but I do believe you’ve succumb to your admirable hometown devotion and the latest is the greatest line of thinking clouding your judgment.

      Six finals MVP awards Joe. MJ was at his best when the spotlight was greatest, never losing in a final. That cannot be taken lightly.

      How close has James come to leading his team to 72 wins AND an NBA title the same season? For if Stephen Curry was regular-season Curry like in the finals or if Golden State hadn’t blown a 3-1 lead, we’re not having this discussion/debate. That’s how close it was but credit to James for seizing the opening and creating history.

      It’s akin to calling Tom Brady the greatest QB ever. Puhleeze. Again it’s the latest is the greatest line of thinking. Brady has thrown more interceptions in numerous quarters in his Super Bowls than Joe Montana did in four games! Zero interceptions. ZERO. Brady was outplayed by Eli Manning twice! No one ever outplayed Jordan in an NBA final when the pressure was the greatest. No one. The same cannot be said of James.

      Like Curry and the Warriors letting the Cavs back into the series and Lebron into this debate, had Pete Carroll called for a running play on the goal line and not had a brain fart, Brady would be .500 in Super Bowls and he wouldn’t be thought of as the greatest QB ever.

      The greatest players are always great when the pressure and stakes are at the their highest (NBA finals and Super Bowls) and few can claim that. Jordan and Montana can. It is a very valid argument.

  3. Frank Evans says:

    If it is one game, winner take all… MJ had the will to win like no one else. But I also need Bill Murray on the court, just to make sure.

  4. Steve says:

    And don’t give me James had no surrounding cast. First of there are more teams now. And I would argue James was at least on par. Rodman only played on a couple of those teams. Same with Kukoc, but Kukoc???? Really??? You think he was great? James played with Bosh and Wade. That destroys any combination Jordan had? On most of those teams Horace Grant was the third best player. On the Cavs James has Irving and Love. I honestly would say Pippen/Grant is worse than Love/Irving…at least close. Jordan made his other players better, not sure who James made a better player? Delledova??? You make it sound like there was a big difference there wasn’t. And we keep forgetting Bosh and Wade account for 2 of James 3 championships. Record in finals does count Joe. Only reason you say it doesn’t is because that argument makes Jordan the clear winner of this argument.

    • Steve says:

      And let me go on more. Let’s look at this Cavs championship. They Beat the Pistons, Hawks and Raptors to get to the finals. All mediocre teams. Than he beat a Warriors team with a hurt Curry and Bogat. In addition, a Green got a questionable suspension (that turned the tide of the series). How many games did it take the Cavs? SEVEN. It was hardly one of the best runs in NBA championship history. Stop! You question whether Jordan could do that. I think Jordan could have beat those first three teams with 4 women on the court with him. Give me a break.

      • heaveecee says:

        Just so we’re clear, you are calling Kyrie Irving equal to Scottie Pippen and you’re putting Kevin Love on equal footing to Horace Grant or even Dennis Rodman? I think Love is more like Kukoc than any other Bull. Not to mention key players like former all-star Ron Harper, Steve Kerr (possibly the best pre-Allen, pre-Curry 3 point shooter) and the mind of Phil Jackson in the midst. Bulls teams were incredibly deep, Kukoc may be overrated but he was a key contributor, BJ Armstrong was no slouch and even Bill Cartwright provided rebounds and a scoring option plus the Bulls always had a deep bench. Wade was clearly in the twilight of his career and a shadow of himself in the 2nd championship and seasons to follow and Bosh though very good is no Pippen and the Heat had virtually no bench. Even with Ray Allen no one was calling that Heat team an all-time team like the Bulls or 2016 Warriors. James’ teams have the weakest supporting cast of any championship team in decades, especially these Cavs. I’ve always felt the “never lost in a final” argument to be overstated, as Jordan took his pre-finals playoff losses and lessons as well. He also had some lack luster Finals close out games, although I will never forget his score-steal-score close-out against the Jazz. He also deferred final shots to Paxson and Kerr. I’m not sure if at age 31 that Lebron is the GOAT, but it is a discussion.

        • Steve says:

          Lol. Irving vs Pippenis a closer comparison the than James to Jordan. Irving made the series winning shot and Pippen got a migraine. Pippen is probably the most overrated player ever. Jordan made him a better pkayer. What did Pippen do after Jordan left? Love is a different kind of player than Grant. I would not say Grant was better than Love. Plus Irving is still a young player who is getting better. Irving is capable of taking over a game. Pippen is one of the biggest sidekicks ever

          With James you are doing what lots do. The most recent player is always better to others. Look on any NFL TEAMS Facebook page now they are voting for best game ever fir their teams. The most recent game is winning by most teams. Also Like Curry being a better point guard than Isiah. Not close. The other thing you are doing is going with the best player ever on your home team. Homer. Jordan and I hate his guts was better than Lebron.

        • Steve says:

          Lol. Irving vs Pippenis a closer comparison the than James to Jordan. Irving made the series winning shot and Pippen got a migraine. Pippen is probably the most overrated player ever. Jordan made him a better pkayer. What did Pippen do after Jordan left? Love is a different kind of player than Grant. I would not say Grant was better than Love. Plus Irving is still a young player who is getting better. Irving is capable of taking over a game. Pippen is one of the biggest sidekicks ever. Jordan made Pippen a better player and Lebron made love worse.

          With James you are doing what lots do. The most recent player is always better to others. Look on any NFL TEAMS Facebook page now they are voting for best game ever for their teams. The most recent game is winning by most teams. Also Like Curry being a better point guard than Isiah. Not close. The other thing you are doing is going with the best player ever on your home team. Homer. Jordan and I hate his guts was better than Lebron. JORDAN WON ALL SIX FINALS! LEBRON WON 3 OUT OF SEVEN! You are saying this now but did you say it last year when he lost or when he loses again next year?

          • James says:

            Irving is a great offensive player but is terrible on defense. Because of that, he is not as good as Pippen was.
            You are right, Pippen did not do much after Jordan retired. I am amazed that a 33-38 year old did not have his best years.

            Horace Grant was also a very underrated player. Love is a shadow of himself. No where near as good as he was in Minnesota.

          • Dan says:

            Jordan made Pippen a better player. LeBron made Love worse. Jordan made Kwame worse. LeBron made Kyrie better. And so on and so on…

            Some players have games that work well together, and some do not.

            “What did Pippen do after Jordan left?” Really? He was a superstar. He led the team in points, steals and assists and finished second in blocks and rebounds, and the Bulls won 55 games. Scottie was a malcontent that year – as I recall he openly campaigned for a trade during the season – but he was a freak of a player.

            If you want to equate Jordan/Pippen to LeBron/Irving or LeBron/Wade, look at what Irving did before LeBron got there (granted, unfair because he’s so young) or what Wade did after LeBron left (granted, Bosh was out, and the rest of the Heat sucks, but that’s maybe not so different from Scottie’s position in 1995).

            Selling Pippen short to elevate Jordan is just silly.

          • Rob Smith says:

            Pippen was a great player. After the Bulls he went to Portland for a few years and was absolutely the key to that team. He always defended the other team’s best player, and offensively he’d play nearly every position. A lot of times he acted as point guard. He basically played whatever role was needed that night. He rebounded, defended, passed, scored. Did it all. Pippen, I think, is very underrated. The Blazers were lost without him, and this was in the latter part of his career.

        • PUNKem733 says:

          Here’s what I think…sport fans, and it seems analysts have the shortest memory of any segment of our population. James on par, or (jesus H…*SIGH*) better than Jordan? I’m imagining, maybe on an alternate Earth. Nope, I was just trying to picture it in my head in this other dimension, and can’t do it.

    • Mike says:

      LOL. You sound angry.

      • Steve says:

        Joe, I guess I do get angry when people say Lebron is the best all time. I just don’t get it. No expletives. I am cool.

        • Mark says:

          Trying to compare Kyrie Irving to Scottie Pippen just shows how clueless you are about basketball. Aside from Pippen’s all-around offensive game, he was all NBA defense 8 times. He was the perfect wingman for Jordan. Wade’s 1st and 2nd year with James are the only times Lebron had a teammate that was comparable to Pippen at all. And that’s without drilling further down into the teams. It’s an absolute miracle those early Cleveland teams made the Eastern Conference finals much less the NBA Finals.

    • Just as you ignore the fact that, as Joe points out, when Jordan played baseball the Bulls won 55 games while the LeBron-less Cavs and Heat managed 56 wins combined (19 for Cavs 37, for the Heat). All your words about their supporting casts don’t change those numbers.

      • Steve says:

        Come on Mark. Especially with the Heat. Wade became an injury mess and Bosh same thing. I love it how people just use stats. Look outside the stats. In addition, when Lebron came to the Heat EVERYONE said the Heat had the best selection of stars ever to play on one team. People including Lebron guaranteed something like 7 Championships and most if not all people think the Heat underachieved. So don’t give me the Heat had no players. Lebron left the Heat as they were declining as the Cavs were shooting up. You forget the Cavs had Irving and then got a couple more #1 pick overalls. Cleveland got that way because after Lebron left they let players go because they needed to rebuild. It was a roster turnover. Lebron is giving credit for coming back to Cleveland to save the city when Cleveland was on the way up and Miami was on the way down. It amazes me how people just love to go with the new thing. Jordan was way better than Lebron.

        • Mark says:

          Cleveland was on their way up?? Is that a joke? Season wins after Lebron left – 19, 21, 24, 33. Season wins after Lebron returns – 53 & 57 with two Final appearances and one Finals championship.

          • Your own numbers prove that Cleveland was on the way up when Lebron came back. They improved 14 games from the time he left. Had he not gone back, it’s pretty unlikely they would have won 53 games that first year. But, ~40 was probably likely.

            If Lebron hadn’t left, Cleveland would not have gotten the younger players like Kyrie who were the difference in getting the team over the hump. Lebron stays in Cleveland instead of going to Miami, he never plays with Kyrie. And, had that happened, I’d say it’s pretty safe to say that Lebron would still be looking for his first championship today and we’d be having a VERY different discussion.

          • Steve says:

            Look Cleveland got the 1st pick in the draft like 3 years in a row (close). So obviously they were bad, but you don’t get the first pick in the draft three years in a row and get nothing to show for it. Cleveland was on the way up so Lebron came back…after he got his championship and saw Miami was on the decline. As for if Lebron stayed in Cleveland to say he would not of gotten a championship is a stretch. Cleveland tore it down after Lebron left so that is also part of the reason they stunk. But if Lebron is worth anything, he should have been able to recruit people to play with him. That was the trend those years. The reason I call the Heat “Wade’ss team” is that one Wade won a championship there before Lebron came over. He was the leader of that team and the face of the franchise. Then Wade recruited both Lebron and Bosh. I can not put Lebron as the greatest when he played on Wade’s team. And he did not do what Wade did, Lebron should have had the clout to do what Wade did. And don’t give me the city stuff. Teams in similar markets did win championship and did get players to come there. Lebron just quit. He took the easy way out.

  5. David in Toledo says:

    Perceptive as always, Joe. Nicely written, too, working up to the point about personalities. It’s possible LeBron will leave (or has left) a championship on the table because he isn’t individually ruthless enough at a critical moment. But it’s also possible he’s coaxed more wins from his teams than single-mindedness would have. And LeBron may just spread more happiness.

  6. MikeN says:

    TNT had a draft several years ago, and Jordan was taken third(a bit ahead of LeBron).
    First pick was Allen Iverson.

    • DjangoZ says:

      Allen Iverson?!?

      That is not the answer to who should be drafted first all time.

      • Nick S. says:

        If I remember correctly, the guy who picked Iverson misunderstood the rules of the draft. I think it was Barkley.

        • MikeN says:

          “Is Michael Jordan not on your list?”
          “He’s on my list, but I think the All-Star game is a point guard driven game.”

  7. Anon says:

    This is a very tough question — it is extremely close! I don’t know which way I lean.

    But I do want to mention that the “Jordan is more competitive” argument actually works the opposite way from how people are using it.

    Suppose Jordan and James are both playing a meaningless January game. It’s easy to just go through the motions. Who would be more likely to push through and find the extra gear? Jordan. Yet they still are comparable overall…which means that James outplays Jordan when it really matters.

    I think this shows that using a gut reaction is a bad way to resolve this dispute. It is very close, and only time will tell for sure!

  8. JB says:

    Dr. J!?! I think this discussion falls into the ‘this era v. that era’ thing. The athletes evolve both physically and mentally, learn from the pioneers of the previous era, and ultimately take it to another level. They are bigger, quicker and stronger than even a coupla decades back. The game itself changes pretty quickly as well.

    Watching LeBron put the hammer down this year was incredible. He certainly deserves to be in the discussion.

  9. BobDD says:

    It’s hard to believe now, but George Mikan once dominated the NBA. Looking at video of him in action sure makes you appreciate the athleticness of today’s players. But then if you can find video’s Wilt’s teenage track days, his raw power and speed will make you gasp. The big O’s first five seasons he averaged a triple-double and over 30 ppg. But 98% of the video we have of him is for his last 3 seasons when he wasn’t even a top five guard in the league.

    But Jordan and Lebron, we have video! Jordan appears more athletic and faster than Oscar. Lebron and Wilt are in class by themselves as athletes; they are faster than everyone else, so powerful that other players are continually bouncing off of them. But Lebron has maintained his physicality while Wilt became a plodding behemoth after his patellar rupture at age 33 – and those are the years that most fans remember and can picture in their mind.

    So Wilt and Oscar’s memories are screwed by the dearth of good video of their heyday.

    So posters here are already arguing that Jordan’s teams won more or that Lebron had more physical tools in use. Both of those assertion seem correct, even unassailable. Winning is hard to argue against, but I’ve always thought it at least somewhat weak, because Tommy Heinsohn is the forward with the most rings, and he sure ain’t the best at his position! Jordan was the better shooter and Lebron does more rebounding and passing. Athletically, Lebron is more, which for Lebron booster is the deciding factor – for Jordan fans it is rings.

    So this is the MVP argument all over again; does the MVP mean the best or “something else”. Lebron has developed his athletic tools beyond even Jordan, but will never have as many championships – so what does the “best” mean?

    It means whatever you want it to mean. I’m not a Heinsohn believer, so for me it’s Wilt, Lebron, MJ.

  10. invitro says:

    I wouldn’t take Jordan OR LeBron. I’d take Wilt. And I’d take Kareem second.

    • Brent says:

      Not in today’s NBA, the guards would never pass them the ball, so they could never be as dominant as back in the day.

  11. Jaunty Rockefeller says:

    Re: “prime Jordan can be shown to be a demonstrably better outside shooter than James.”

    I’m not sure of that. James and Jordan have essentially the same career 3pt %, but three of Jordan’s four best 3pt % seasons came when the line was almost two feet closer than it is now. Jordan was a significantly better free throw shooter. Anecdotally he had a better midrange game but without any tracking data from his prime era I’m not sure that is conclusively true.

  12. Jaunty Rockefeller says:

    Also, the question when constructing a team from scratch isn’t who is most dominant (unless the dominant player is an order of magnitude greater than the next best, which isn’t the case here)—it is what the downstream effects of the first pick will be. That’s why I’d pick LeBron first—he can play at least 3, arguably 4, positions at an all-star level. If you pick him, you don’t need to optimize your picks at PG, SG, SF, and arguably PF—you just play him in those positions. As great as Jordan is, picking him first would put you at a disadvantage against the LeBron-led team in subsequent rounds of the draft.

  13. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    I think this argument overrates Pippen and underrates Kylie Irving. Kylie’s only 24; let’s see where the Pippen/Irving debate stands in another six years. (I don’t mean here to suggest that Scottie wasn’t great. Of course he was. And, yes, the year Jordan left for Birmingham, Bulls still won 55 games. The year he returned to the NBA, they won 72. Your witness.)

    But like many of the commenters above, I don’t think we can just dismiss Wilt and Kareem out of hand. Look at what Wilt did with a terrible Warriors team. Look what Kareem did with a one-year-removed-from-expansion team *before* Oscar showed up (seriously: look at it; and then look at the roster he dragged to 56 wins). Obviously, today’s NBA is a faster, more athletic game, but Wilt was a tremendous athlete and Kareem was a dominant force across multiple basketball generations. (Russell was great, too, but he did have the advantage of playing alongside the 1960s wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame).

    In a game for my immortal soul, I’d probably pick Jordan, because I’d want a guy who hated losing regardless of the stakes (after all, why would any of these guys go all out to save me from hell). But that doesn’t necessary make him the best player.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      People said many of the same things about Wilt that they do (or did) about LeBron. He didn’t win enough championships given his talent and dominance. Came up short against Bill Russell, etc., etc.

      I don’t even know what it means to be the “best” player given that there are differences in positions (at least there were, not as much now). How do you compare a great center (Wilt or Kareem) to a great guard? Does being the best player mean being the most dominant? If so, centers for a long time had a huge advantage because size was so important. Now, not so much.

      The debate often seems to devolve into who has the most championships. But, that obviously shortchanges players who were on lesser teams.

      To me, you can only really talk about who the best player is/was in an individual sport such as tennis, golf, or boxing, where all the players are directly competing against each other, or at least are all doing the same thing. You can compare Pete Sampras and Roger Federer or Rod Laver; same with Nicklaus and Palmer; Ali/Louis, etc. In a team sport, it just gets down to how did the team do and do I remember when so-and-so got a key hit, made a key basket, or led a team on a drive down the field to win the Super Bowl.

  14. Richard says:

    Okay. So whoever you pick – LeBron or MJ – The Devil gets the other one. You’re pretty much even; “too close to call”, at any rate.

    Who is your NEXT pick? This is where you really have to worry…..

  15. Mark Daniel says:

    Jordan seemed to have the killer instinct and the drive, more so than LeBron. I have no idea if that’s actually true and I am certain it cannot be quantified. But these are real things – leadership, tenacity, drive, competitiveness. Coaches yearn for these traits in their players. Employers desperately seek these traits in their leaders and employees. As far as a draft, given their close numbers, I give the nod to Jordan based on these unquantifiable attributes that I believe he has.

  16. Michael or LeBron? The answer is simple.

    Bill Russell.

  17. thoughtsandsox says:

    Everyone else can debate Jordan/James but you are totally wrong in that you can’t statistically compare blue and red. About 8% of the population is colorblind and the vast majority of them can’t see red. So many people can’t see red that all stoplights are built the same way, with red on the top, so that people that can’t see red still know which one means stop.

  18. Kyle says:

    Where is this game being played? If it’s in Hell, LeBron doesn’t do so well without air conditioning.

  19. Reagan says:

    Joe mentioned Schur’s comment about the hand check (around in MJs day, not today). It’s a good point. The analogous point is that the during most of MJs heyday, the NBA completely changed how they called defensive fouls. The seeds were sown by the Pistons in the late 80s, but it really took root (sorry about the extended agricultural metaphor) when Pat Riley took over the Knicks in 91-92, and it persisted for over a decade. Does anybody remember this? It was called “playoff basketball,” only it was played every game. The idea being that since the refs were already reluctant to call fouls at critical moments in playoff games (allowing for more grabbing, fouling, and generally more physical play), all that was needed for a un-athletic (and overmatched) team to survive on defense was to play in that style the whole game and convince the refs to adopt that same attitude. (“We play with playoff intensity every game – call it like that, ref.”) The Knicks won a lot of games that way. The only losers were fans of good basketball.

    MJ had to face that. LeBron didn’t. It doesn’t make MJ automatically better (it affects his offensive and defensive stats), but it is something to consider.

    • MikeN says:

      The thing about handcheck rules is overrated. What they are arguing, if taken to its logical conclusion, is that Kobe, LeBron, Nowitzki, McGrady, etc if they were playing ‘back in the day’ would be scoring less than 20 ppg.

  20. SB M says:

    I am going to call him “Likely hall of famer Toni Kukoc” from now on, just for laughs.

    • DjangoZ says:

      That cracked me up too.

    • Nick S. says:

      I’m sure Joe was including Kukoc’s international career as well.

      • MikeN says:

        The list of players getting in because of international play is pretty high.
        Ginobili, Petrovic, Gasol, Divac, Ming, Parker, Kukoc, maybe Diaw.

        • Jaunty Rockefeller says:

          I do t know if he’ll be inducted at all, but if Parker is, it’ll be tough to say it was “because of” his two years in the PBR rather than his 15 years with the Spurs.

          • MikeN says:

            It usually comes from playing for the national team, not a national league.

            Parker is borderline without the international play I think.
            If Derek Fisher played for the Chilean national team and they won some, he’d probably be in too.

        • Brent says:

          The elder Sabonis for sure. Best passing big man ever, too bad we Americans didn’t really get to see him at his prime. Except for one Olympics where he schooled our college kids and basically created the need for the Dream Team.

  21. DjangoZ says:

    Watching LeBron give up twice on his teams in the playoffs and stand at half court and pout is hard for me to forget. I’ve never seen a top 10 player all-time in any sport do that…not even once, much less twice. It’s part of what makes him such an interesting character.

    However, his work in the finals the last two years has started to change my mind. Let’s see how he does in the next 4 years. 2 or 3 more championships and outstanding performances by LeBron and I think he has a case.

    Right now I take Jordan, but we’re judging him on his whole career. I need to see how the movie of LeBron ends before I can know how it stacks up against the complete works of Jordan.

  22. Herb Smith says:

    This comparison is closer than I would have thought. And I thank Joe for taking the minority opinion… it illuminated some interesting things about both players.
    One thing that Joe got wrong, however, was saying Dennis Rodman only played on two of MJ’s champ teams. Rodman played on all three of Jordans final 3 championship teams, and he was a stone-cold superstar all three years… in fact he led the NBA in rebounding ALL three years and was a top 5 defensive player all three. Obviously, Pippin was even better and is legitimately one of the top 30 or 40 players who ever played. In my mind, Michael is still #1, but any true NBA fan will tell you that he benefitted from playing with MUCH better teammates.

  23. MikeN says:

    LeBron won his championship by beating Boston. Jordan waited until they were too weak to advance to his spot and never beat them.

  24. KHAZAD says:

    Michael Jordan is the most famous sports star of my lifetime, and to many of those who grew up with his legend, there will never be a better player.

    I can certainly see the argument for Lebron however. (Though if it was a one game playoff against the Devil, or a game winning shot, I would take Jordan for sure.) Even if you are a Jordan fan, you should be able to see that Lebron has at the very least pushed his way into the discussion as an all around player, and now with a 3 game clutch performance that should be legendary.

    His team needed to win three straight against a team that hadn’t lost 3 in a row since 2013. Two of those wins would have to come on the road against a team with a 50-3 home record this season. He responded with 36.3 points per game, 11.7 rebounds per game, 9.7 assists per game and 3.0 steals and blocks per game. Along the way he became the only player ever to lead both teams in all 5 categories in a series.

    They are both all time greats, and while I don’t mind anyone who truly feels that one of them (or a different player, as some have put forth other choices) was definitely the best, making your point by talking down the other player (or even dissing some teammates who were good to great and contributed to their success to make it look like it was all just that player) just makes you look silly.

    I am glad to have seen both of them play. Greatness is rare and should be savored.

  25. Michael says:

    If the question was, if you could add either player to an average team, who do you think would be more likely to lead them towards a championship, it would be a very difficult choice. In my opinion they would be the clear two for that discussion and it might be as close as a coin toss. But as the question was posed, if you are playing a team for your soul, taking anyone other than MJ would be insane. As a player I might enjoy playing with LBJ more but if the win is vital, MJ was just a cold blooded assassin who would rip your heart out, so I couldn’t think of a better pick in this scenario. For me this is a no brainer.

  26. conchefritter says:

    Smart, interesting and nuanced piece. Love it. Commenters, not so much–too much devotion to playoff/championship stuff. Not the point of the piece: Who do you start with? And the case for LeBron is a good one. Very. But. I know different era, but … only thing lacking in the piece in my view. The Bulls built a team with the way-intriguing and difficult triangle offense, and then found the skill sets with players before fashionable (length and ball-handling parameter, bigs secondary). They also had premier parameter defenders. Nobody did much of that then. So. Bit of credit to those who drafted, traded, and built quality role players around MJ. Perhaps system/FO skills underrated in this analyses.

  27. shagster says:


    Start the Michael Jordan vs. Bill Russell conversation.

    You may have something there.

  28. Jack Bartram says:

    “Their postseason accomplishments are equally mesmerizing.”

    Disagree 100% with this statement. Jordan got drafted by the Bulls, won his championships with the Bulls for the most part with the hand he was dealt. No one can really argue that Jordan won 6 titles in 8 years and likely would have gone 8 for 8 had he not left. He never engineered an move to create an all-star team to play on. Even the move of trading the top pick when James arrived for Love wouldn’t have been done with Jordan, Jordan just would have won with that pick. I found it laughable that people were agog at James’ back-to-back 41 point games, forgetting that Jordan averaged 41 a game in the ’93 Finals.

    Also disagree with the statement that James is a better passer. The Bulls went with Jordan as point guard at one stretch and he responded with a string of triple doubles. The difference between James and Jordan there is that, in almost every situation, Jordan is the best option. The same isn’t true with James, as he isn’t the scorer that Jordan was. Jordan was every bit as adept at the thing Joe boggles at, staying in the air for the last second dish, as James.

    And in my opinion, Jordan only played with one hall-of-fame caliber player in his career, and that player was near the end at the time, and that was Dennis Rodman, the best rebounder in modern basketball history (post-merger). Scottie Pippen was a very very good basketball player, a borderline Hall-of-Famer, that was made a Hall-of-Famer by the fact that no one paid any attention to him.

    James is phenomenal, and I do put him close to the top. I will NOT discount the people you said were not in the running, as I put Bill Russell very close to Jordan and always have. I think James is probably tied with him. But Jordan was a significantly better scorer, as good a passer (that is a concession since I think Jordan was a better passer than James), and a better defender. James is a better rebounder. Jordan also has the single best championship performance I have ever seen, ’93.

    Sorry. It isn’t that close.

    • Jack Bartram says:

      Also, James is taller with a much bigger body. he SHOULD be a better rebounder. But even that is probably closer than it should be since Jordan was a guard all his career.

    • Jack Bartram says:

      Last thing… sorry, but James engineered a move to Miami with two other all-stars who thought they were going to win “Not one, not two, not three…”. Calling James teammates inferior to Jordan’s is BS. You overrate Pippen, you underrate all of James’ teammates.

      • MikeN says:

        No we are properly rating them. There is a big dropoff after Bosh.
        Then again there was a pretty big dropoff for the Bulls too.

    • EnzoHernandez11 says:

      As someone mentioned above, we’ll never solve the Wilt v. Russell debate or the LeBron v. Michael debate because we’ll never agree on the impact of each man’s teammates on their success. It’s not Russell’s fault that the always had great teammates, of course, but it does complicate the argument for his ranking within the pantheon. The best teammates Wilt had in his (or their) prime were probably Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, and Gail Goodrich (though West was still a hell of a player right up until the end). Russell had an aging Cousy, K.C. and Sam Jones, Bailey Howell, Bill Sharman, and Tom Heinshon. Remember that on a couple of those teams, John Havlicaek was the *sixth* man. And except for the 71-72 Lakers (after Russell retired), Wilt’s teams never had as formidable a bench as Russell’s.
      So what about all the rings? Well, once Wilt moved on from those so-so Warriors teams to the 76ers and Lakers, the Russell-Wilt playoff series went seven games three out of five times (one of the two times they didn’t was when the Sixes finally knocked off the Celtics). Does winning game seven three out of four times with (generally) a better team make you the greater player? Is Game 7 a crucial test of will, character, or whatever you want to call it? I don’t know the answer, but two things: 1) why wouldn’t that character show up in games 1-6 and lead to a shorter series; and 2) relatedly, notice that during Michael’s championship seasons, the Bulls rarely needed seven games to dispatch an opponent, and NEVER did in the finals.
      My guess (and that’s all it is, but it’s based on the best evidence that exists) is that if you gave Wilt and Russell each other’s teams (and made Wilt play under Auerbach’s tough love), we would not be arguing about Wilt vs. Russell. Indeed, the results might have been so definitive that we wouldn’t be bothered arguing about Michael or LeBron, either.

      • MikeN says:

        Not really. Wilt was a selfish player. One team in the hunt for the title took a vote and decided that they didn’t want to get Wilt on their team.
        He was famous for wanting to keep his record of never fouling out, so once he got some fouls, teams knew they could attack him and he would back off.

        • EnzoHernandez11 says:

          I know Wilt gets the rap as a selfish player (as well as a coach-killer), but all the evidence seems anecdotal. There’s the oft-told story about how he became the assists leader one year just to show he could (rather than to help out his team), but I’m not sure how much that tells us. He did seem to cherish his record of never having fouled out, but that only really kicked in later in his career. And again, I’ve never seen any systematic evidence that it affected anything.

          He pulled himself out of game 7 in 1969 and people questioned his commitment. Of course, they had no idea how injured he really was. And when he wanted back in, van Breda Kolff bullheadedly kept him out, handing the trophy to Boston.

          All I know is this: except for a few awful Warriors clubs, Wilt’s teams were always in the hunt. With the Sixers and Lakers, he won two titles and took the Boston Hall of Famers to Game 7 twice. When Bill Sharman asked him to adjust his game to account for the offensive skills of West, Goodrich, and the rest, he responded by playing the Bill Russell role for one of the five best teams in NBA history, the 71-72 Lakers (after already anchoring one of the to top 10 all-time teams in 66-67; I loved Greer and Billy C., but that was Wilt’s team all the way).

          I don’t know which team voted to keep Wilt out, but they were fools.

  29. Unvenfurth says:

    Wilt Chamberlain is the answer to this question.

  30. Dan says:

    LeBron and MJ play different positions. Strictly in terms of drafting, it makes sense to take the best player at the position where there is the biggest dropoff between 1st and 2nd place. So is the gap between MJ and Kobe/West, or whoever you have in 2nd, bigger than the gap between LeBron (assuming he’s the best) and Bird/Dr. J or whoever you have as second best SF?

    I’d probably be inclined to go MJ/Bird over LeBron/Kobe.

    • Dan says:

      Or heck, maybe you pick Duncan at PF.

    • Jovins says:

      Why do you have to draft a player at every position? You could easily play a lineup like Lebron/Dr. J/Bird/Durant/Walton and have both Bird and Lebron and still have a really balanced team.

      (I know Durant isn’t the best 4 of all time, but I picked him just to prove a point that you can throw out four “3s” and still have a team that would work together.

      • invitro says:

        Maybe. If Walton was guaranteed to be at his best, he’d probably be picked high enough that you wouldn’t be able to get him after the other four players. It’s close, though, depending on how many teams are drafting.
        (I really wish there was a basketball computer sim game as good as Diamond Mind is for baseball.)

  31. Brent says:

    People have selective memory on Jordan, because of course, he didn’t play well in EVERY key game in his career. For instance in Game 3 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, after his team lost the first two games on the road (and he shot a combined 22 for 59 (37.2%)), his Bulls did win game 3 (a key game if he ever played one, I think we can safely say that they don’t win Game 3 at home down 0-2 and the Knicks go to the Finals), but he shot 3 for 18 from the field. Let me repeat that, because I am sure it didn’t really sink in. Michael Jordan, in a must win game for his team, shot 16.7% from the field. Now he made 16 of 17 Free throws, rebounded and passed like Lebron that game and I am sure he played great defense, but still if Lebron, in a must win game, shoots 16.7% from the field (but does all of those other things that helps his team), people are saying “Michael never would have done that”.

    • invitro says:

      “People have selective memory on Jordan, because of course, he didn’t play well in EVERY key game in his career.” — Careful, someone might banish you to Opposite World for that observation.

  32. Doug says:

    If I had first pick, I’d take Magic and then be happy to take LeBron or Michael with my second pick, whichever one remained. Magic’s unique abilities as a floor general would allow either one to outplay the other.

  33. wogggs says:

    Funny that you say there is no right or wrong answer, because there is a right answer and a wrong answer. The right answer is Jordan, no doubt. I think I take Chamberlain with my second pick.

  34. Tony says:

    Say it ain’t so, Joe. Of all the people who write beautifully and perceptively about basketball — save maybe for Wilbon — I thought you would be immune to the herd-like, reflexive, amnesiac Lebron hagiography foisted on us chiefly by the ESPN pod people. (It’s actually amusing: when the Cavs were down 3-1 and looking moribund, and James was having a decidedly mediocre series, we started seeing the federally mandated, pre-exculpatory pieces lamenting how LeBron has always been saddled with terrible supporting casts, yada, yada. Then, after the Cavs pulled off the historic comeback, we got the gleefully flipped but oh so predictable We Are All Unworthy Witnesses script: “LeBron Greater Than Jordan, Jimmy Chitwood on HGH AND Jesus Shuttlesworth, Combined.”

    Listen, I am not a LeBron hater. I think, with this title, and his transcendent performance in the last 3 games of the series, he’s now squarely in the Top 5 or 6 all-time, with room to rise. But picking him over Jordan? In a Devil Went Down to Akron, winner-take-all game?

    Unmitigated lunacy.

    Here is the complete list of things that LeBron does better than Jordan on a basketball court: rebound. [Thinking…] Cramp. Maybe pass. Wear headbands. Be taller.

    That’s the list.

    Jordan in his prime was quicker, faster, more explosive, a better leaper, a far superior and more versatile post player (LeBron has nothing like Jordan’s patented, unblockable fade-a-way), several orders of magnitude better as a mid range jump shooter (as David Halberstam once wrote, Jordan had the best and most reliable jumper under “combat conditions”), a more rabidly tenacious on ball defender (yes, LeBron, by dint of his size, can guard more positions). Jordan was a significantly better free throw shooter, clutch shooter, relentless attacker of the rim in the half court and all-around, thermonuclear offensive force.

    This does not even address the chasm which separates Jordan and LeBron (and pretty much everyone else) — MJ’s pathological, unhealthy, monomaniacal will to destroy, emasculate and drive before him all who opposed him while savoring the pitiful weeping of their women.

    And one cannot overstate this fact: LeBron is dominating in a no-hand check, no hard-foul era designed to allow fast-twitch perimeter players freedom to roam and parade relatively unhindered (and without fear of being assaulted and battered by the likes of Rick Mahorn, Charles Oakley, Alonzo Mourning et al) to the hoop. In the thug-ball, Bad Boys, Riley Knicks bare knuckles era when Jordan ruled, he still averaged — AVERAGED — 34 per game in the playoffs. Scored over 50 something like 8 or 9 times. Went for 41, 9, 6 in the ’93 Finals. Hit up Magic and the Lakers for something like 31, 6, and 11 on 58% shooting in ’91. (But we are assured: LeBron’s performance against the Dubs was the Greatest of All Time. And we know this because It Just Happened, and Our Institutional Basketball Memory is a Null Set.)

    Unleash “Come Fly With Me” Mike in this league, with these rules? Cruel and unusual. He’d break the game. 45 per night, easy. (If James Harden can flop, herky-jerk and semi-slow mo’ his way to 12-13 FT’s a night, imagine what a literally untouchable Jordan and his physics-defying first step would do.

    LeBron is great. Jordan is greater, and it’s not particularly close.

    So, by all means, praise LeBron. He deserves it. He’s a good man, an all-time great, who did an epic thing in bringing a title to BynerEhloland. But picking him over Jordan the Pitiless Executioner in a choose up game? Just stop it. There are enough ridiculous things in the world right now without adding to the list.

    • MikeN says:

      I already wrote it, and you still posted it. If Jordan would get 45 today, you are arguing that back then LeBron would score under 20.

      • Tony says:

        Er, no: I’m arguing that Jordan would average 45 under no-touch defensive rules. I anticipate that LeBron would average about what he does now, but his efficiency would take a substantial hit.

        • invitro says:

          So are you arguing that Jordan would shoot 60%, or that he would take 50 shots per game, or make 7 threes per game? Because I think at least one of those would have to be true for him to average 45.

          • Tony says:

            Actually, if Jordan took 50 shots per game, at his 50% FG percentage, after adding in FTs, he’d be at 60 plus points per game.

            No, he’d increase his FTA by, say, 5 to 8 per game, he’d be slightly more efficient (and remember, in his prime Jordan was already a 50% plus shooter) giving him, say, 4-5 more field goals — voila! — 45 per game, no heavy lifting. In fact, he wouldn’t need to increase his 3s at all.

        • invitro says:

          Also, the bare-knuckles era stuff simply does not apply to Jordan. It’s common knowledge that the refs used different rules for him, which were essentially the no-touch rules that you think are operative today.

          • Tony says:

            Again, obviously someone who never watched Jordan play. I challenge you to go back and watch any playoff game from the 80’s/90’s and argue with a straight face that Jordan wasn’t touched. The Pistons, Knicks, Heat, Pacers are laughing at you.

            Try again.

        • MikeN says:

          If you are saying a 30 pt scorer would jump to 45 points under the new rules, then a current 30 point scorer would be at 20 under the old rules.

          • Tony says:

            No, I’m saying the best offensive player in NBA history (non-Wilt division), whose style of play — explosive driving and finishing at the rim — would take maximum advantage of the current rules, would not find it difficult to goose a career 34 ppg playoff scoring average into the mid 40’s.
            This, btw, is hardly a novel or isolated view.

    • Richard says:

      I’m sorry, I can’t resist….

      “Jordan in his prime was quicker, faster, more explosive, a better leaper, a far superior and more versatile post player (LeBron has nothing like Jordan’s patented, unblockable fade-a-way), several orders of magnitude better as a mid range jump shooter (as David Halberstam once wrote, Jordan had the best and most reliable jumper under “combat conditions”), a more rabidly tenacious on ball defender (yes, LeBron, by dint of his size, can guard more positions). Jordan was a significantly better free throw shooter, clutch shooter, relentless attacker of the rim in the half court and all-around, thermonuclear offensive force.”

      You know, not many people knew it, but Jordan was a terrific dancer. That is because you were taken in by that verdammte Cleveland propaganda! Such filthy lies! They told lies! But nobody ever said a bad word about Lebron, did they? No! Lebron! With his cigars, with his brandy. And his ROTTEN painting! Rotten! Jordan, THERE was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! TWO COATS! …Lebron! Let me tell you THIS! And you’re hearing this straight from the horse – Jordan was better looking than LeBron. He was a better dresser than LeBron. He had more hair! He told funnier jokes! And he could dance the PANTS off of LeBron!


      • invitro says:

        It is obvious that you never watched LeBron paint an apartment.

      • Tony says:

        I truly enjoyed that. You remind me of … me. (However, did you ever see Jordan trying to dance with Michael Jackson at the end of one of those Air Jordan vids? The Horror! Jordan is not a better dancer than LeBron. He’s not a better dancer than Manute Bol in ill-fitting lederhosen.)

        Jordan is better at dice games. And grilling chicken without making it dry. And Jordan never drove a Kia.

        Case closed.

  35. MikeN says:

    Michael Jordan was way overrated as a defender.
    Pippen was given the task of guarding the other team’s best player, and Jordan usually hid.
    He did have a knack for gunning for steals, with the key ones being remembered. Kobe did this too.

    • Tony says:

      “Jordan was way overrated as a defender.”

      I’ve discovered your Super Power: the ability to demolish your own credibility on any matter relating to basketball in one sentence. Bravo.

      I mean, who should we believe: authoritative MikeN, or every HOF player and coach who competed against Jordan and who universally opine that he was the best defensive 2 guard in history?

      Carry on with your compelling Opposite World analysis.

      • invitro says:

        Maybe we should believe Phil Jackson, who put Pippen on the opponent’s best offensive player, not Jordan. Or maybe in Opposite World, Jordan guarded the best player?

        • Tony says:

          Like I said, feel free to join MikeN in his know-nothing bubble. If you think Phil Jackson would dispute that Jordan was the best defensive 2 guard in history (or Johnny Bach, or Tex Winter) your ignorance is invincible.

          • invitro says:

            Wait, I’m confused. Is it Opposite World, Know-Nothing World, or Invincible Ignorance World? The last one sounds kinda cool, I must admit.

    • PUNKem733 says:

      ROFL!! Thanks I needed a good laugh.

  36. Joe says:

    James’s offensive repertoire has depended on officials refusing to call offensive fouls and travels every time he barrels to the basket, pushing people out of the way, and taking 5 steps while he does it.

  37. Jacob Brindle says:

    The narrative that James has played on inferior teams has to stop, Joe, and you should know better. His Miami teams had Wade, a top 30 player all time, Bosh, a Hall of Famer, and Ray Allen, a HOFer. This Cavs team has players that have been all NBA and multiple all stars. It’s an intellectually dishonest narrative and borderline lying to perpetuate it. It could be argued that those Heat teams had more cumulative talent than Jordan’s Bulls.

    James is probably the physically most impressive player to ever play (though in a pick up game, I probably pick apex Shaq without reservation). Jordan is the best and would be the favorite.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Your argument is at least as intellectually dishonest as you accuse Joe’s of being. Wade was not really a top 30 player anymore when James was on the team. He had started to get injured and was in decline, even though he had somewhat of a comeback this year. Bosh is good but a Hall of Famer? Ray Allen was role player by the time he got to Miami. Moreover, if you look at the Cav teams James played on before he went to Miami-which is relevant inasmuch as some of those teams contributed to James’ record in the playoffs-were not that good and got to the finals almost solely because of James. As for the current team, Kevin Love has been an all-NBA player; no one would say he is now. He is basically a role player. Kyrie Irving was inconsistent most of the year until he picked it up in the playoffs. You can’t just say that James’ teams have had more talent just because many of the players at one time or another were great players.

      • Steve says:

        Marc,Jacob was right and you are wrong. Wade was not done and Bosh is a future HOFER. And Allen became a role player cuz he had too. Come on! Just other posters said it wasn’t when Miami got a championship it was how many championships are they good night to get. Miami was stacked and wildly known as the most talented team in a he league and one of the best DREAM teams ever. I guess you have a short term memory.

      • Jacob Brindle says:

        I think you’ve bought the false narrative, Marc. To begin, I’ll concede that the Cavs teams of 2009 and 2010 (when James physically, actually quit against the Celtics in the Conference Finals) weren’t top-tier per se. But, they weren’t stocked with drivel either. They had multiple all stars on those teams as well. But, you’re just flat out, objectively wrong on his Heat teams. In 2011, D-Wade was a top 5 or 10 player in the league still, and Bosh was top 15. People like Jeff Van Gundy predicted those Heat teams would challenge the 96 Bulls wins record, win 3+ titles, etc. Ray Allen was on the down side of his career perhaps, but he was a bona-fide starter and premier shooter. It’s fair to say that those teams were as talented as anyone in the league. It’s also fair to say that only 2 titles was a disappointment (and they were a missed K. Leonard free throw and fluke Allen 3 from only winning one title). As for his new Cavs teams, Love’s role on this team may be diminished, but he he’s clearly a top 15 player in the league. Irving is a number 1 pick and the best scoring pt. guard in the league. They easily have the most talented roster in the East (which, being in the East, has been a phenomenal advantage; his teams only have to win one series against top 5 teams; Western teams have to play 3 series against top level teams each year). One simply cannot logically argue that LeBron has had to lift inferior teams to glory.

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