It’s that time of year again; when LeBron James amazes playoff audiences across the world with the things he can do on a basketball court and his legions of minions break out their best ‘he’s-better-than’ takes, crafted since the previous postseason. This in turn brings out the millions of passionate Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant fans who feel the need to shoot down the notion of James somehow passing either as the greatest basketball player of all-time. LeBron haters alike, who don’t necessarily love Kobe or M.J., join in to smother the “LeBron is G.O.A.T” wildfire before it can go any further.
I want to go on the record as saying Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever in my personal opinion. That statement as opinion should be a given, but whenever this debate comes up people state their opinions so matter-of-factly as to dismiss counter-opinions as wrong. I lean toward Jordan because I enjoyed his style of play more. It always felt like he was in charge and like his fingerprint was on every single play of every single game, a trait I didn’t feel James always had until recently. But I understand why people are beginning to say James is the greatest and it doesn’t bother me, and to say that I KNOW Jordan was better would simply be a lie. I have no clue. And that’s where most people in the Jordan corner begin to lose me.
People who argue James as the greatest of all-time usually do so based strictly on what they see on the basketball court. They watch James play, how high he can jump, the type of shots he can make, the chase-down blocks, and they can’t imagine another person being able to do those things for as long as James has been able to. To me, that’s the correct criteria when judging who can play basketball better, even if I disagree with the idea of James being the greatest. People who argue Jordan talk about rings, Finals MVPs, and an undefeated Finals record, things Jordan deserves a lion’s share of the credit for, but also things impacted by a surrounding team.
I’m not so sure that if you replaced James with Jordan on the 2006-07 Cavaliers, they wouldn’t still get swept by the Spurs. I’d like to think Jordan would get at least a win, but that Cavs team was terrible. It’s incredible how people try to factor that loss into an argument against James’ legacy, when he should be given credit for his 22-year-old self dragging those bums to the Finals in the first place. I’m also not sure Jordan could’ve done any better than James in his two Finals loses against the Warriors, one of the greatest teams ever.
I do, however, think Jordan would’ve beaten the Mavericks in 2010-11, the year James shit the bed in the Finals – but the attribute I point to as a reason for that is mental toughness. I think James at that point in his career was mentally fragile in a way I personally never saw Jordan. James tried to defer to Dwyane Wade his first year in Miami because it was “Wade’s team.” Jordan never would’ve conceded a team to another player. He could’ve joined Patrick Ewing in New York and that would’ve become Jordan’s team the day he signed the contract. But to hold Finals losses against James in the debate of G.O.A.T. is ridiculous. If we do that, we have to count Jordan’s playoff failures before reaching the Finals, but we don’t. Seven straight Finals appearances, regardless of outcome, is a plus for James. The personal attribute I felt held James back in 2010-11 is the negative, but people arguing for Jordan or Bryant fail to make such points. For them, it only comes down to 6-0, 5-2, 3-5
To flip the script and put James on those Bulls teams, some of the greatest teams we’ve seen play, I’m not sure he wouldn’t have two three-peats to his name as well. Not saying it definitely would’ve happened, but James is great enough to have beaten the same teams Jordan did, even if in a different way. And to think of James on those Lakers teams with Shaquille O’Neal, that’s scary. They might’ve won more titles because James would’ve deferred to Shaq in a way Bryant’s ego wouldn’t let him. That’s not a knock against Bryant, because that’s the same ego that made him great, but James is great in a different way.
I’m never bothered by the G.O.A.T convo, I’m just upset with how shallow it usually is. The people making lazy arguments for Jordan make it easy for the Bryant stans to piggyback off the same lazy arguments, when Jordan was far and beyond a better player than Bryant. Bryant’s game looked similar to Jordan’s, only it wasn’t as good. The thing working in Bryant’s favor was a similar mental fortitude. But as previously referenced, that sometimes worked to his team’s detriment in a way it didn’t for Jordan. Statistically, Kobe doesn’t stack up to M.J. or LeBron.
Now, if we want to make the argument about better NBA careers or resumes, then we can throw around Finals records and MVPs, and overall titles, and Jordan and Bryant rank more unquestionably ahead of James. And while we’re at it, let’s throw Tim Duncan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and hell, even Robert Horry, in there. But if we’re talking about the best player to ever dribble a ball – keep your eyes on the games (not just the highlights), go look at the numbers, form an opinion and realize it’s incredibly subjective.