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Michael Jordan v LeBron James: Who is the NBA’s greatest player?

Drew Goodsell | 4 May 2020

A look at the careers of two of the greatest to ever grace the court

To many millennials, LeBron James is the greatest to ever grace a basketball court, but with the release of Netflix’s ten-part documentary ‘The Last Dance,’ could Michael Jordan’s on court career get the recognition it deserves?

After the recent announcement of the title of the Space Jam sequel, A New Legacy, LeBron takes over in Jordan’s role, the first time it’s been done.

But does this mean we’re beginning to see the start of the handover for the G.O.A.T title within the NBA community? Here, we lay out the stats, achievements and influence each had contributing to the argument of who was better. Michael Jordan, or LeBron James?

Achievements

Firstly, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the difference in eras here. Michael Jordan’s most successful spell of his career spanned across twelve full seasons, and a few extra months during the 94/95 season. LeBron’s career is still ongoing, after being drafted as first pick into the NBA in 2003.

Former Pistons centre, and one-time bitter rival of MJ, Bill Laimbeer had previously suggested Jordan couldn’t have led the 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers side to the NBA Finals as LeBron did, with former Pistons point-guard Isiah Thomas claiming Jordan couldn’t be considered the G.O.A.T as he played in a less competitive era.

Laimbeer countered by saying today’s pace-and-space led NBA is soft in comparison to the 80s & 90s, where physicality dominated the playbook.

Career achievements aren’t the be-all and end-all in this debate, but they help to show just how good each player has been throughout their respective careers.

Jordan’s rep sheet goes on and on, with six championships, six Finals MVP titles, five regular season MVP titles, 11 All-NBA team appearances, nine All-Defensive team appearances, 14 All-Star appearances, three NBA All-Star MVP titles and 10 NBA scoring titles.

LeBron James NBA Title

On the opposite side of the argument, you’ve got LeBron James. The current Los Angeles Laker has three NBA championships to his name with four regular season MVP titles and three Finals MVP awards. As well as that, he’s got 16 NBA All-Star appearances with three All-Star MVP, 15 All-NBA team appearances, six All-Defensive team appearances but only one NBA scoring title.

Career Statistics

We’ll break this down into two categories, as we look through the regular season stats and the post season playoff records too.

King James’ career is now in it’s 17th year this season, which is already two seasons longer than Air Jordan’s and the 35-year-old forward has no immediate plans to retire yet either.

LeBron has 1,198 regular season games to his name at present, averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Jordan played in 1,072 career games, averaging an NBA record 30.1 points per game, following up with 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals.

Before missing the playoffs in his two final seasons with the Washington Wizards from 2001, Jordan had made the playoffs in every season he’d played. LeBron James failed to lead his Cleveland Cavaliers side to the playoffs for their first two seasons, before making the Eastern Conference semi-finals in 2006.

Through his career, Jordan featured in 179 playoff games, and winning six championships in the process. He achieved two three-peats, winning championships in 90/91, 91/92 and 92/93 for the first, before winning again in 95/96, 96/97 and 97/98.

Jordan still holds another NBA record average in the playoff too, coming up again in the points per game category. His 33.4 average hasn’t been topped, with LeBron trailing by almost five points, averaging 28.9 per night.

MJ also holds a better steals per game average, grabbing 2.1 in comparison to LeBron’s 1.8. But that’s where Air Jordan’s dominance ends. King James averages 8.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1 block per game, with Jordan picking up 6.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists and less than one block per night.

Michael Jordan NBA Title & MVP

It’s also worth considering that Jordan picked up his first title in his seventh season at the Bulls. That year’s Bull’s team featured a young Scottie Pippen, but it was hardly stacked in terms of talent.

LeBron didn’t grab his first ring until his ninth season in the NBA, and his second campaign with the Miami Heat. He formed a ‘Big Three’ alongside Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, three superstars at the peak of the powers.

On-Court Influence

During his early career with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan was at the spearhead of every attack. If Jordan was scoring, the Bulls weren’t necessarily winning because other options on court weren’t adding their contributions. But if the Bulls weren’t scoring, they weren’t winning at all.

When this was noticed by then head coach Phil Jackson, play didn’t always have to go through him, and while MJ didn’t like it at first, he accepted it was best for the team’s success and adapted. It was one key ingredient for those six championships.

Meanwhile, with LeBron James, play always goes through him. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, he’s one of the last remaining physical athletes the league has in an era where outside shooting dominates, but it’s getting to that Jordan-era stage where dominating LeBron means you dominate his team.

That style has received some criticism from current players too, with Kevin Durant once claiming fellow ‘superstars’ don’t want to have to sacrifice their styles to fit in with James’ game, and there was a ‘toxic environment’ that followed LeBron through the media.

There’s always been a mutual respect between the pair, with LeBron even claiming “When you’re growing up and you’re seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god. So, I didn’t ever believe I could be Mike.”

LeBron has continually claimed he’s using Jordan as an influential figure to achieve great things, stating in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2016: “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”

Jordan’s former team-mate Scottie Pippen had said that LeBron had the potential to become better than Jordan one day, and despite being ‘humbled’ by Pippen’s comments’ LeBron responded: “I’m not better than Jordan.”

With so many different ways to choose between the pair, who’s your pick for the greatest NBA player of all time?

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All odds and markets are correct as of date of publication.