Let me make myself very clear: Michael Jeffrey Jordan is the best basketball player ever. Any debate of the contrary is about as necessary as a Lou Bega’s Greatest Hits album.
LeBron James is undoubtedly the most gifted athlete in the Universe, and even the Monstars would be in awe of his athletic ability. But if athleticism determined greatness, the Harlem Globetrotters would replace the Charlotte Bobcats.
Through their first nine NBA seasons, Jordan undoubtedly exceeds LeBron in individual success, team success, and impact on the game. If that’s not enough to convince you, then you’re most likely sitting in your parent’s basement still waiting for that damn Ouija Board to work.
Before I even begin to break down the numbers, there’s an important preface to consider. While I’m going to ignore the (accurate) argument that Jordan faced superior competition, I am going to point out that today’s NBA is far easier for a perimeter player to succeed in then it was in the 90′s. Before the 2004-05 NBA season, the league decided to enforce what is widely known as the “hand-check” rule. Before, this foul was like a handicap bathroom stall, always used despite knowing it was frowned upon. Essentially, the decision to call this foul prevents defenders from slowing down wing players with their arms. Just a theory? Not quite. From 1985-2004, perimeter players compiled 78% of those who scored 50 or more in a single game. Post 2004, that number has jumped to over 93%.
It’s important to remember David Stern is running a business. Right now the NBA doesn’t have the rivalries that carried the ratings and ticket sales through the 80′s and 90′s. Instead we have athletes. People want excitement and because those cut-throat rivalries just don’t exist anymore, fans need entertainment in the form of high-flying scorers. Today’s NBA is tailored to LeBron James compared to Jordan’s era which was molded to increase competition. If Jordan played in today’s NBA, it would be the biggest mismatch since my grandma danced to “My Neck My Back” at my bar mitzvah.
We all know greatness is more than individual success. It’s about attaining that thing that everyone wants, a championship. Rather than look at age for a comparison, it’s more accurate to analyze accomplishments by season. Through his first nine seasons LeBron has won one ring and one finals MVP. Through nine seasons, Jordan had won three of each.
Many will point to how LeBron did his best Stanley Yelnats impression, carrying the 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA finals. They conveniently forget their path to the finals included the Wizards, Nets, and an aging Pistons team, all in a year in which the Toronto Raptors were the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Oh, and LeBron’s Cavs didn’t win a single game against the Spurs once getting there. Then there’s the 2011 season when LeBron failed to adapt to the Mavericks zone and lost in six games. Dwayne Wade outscored LeBron in all but two of those games.
All stars need help. I admit, even Jordan didn’t accomplish anything without Pippen. The difference is Michael Jordan made two Hall of Famers, LeBron James joined them. While Wade is a no-brainer, some of you may be thinking that Chris Bosh isn’t worthy, but this weekend marks Chris Bosh’s eighth All-Star Game appearance. At just 28 years old, it’s reasonable to assume he has at least three or four more headed his way. Former Fort Wayne Piston, Larry Foust, is the only player in NBA history to play in eight or more All-Star Games and not make the trip to Springfield, Mass. His career averages of 13.7 points and 9.8 rebounds-per-game don’t stack up to Chris Bosh’s 19.7 and 9.
At the ripe age of 28, LeBron has more than enough time to win five more NBA Championships, right? Not if you look at the history of high school to NBA players. It becomes evident that career lengths are determined more so by minutes played than actual age, and LeBron James is on the wrong side of father time. Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, Shawn Kemp and Tracy McGrady were all out of the league by 33 and showed a steady decline well before then. Jermaine O’Neil and Kevin Garnett have turned to shells of their former selves with declines beginning at age 30 and 32, respectively. At 34, Kobe Bryant has fared the best of the high school to NBA players, but even Kobe has had his share of injuries. Let’s not forget how Kobe’s age showed last postseason when his far more talented Lakers needed seven games to beat the Nuggets just to get dominated by the Thunder in the next round. If you haven’t heard, the Lakers aren’t looking too hot this year.
Given that history, odds point to LeBron beginning his decline within the next couple of years, and with that, comes injuries. LeBron is certainly different than any player we have ever seen. While he is a once in a lifetime athletic specimen, he takes more of a pounding than any other player in the NBA. Listed at 260 pounds, more likely in the neighborhood of 270, how much punishment can his knees take? The difference between LeBron and Kobe is that LeBron relies on his athleticism while Kobe, like Jordan, survives on competitiveness and guile. I worry that when LeBron gets his first wave of decline and injuries, most likely within the next two years his godly athleticism will turn mortal, and his game will not recover.
While potential injuries are just speculation, it is obvious that LeBron James is playing lights out basketball right now. Now that LeBron has finally won a ring, he’s playing like it. No longer is every game about proving something to the media and the fans. With the ring on his finger the stress is gone and LeBron is finally able to be LeBron. But LeBron’s current uncanny streak doesn’t erase any of his short-comings. He is still 9 scoring titles, 5 All-Defensive teams, 5 All-Star games, 2 MVPs, and 3 minor league home runs away from Jordan. I left out the six rings and six Finals MVPs that James will need a Marco Rubio gulp from the fountain of youth to ever touch.
What made Jordan so great was not only how dominant he was in the physical aspects of the game, but also the mental. It was like watching Bill Gates in a spelling bee against the cast members of Buckwild. Kobe Bryant compares to Jordan in their assassin-like mentality of the game. Maybe that is what has allowed Kobe to defy the odds and have continued success despite the minutes logged on his body. Put aside LeBron’s two NBA Finals losses, continuous mishandled clutch situations, and the likelihood that he won’t last in the league long enough to surpass Jordan’s career achievements, and ask yourself this question. Twenty years from now when you’re with your son browsing the Foot Locker shelves for his first pair of basketball shoes, he’ll ask, “What’s the difference between Jordan and LeBron?”
Which player do you explain first?