The comparisons between LeBron James and Michael Jordan will rage for eternity. With the realization that LeBron now has more 25-5-5 games in the playoffs than Jordan does, the debate flares up like an empty chip bag on a campfire.
The truth is that their circumstances are so different that a definitive answer will never be attained. Jordan’s career ended the year LeBron was drafted, which automatically deposits them in two different eras. It’s not quite the long-shot of comparing Bill Russell to Shaquille O’Neal, but the fact remains that Jordan and LeBron never laced up their high tops on the same court.
The NBA during Jordan’s peak was a physical game that still had bitter rivalries and big-time centers roaming the paint. Driving the lane in 1991 was quite perilous and often resulted in a blocked shot or hard foul. The NBA now is more finesse with better athletes and a heavy reliance on swingmen rather than large, lumbering centers clogging the lane.
Jordan somehow won 10 scoring titles in his career, despite the physical nature of the league and defenses geared entirely to stop him. LeBron has only managed one so far, but he has spent a lot of time facilitating with the Miami Heat. LeBron averages more rebounds per game, but his size and position obviate this statistical victory. Defensively, both are stalwarts. Jordan had more All-NBA Defensive Teams at this juncture of his career, but James can essentially guard any player on the floor with his incredible mix of size, strength and speed.
Their playoff performances are clearly masterful, although Jordan never lost a Finals and won the Finals MVP every year the Chicago Bulls brought home the O’Brien Trophy. Even after his father’s murder and two-year retirement, Jordan came back and decimated the league as if he never left. It could be argued that he was even better during this second stint of greatness from 1995-1998 with a mostly new supporting cast.
LeBron left a bad situation with the Cleveland Cavaliers, joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and now finds himself on the verge of a three-peat. Yet, this situation is what will always set LeBron and Jordan apart. The “Decision” will forever leave a mark on his career that many basketball fans understand, but just as many despise. Regardless of era, this is the one event where the comparisons end.
Escaping the situation in Cleveland is something that Jordan would never have done. The Bulls took their lumps in Jordan’s early years, but he held on until help arrived in the form of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. What LeBron did was opportunistic and helped him achieve his ultimate goal, but his acceptance of being part of “The Heatles” creates a divide between the two players that cannot be denied.
LeBron blossomed after he moved on to greener pastures. Jordan stayed the course and made his own pasture greener. Jordan not only changed the course of an entire decade, he transcended the game in a way that cannot be measured. His presence looms as large as ever, 11 years after he hung it up. The NBA is a global brand because Jordan took flight in Chicago all those years ago.
James’ legacy is intact as arguably the best player of this era, but with an asterisk that he can only remove if he leads a team to multiple titles as “the guy.” I think LeBron is an excellent player who can certainly fulfill that destiny. It is up to him to make that choice and possibly unseat Jordan as the greatest of all time.