I’d like to begin by stating that I do not automatically label Michael Jordan as the greatest NBA player of all time. While his Nike shoe deal put him on another planet in terms of marketing, his game is what separated him from so many of the greats. I do have him in my top four non-centers I’ve ever seen along with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant.
LeBron James is a great player and a certain inclusion within the Hall of Fame. I just don’t believe he has approached Kobe Bryant, much less Michael Jordan and this article is a response to the many LeBron James “GOAT articles” that are out there. While there is a lot out there refuting the ‘LeBron James GOAT crowd’, here are just some reasons why Jordan is greater:
Scoring Titles – Jordan – 10, LeBron -1
When it comes to the playoffs, it’s a mismatch. Jordan has averaged over 40 points per game in an NBA record five playoff series (and nearly pulled it off against Cleveland in 1989). LeBron has zero. In fact, LeBron has four series where he shot less than 40% for the series (Jordan has 1).
Jordan also accomplished this before rule changes came along to make scoring much easier, yet still fared well at age 38 in that era as mentioned below.
The 1980s and 1990s were a much tougher era. Defense was better and teams were better. The 1990s had the most teams that won 50 or 60 games in NBA history for a decade.
Despite that, Jordan’s Bulls defeated seven 60+ win teams (a record for a dynasty team in a decade) and 20 teams that had between 50-59 wins.
27 of the 37 playoff opponents Jordan faced had over 50 wins, while 18 of LeBron’s opponents (out of 37) had under 50 wins. Imagine what Jordan’s numbers would be if he faced LeBron’s competition. Jordan was guarded by Defensive Player of Year players in the playoffs several times – Sidney Moncrief, Alvin Robertson, Dennis Rodman and Gary Payton. (Rodman four times)
And don’t go for this ridiculous “Jordan never played against a zone” argument. First of all, Jordan was an MVP candidate at age 38 before his knee injury and it was against the legalized zone when he averaged 25.1 pts, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Only Tracy McGrady averaged 25-6-5 that year in 2002.
“Last season, Jordan had to overcome the harassment of zone traps and double and triple-teaming”
– New York Times, 1987
“They`ve used zone traps; they`ve put two, three and sometimes four defenders on him”
– Chicago Tribune, 1987
“My concerns are that more teams are going to the trap, ‘which ultimately ends in a zone defense… I noticed that Chicago has adopted a half-court that L.A. has been using so successfully and it ended up in a zone defense”
‘When you play New York, you have to prepare yourself because they have so many different traps.”
– Chuck Daly, 1988
The assumption that zone defenses are not played in the NBA is false. The rules allow for full-court zone pressure, and because defenses are permitted to aggressively double-team the ball anywhere on the floor, teams play de facto zones in the frontcourt, too. To one degree or another, every NBA team uses some type of zone.
– Sports Illustrated, 1990
Utah plays the best zone in basketball. They play a 2-1-2 with five guys with a foot in the paint 90 per cent of the time.”
– George Karl, 1996
“Zone was always in there. It just wasn’t called. It was always in there”
– Wilt Chamberlain
All-Defense First Team – Jordan nine times, James 5 times
Steals Titles – Jordan three-time winner, James zero times
Jordan won the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year during a time when it was much more difficult to win that award due to the number of great defenders.
Jordan played great defense in all six of his NBA Finals appearances.
LeBron James allows his opponents to increase their scoring averages in the Finals (see Tony Parker in 2007, Jason Terry in 2011, Kevin Durant in 2012, and Andre Iguodala in 2015)
This really isn’t close. Jordan locks down his opponents, while James struggles.
1993 East Finals and The 1993 Finals were great examples of this. In the East Finals against New York, the Knicks had the Bulls reeling until Jordan was able to score 54 against them in Game 4, then a total team effort ended New York’s 27 game home winning streak.
In the 1993 Finals, Game 6 looked like a lost cause as the entire Bulls team, minus Jordan went cold. Jordan scored all nine points in the 4th to keep the Bulls in it and then was able to get his open teammates involved to win the game on John Paxson’s three. Watch the footage on the bench. It was Jordan keeping everyone together, telling everyone not to panic.
LeBron James has great difficulty showing up in the 4th quarter of tight games, especially in the Finals. When his teams hit adversity, he disappears many times, something we never saw from Jordan. Leaders don’t disappear when they’re needed the most. (more on this below)
LeBron James turns the ball over way too many times at critical junctures in games. He has two playoff games with 10 turnovers and has 177 turnovers in the Finals compared to 99 for Michael Jordan.
LeBron James led both teams in turnovers in 2017 (22), 2016 (31), 2014 (19), and 2011 (24). He was his team’s turnover leader every time except in 2012.
He repeatedly came up huge to close out a game, even in the playoffs and Finals.
The best ones were “The Shot” and “The Shot II” both against Cleveland to knock them out of the postseason, the game-winner over Dennis Rodman in Game 3 of the 1989 East Finals, the tying shot to force overtime over Vlade Divac in Game 3 of the 1991 Finals, his heroics in the 1997 Finals and the series winner in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals.
LeBron has his moments, but he just doesn’t have the mojo in most big games. He is 0-5 in the Finals to tie or win the game and according to ESPN, he is 5 for 47 to tie or win the game in the final five seconds of the game.
Playoff game-winners/tie-ers with 24 seconds or less
– Jordan 9/18 (50%)
– LeBron 8/23 (35%)
Playoff game-winners/tie-ers with 25 seconds or less
– Jordan 10/19 (53%)
– LeBron 8/23 (35%)
Finals game-winners/tie-ers with 25 seconds or less
– Jordan 4/8 (50%)
– LeBron 0/6 (0%)
He is physically gifted but plays lousy competition in the East and essentially receives a free pass to the Finals each year as his hand-picked teams are loaded with talent.
In the 80s or 90s, teams like the Knicks and Pistons would have beaten him down and he does not handle physical play very well.
Jordan had a better and more reliable jump shot, especially later in his career which he used to create open looks when defenses converged on him. LeBron can shoot but he definitely struggles when he has to make jumpers.
Compare them in the Finals:
Jordan shot over 50% in three NBA Finals (1991,1992,1993) while LeBron did it twice (2014 and 2017). That’s pretty close. How bout shooting under 40%?
Jordan never shot below 40% while LeBron did it twice (2007 and 2015).
What about the 3 point shooting in the Finals? Jordan shot over 40% twice with the original 3 point line while James did it once. What about shooting under 30% for the Finals? Jordan never did while James did it twice (2007 and 2012).
LeBron James is a great regular season player and has Jordan in a few areas, but in the playoffs and in the Finals where it really matters? Jordan beats him.
Jordan showed up for all six of his Finals appearances. LeBron got outscored by Jason Terry (who played way less minutes per game).
Don’t forget about the way Kawhi Leonard outplayed LeBron in 3 straight games in 2014 Finals. Check out the numbers in Games 3, 4, and 5. You’d never see that from Jordan.
Jordan’s teams accomplished this in 5 of his 6 playoff runs.
Jordan kept his teams in the game, especially when it got tough and scored most of his points in the 2nd half and 4th quarter.
LeBron goes 2-12 in the 4th of the 2011 Finals for 6 points.
In 2014 he was completely outplayed when it really mattered, but to his credit, he did score alot of points after his team was getting blown out by more than 15.
(In Games 3,4,and 5, he scored 51 of his 81 points when down 15 or more)
In Lebron’s last finals(Not counting the COVID Finals) , James didn’t score hardly at all in the 4th quarter and was “gassed” despite extra rest in the regular season and 3 days rest between Finals games.
If you need to score and momentum isn’t going your way, you don’t want LeBron James who will defer and hope for a teammate to make a shot. You want Jordan who will find a way to score even against a Defensive Player of the Year when it has to go in.
Even though his teams were awful from 1985-1987, the Bulls made it to the playoffs, despite Jordan missing almost the entire 1986 season. LeBron James missed the playoffs his first two seasons in 2004 and 2005, and of course last year.
This is only a big deal because people make a big deal out of the Bulls, with a terrible team, lost to the greatest team ever, the 1986 Celtics, who Jordan hung 47 points per game on including a memorable 63 point performance. The 1985 Bucks and 1987 Celtics were also teams that had a great chance to win it all.
LeBron James told everyone he was the best player in the world and then shot 13-32 in Game 6 against the Warriors.
Michael Jordan never came out and put himself over the best of the best. And if he had, he would show up and play great.
He could play with any other superstar and be even more unguardable. Imagine Jordan recruiting Hakeem Olajuwon and a guy like Kevin Johnson to play with him and Pippen. They probably would win not one, not two, not three, etc.
Flopping is why many fans who grew up watching the NBA in the 1970s, 1980’s and 1990s have limited respect for today’s game and LeBron James is one of the best actors ever, which annoys most of the country.
This is not small potatoes. This is winning at the highest level. LeBron James has won 4 titles in 9 tries. There are differences in the game and differences in opponents. But what Michael accomplished with the Bulls should not be overlooked and swept under the rug.
(and don’t forget regular-season MVPs – Jordan 5, James 3)
All of Jordan’s records and accomplishments were also done in 13 seasons and fewer games than LeBron James.
LeBron James is a Hall of Fame player and is excellent. He’s not just Michael Jordan great in the clutch and the Finals.
The truth is, they are very different players, asked to do very different things. While this is mainly an article directed at people who don’t like Michael Jordan or think too much of LeBron James, both are great players.
I think many of us would like this comparison to stop, but it’s not going to so we all have to deal with it.
(credit: nobodytouchesjordan and basketball-reference.com for lots of great statistics and analysis)
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