Chasing The Ghost Played in Chicago: Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James

LeBron James by Erik Drost via Flickr

For many years, the sport of basketball has cherished multiple athletes that have cemented their careers into basketball history including Bill Russell, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson. The list goes on and on. Eventually, in 1984, a 21-year old Michael Jordan entered the National Basketball Association, ready to take flight.

You know the rest.

Michael Jordan revolutionized basketball for an entire generation, winning six championships, which stamped him as arguably the greatest basketball player ever. Even after his retirement, several athletes have attempted to reach the same heights as Jordan, but many have either come short or just collapsed in the process. And for a long time, Jordan was considered to be the undisputed greatest basketball player of all time. The media thought no one could surpass him.
That is, except for one. More specifically, “The Chosen One”.

In 2003, LeBron James, an 18-year old prospect, was selected with the #1 pick by his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In his career, LeBron James has been able to make a tremendous impact, like his longevity, athleticism, and overall ability to dominate has led him to win multiple championships and receive massive praise as a basketball legend. This year, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, LeBron James helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the 2020 NBA Championship: the Lakers’ 17th NBA championship in their team history and James’ fourth championship in his career.

After this celebration, the debate of the greatest basketball player to ever exist was sprung up to its highest peak, as NBA fans and media outlets were shouting out to the world that LeBron James was now the greatest of all time or the GOAT for short. Unfortunately, there are two sides to every argument, as there was an opposition of people saying LeBron would never be the GOAT and Jordan’s legacy would remain at the top.

Hence, the real question is: Has LeBron James surpassed Michael Jordan as the greatest NBA player of all time?

In sports, there are many factors that people use to call a player the best at their sport. In terms of basketball, there are mainly these categories: Statistics, Winning, Accomplishments, and Longevity.

However, depending on who you meet, there could be times when someone will use one category to show who is better. Some believe the numbers in the statistics can help make up the most significant player. Others may say the number of championships. Doing this could lead to an imbalanced argument of sorts.

There are also factors of bias for a specific player. Let’s be honest. If you grew up watching sports, at some point, you would admire a player so much that they can do no wrong. I’m not saying that is every sports fan in the world, but everybody’s met a stan who worships an athlete like they are God.

Now, with those factors, let’s try diving into this.

Michael Jordan

Right off the bat, Michael Jordan came straight into the NBA with a burning fire. As a rookie, Jordan averaged NBA star-like numbers: 28.2 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, and 5.9 assists per game, shooting an efficient 50% from the field. (making 50% of your shots is known to be efficient in basketball terms) He put those numbers as a 1st year NBA player, which has never been done by any other player in their first year, not even LeBron James.

He was known heavily for his scoring outputs, as he would be able to drop 30 points on any given night. In fact, in 179 playoff games that Jordan played in, he had never scored less than 10 points, and in 173 of those 179 games, he scored 20 points or more. In the 1986 NBA playoffs, NBA legend Larry Bird, who after seeing Jordan drop 63 points against his team, the Boston Celtics, said “I would never have called him the greatest player I’d ever seen if I didn’t mean it. It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

In terms of his entire career statistics, Jordan bests James in a plethora of categories, including points, steals, blocks, and free throw percentage. Advanced statistics, which provide more intellectual insight on how a player impacts a game, also state that Jordan was more efficient than James.

On top of numbers, Jordan has won many awards over his career. He has five MVPs (Lebron has four), ten scoring titles (LeBron has one), a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and 11 selections to the NBA All-Teams. (a selection process that praises the best players in the league) Most importantly, however, he was a massive winner in his playing days. He would go on to win 6 NBA championships, staying undefeated in the NBA Finals. (a 6-0 record) In comparison, LeBron James has a Finals record of 4-6.

Also, Jordan accomplished this record while facing many teams who had players considered NBA Hall-of-Fame players, including Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, and Karl Malone. The six championships were made even sweeter by the fact that he won 3 straight titles (a 3-peat for short) two times in his career, a proof that showed that he was able to win consistently.

During the NBA Finals, Jordan was considered to be a ‘basketball assassin’, playing as both his team’s best offensive and defensive player. ‘He was never afraid of the moment’, according to many of his teammates and coaches. There have been stories of Jordan’s insane competitiveness, from his massive trash-talking to other players, his insane scoring outputs in big games, or even something as small as cheating during meaningless card games. (Yes, he did that.)

At the end of his career, he solidified himself as a basketball icon around the world. With his burning passion for the game, everyone wanted to be “Like Mike”.

LeBron James

As for LeBron James, his reasoning for being the greatest ever takes a different trajectory. LeBron James, as of now, has stats and accomplishments that are overshadowed by Jordan. So why is anyone mentioning LeBron in the same breath as Jordan? Well, his story coming to the league has much to do with it.

Coming into the NBA, LeBron got crowned as the greatest high school basketball player of all time, and many believed that he would become an NBA superstar right in his 1st season as a professional basketball player, dubbing him the nickname, “The Chosen One”.

Unfortunately, the stacks were against James, as there have been many high school athletes who have had the same expectations as him, but the pressure led to them flailing out as athletes. Even successful athletes such as the late legend Kobe Bryant played in high school and had a remarkable career, but many people will say he was not better than Jordan. Because of this, there was speculation on whether LeBron could handle the media pressure to become a superstar.

Those questions diminished once he stepped onto the court.

LeBron’s talent blossomed on NBA hardwood, as he had incredible court vision as a passer right off the bat, had exceptional athleticism, and was relentless in getting to the hoop to score. He was and still is, a fantastic all-around player. As stated before, James won 4 MVPs, a scoring title, and 16 All-NBA team selections, much more than Jordan.

One of LeBron’s major strengths over Jordan is his ability to carry “mediocre” teams as well as proving all of his doubters wrong multiple times. James, in his first years in the league, was forced to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, an organization that was unable to surround him with above-average talent. However, that did not stop James in 2007 from carrying the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, the franchise’s first appearance. To put it in perspective, he averaged almost double the points per game of any other player he played with that season.

In terms of proving his doubters wrong, remember how I said LeBron only won four championships compared to Jordan’s six? There is a strong belief that LeBron’s titles have more quality, such as when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 championship, defeating arguably one of the greatest teams ever to play basketball: the 2016 Golden State Warriors. The Warriors that year had the reigning 2-time MVP in Stephen Curry, two other all-stars in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the best bench-unit in the league, and a 73-9 regular-season record: the best record in NBA history.

Also, LeBron James did this while coming back from 3 games to 1 in the Finals, the only team that was able to complete this feat in the history of the league.

Lastly, LeBron has been able to sustain a more extended prime than Jordan, as he has played more years as the consensus best player in the NBA while accumulating higher total career stats than Jordan.

Overall, LeBron has been able to be crowned as the King – someone who has handled the universal pressures of the media to become a legend and hero in today’s sports world.

Rebuttals for Arguments

With these arguments in place, however, some rebuttals try to diminish both players’ legacies.

For Jordan, some people try to discredit what he did due to playing for the Chicago Bulls, who at the time, was able to acquire many elite players to surround Jordan in his career, and thus the team would be better as a whole.

One such player included Scottie Pippen, a very-talented small forward who was both a 20-point per game scorer and an elite wing defender. He was one of the best perimeter defenders in the history of the NBA. Before Pippen, some analysts had criticized Jordan for not being able to make a deep playoff run in his earlier years as a pro, which was when the team got Pippen. During those six championships, Pippen provided a nice scoring punch with Jordan, solidifying themselves as the best duo in the league at that time.

Other players included former Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, an elite three-point specialist in Steve Kerr, and many more.

As stated before, fans believe LeBron has carried teams to the Finals due to a lack of talent. And the reason as to why he has lost more Finals than Jordan is because he ran into two elite teams in both the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors. These two teams consisted of multiple players who were either inducted already in the Hall-of-Fame or will be in the future. People have claimed that LeBron played his heart out during those series, but the lack of talent surrounding him led to his teams losing.

However, someone could counter that idea with the fact that Jordan has had instances where he had to will his team to victory while LeBron has had all-star talent during his championship runs.

For instance, in the 1993 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan averaged a ridiculous 41.0 points per game, shooting 50% from the field and 40% from behind the three-point line. (which is very good in basketball terms) He was scoring so much, that his points per game average were double of any of his other teammates, including Scottie Pippen.

And for LeBron, he has played before with top-level NBA all-stars, such as Dwyane Wade, arguably a top-20 NBA player of all time, as well as Anthony Davis, a current top-5 player in the league who is known to average 25+ points a game. At times, the players that play with LeBron exceeded that of Michael Jordan, questioning which talent level surrounding each player is better.

However, a scar that ruins James’ legacy was his inability to defeat an underdog-level team in the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, despite having Wade and another all-star in Chris Bosh and being favoured to win. LeBron at one point scored only eight points in one of the Finals games. Eight. Jordan never even scored less than 10 points in any playoff game he played in.

On the opposite spectrum, a criticism people have for LeBron James is that despite facing tough competition in the NBA Finals, the opponents he faced in his conference were ranging from good to just average. Most of the NBA top players were in the Western Conference, while LeBron was in the Eastern Conference. In the playoffs, the two conferences split into two brackets. The team that comes out of either conference faces off in the Finals for the championship.

Unfortunately for James, he had to face “elementary” competition in his conference compared to that of Jordan’s competition, who had opponents that were just as much competitive as the Finals opponents that he faced. Due to this lack of competition in his conference, there have been people discrediting his number of Finals appearances as it felt as if there was no real challenge to get to the Finals.
Somebody could intervene by stating an ideology about how LeBron making it to the Finals year after year is a testament to how LeBron and his team have been able to handle their business in the playoffs without losing to an opponent that is weaker than they are. After all, one could say NBA teams, even if they are considered “weak” by the media, are still elite basketball teams that made it to the playoffs with hard work.


The main point that I am trying to state here is that this debate is like a gigantic web: something that could seriously tangle you up and put you in a sticky situation. The information I just listed was just a chunk of what I could have gone through to explain the essence of this debate.

Although we all consider players due to specific reasons, everyone should agree that both Michael Jordan and LeBron James are incredible athletes that have positively impacted not only the sport of basketball but also the world as we know it.

All in all, LeBron is not Michael. And Michael is not LeBron. This debate does not merely have the correct answer. It is just up to you to decide who is more remarkable in your eyes. It may take a lot of time to figure this question out, but instead, we should appreciate greatness for what it is, and accept that they are both icons that shaped the game of basketball.

As Kobe Bryant would say, “Heroes come and go, but legends are forever.”

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