Someday you will miss him. Whether it’s because you love watching him play the game of basketball, or because you love to hate on him, it’s beyond me to decide. But one day he won’t play anymore and you will all miss him.
“Him” is LeBron James.
Synonymous with class act, justice seeker, freak of nature, role model and greatest basketball player of all time.
Some of you agree with the last one, some of you don’t. But sometimes it takes some of us longer to see the truth than others. Sure, there’s plenty of incredible all-time greats. Most people would actually say Michael Jordan was better.
Most people are also wrong.
If you’re one of those people, this is for you. I’m about to explain clearly and comprehensively why LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time; even better than Michael Jordan. I’ve spent hours upon hours researching and compiling data to bring all of you the truth and crush the false narratives. I promise this is worth your time. Let’s go for a ride.
PART I: How Do We Determine the Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.)?
The first thing that I’m going to need you to do is open your mind. Don’t read through all of this with made-up lies in your head. For some of you, LeBron’s already the greatest. For others, he’s close, but you give the edge to somebody else, most likely Jordan. And for the rest of you, LeBron’s not even in the discussion. You’re the ones who desperately need to read this.
We must start by asking the question: how do we determine who the G.O.A.T. actually is? The criteria varies for all of us, because the fact of the matter is this is all opinion-based. However, the overwhelming majority of people these days think it’s either one of two players: LeBron James or Michael Jordan. If you’re rolling with a third party, that’s fine, but this argument that I’m making is going to focus primarily on LeBron and Michael. Because in my opinion, which I happen to share with most, those two are leading the pack.
Do we count championship rings to deem the greatest ever? No, we don’t do that. If that were the case, we’d go with Bill Russell, who won 11 championships in a 13-year career. That’s outstanding. Yet here Michael is with six rings and LeBron with three.
Do we base it off of their résumé; off of who has the most appealing list of accomplishments? Nope. That’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who actually has put together the most abundant résumé in the history of the sport. Six championships, six league MVPs, two Finals MVPs, 19 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA selections… need I go on? Because it actually keeps going. Kareem might be the only player you could actually argue for in the race with LeBron and Michael. But for the sake of this argument, let’s peacefully give him the bronze and move on.
If it’s not counting rings and it’s not compiling accomplishments, then it’s somewhere in between and elsewhere. What’s the method for crowning the G.O.A.T? Furthermore, once you’ve got your guy, why did you choose him? The why is the most fun part because you need to show your work.
For me, it’s quite simple. LeBron James is promptly better at the sport of basketball than anybody we’ve ever seen take the court. I’m not going to proceed to make the case that LeBron’s a better scorer than Michael, or Kareem, or Kobe Bryant for that matter. But from top to bottom, step for step, offense for defense, and across all columns of the stat sheet, LeBron James is the greatest we’ve ever seen, with all context considered.
Before I go on, I want to make myself crystal clear one more time. I have Michael Jordan head and shoulders above the rest in the second spot. And while I believe LeBron is comfortably ahead of Michael, I could easily accept the argument that LeBron’s edge is slight. Either way, the edge is there. Let’s continue.
PART II: Trimming Down the List
Some fans believe it’s disrespectful and sacreligious to just discount the other all-time greats. That’s fair, and obviously everybody is entitled to their own opinion. However, once again, the overwhelming majority are rocking with LeBron or Michael at the top. So what “disqualifies” the others? Here’s a brief synopsis. (Skip to Part III if you don’t need the context for these disqualifications).
Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar completed each other. As a pass-first point guard (and the best point guard ever), Magic needed his go-to guy to turn his beautiful dimes into buckets. At Michigan State he had Gregory Kelser, and he had Kareem for almost his entire NBA career. In Kareem’s case, even if you want to acknowledge that he won a ring without Magic, you must also acknowledge that he had Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson at point for that one.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant experienced a similar form of bondage (I know, it’s ironic to read that), and didn’t sustain greatness long enough when they went solo. If you recall, Shaq let a young Dwyane Wade lead the championship charge in Miami and Kobe missed the playoffs in his first season without Shaq. It wasn’t until the Los Angeles Lakers acquired All-Star Pau Gasol that Kobe returned to three more Finals for two championships. The cherry on top for Shaq and Kobe is their lone MVP apiece.
Larry Bird doesn’t do a single thing better than either LeBron or Michael, except jump shooting. And even then, he’s limited to the mid range in this category, as LeBron has a better career three point percentage. I know the league was much different when Bird played, but shooting percentages don’t lie.
Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell’s numbers are almost unfathomable. While the former has a 100-point game to his name and the latter has too many rings for two hands, the NBA had less than half the amount of teams as the modern era. That obviously isn’t their fault, so we’ll leave it at that. To give credit where credit is due, they’re both top ten players easily.
Tim Duncan spearheaded the longest-tenured dynasty in NBA history since Russell’s Celtics. The difference is he was able to take a back seat for practically the last six to eight years of his career and still competed for championships. That’s a luxury that almost no all-time great has ever had. Also, not to nitpick because I love him, but Duncan never won back-to-back titles.
Have I lost you yet? Don’t worry, we’re about to get to the really good stuff.
The bottom line is, we have NEVER seen two all-time great players carry the load that LeBron and Michael have carried. That’s how we arrive at the clash of these two titans.
PART III: A Lie Set In Stone
Now we’re ready to rumble. In order to fairly assess the LeBron vs. Michael argument, we have to go back to Michael’s first retirement in 1993. After he announced he was stepping away from basketball, the Chicago Bulls had a statue erected outside the United Center that labeled him as “The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.”
At that point in time, Michael had collected three rings with three Finals MVPs and three league MVPs as well. That made him the “best there ever was.” Meanwhile, at that same point in time, Magic had five rings and the same number of MVP honors, both Finals and regular season. Kareem had twice as many rings and twice as many league MVPs. Even Bird had the same amount of rings and league MVPs as Michael, so why was Michael deemed the G.O.A.T?
The answer is simple… it’s because the people watched that man play and they could clearly see that he was just better than the rest. The other legends’ résumés were equal to or better than Michael’s, but he was still the greatest.
Today, as we sit and watch LeBron with a few years left in his prime, we can apply this same principle. We are watching a basketball player who is even better than Michael was.
PART IV: Career Averages
For his career, LeBron is putting up 27.1 points on 50.4% shooting, along with 7.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. He’s in the midst of his 17th season and is still putting up MVP numbers.
On the other hand we have Michael, who put up 30.1 points on 49.7% shooting, paired with 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
If we just look at career averages in scoring, it’s close, but Michael gets a slight edge. His average is higher despite LeBron’s better shooting percentage. Looking past the points, LeBron edges Michael by more than one rebound and two assists per game. The consensus with career averages is that it’s a toss up. We can’t decide who the greatest is with just these numbers for a basis.
What the numbers do tell us, however, is that LeBron is the better all-around basketball player, given his better rebound and assist numbers. Furthermore, a lost statistic is that he’s the more efficient scorer. The field goal percentages are in LeBron’s favor, but remain close. The advanced metrics of efficient shooting percentage favor LeBron a little heavier, with a 54.1% mark, which beats out Michael’s 50.9%.
If you want to tell me that LeBron is the more efficient scorer because he shoots a lot closer to the basket, then you must also tell me why Michael’s first connotation for literally every basketball fan is dunking.
To further extinguish this false narrative, LeBron has taken more than 5,100 3-pointers in his career to Michael’s 1,778. Not only will LeBron end up tripling Michael’s attempts from deep, but LeBron has shot it at a higher clip (34.4% to Michael’s 32.7%).
PART V: Sustainability and Longevity
We’re about to crack open perhaps the most appealing LeBron argument there is. And while we’re at it, some of these points would even help Kareem’s case over Michael’s. It’s common basketball knowledge as we stand here today that LeBron James has sustained his dominance as the best player in the world for over a decade.
Just when you thought he’d fallen off after missing the playoffs for the first time since his sophomore season, he came back in Year 17 and is averaging 25+ points and double-digit assists while currently leading the Lakers to the best record in the NBA.
Michael had to retire twice in his prime. Everybody knows that, but it too often gets swept under the rug as if it means nothing. I’m sure you’ve heard some say that Michael and the Bulls would’ve won both the ‘94 and ‘95 titles had Michael not retired, but we can’t be so sure. In fact, we can’t be sure at all….
If we want to get into why Michael retired twice, most would argue that it’s not basketball related. However, it’s going to be tough to make a case that the mental and physical toll of the NBA didn’t bear some weight in his decisions. Meanwhile, LeBron is spending a million dollars per offseason solely on bodycare. That’s insanity. What we simply cannot deny from that fact is that sustainability and longevity mean a hell of a lot more to LeBron than they ever did to Michael.
The 2017-18 season was LeBron’s heralded “Year 15.” That’s equivalent to how many Michael played total, and that includes two retirements and the infamous Wizards years. LeBron played a full 82-game schedule, averaging 27.5 points per game and leading the entire league in minutes at 33 years old. Even more impressive, he posted career highs of 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game and finished second in MVP voting. For contrast, Michael’s 15th season consisted of a career low in scoring and a third and final retirement come the end of it.
LeBron’s longevity is going to put him in a class of his own. It took 16 seasons for him to suffer a major injury, and Michael suffered one in his second season. Despite the groin injury in 2018-19, LeBron gave us a 27-8-9 stat line every single night. We’re numb to how great that is, because while Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden gave us an exciting MVP race last season, and other stars are still putting up historic numbers, NOBODY gives you those LeBron numbers on a nightly basis for a full season.
The King is on pace to finish top two in all-time points (with a legitimate shot at number one) and top five in assists. That’s what we call juggernaut fuel. For any player to carry that much of the load for his team and still put up incredibly balanced statistics, that’s unequivocally impressive. He’s already the only player in NBA history to reach the top 10 in both points and assists, and now he’s going to finish in the top five for each.
Just for kicks and giggles, Michael ranks fifth in points and 45th in assists. To add to the feat, every player ahead of LeBron in the all-time assist column is a point guard. In fact, LeBron is the only frontcourt player in the top 30! The next highest frontcourt player in assists is a guy named Scottie Pippen. Ever heard of that guy?
PART VI: The Pippen Effect
Don’t worry, I’ll break down LeBron’s help vs. Michael’s in the next part. But first, I’d like to discuss the forgotten impact of Michael’s running mate, Scottie Pippen. Quite bluntly, this man deserves a hell of a lot more credit than he’s ever received for the Chicago Bulls dynasty.
First of all, Michael never made it out of the first round until Pippen arrived.
After their first three championships and Michael’s first retirement, Pippen was left to lead the Bulls without the “G.O.A.T.” and Chicago won 55 games. The season prior, the Bulls won 57 games. In essence, Michael’s absence was good for a two-game drop off. How is it feasible — how does it make sense — that the so-called “G.O.A.T.” leaves your team and you only suffer two more losses out of 82 games?
Well, there’s two answers. Number one, Michael isn’t the G.O.A.T. Number two, Scottie Pippen was at the helm. The 1993-94 season without Michael found the Bulls losing in seven games to Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in the conference semis. The Bulls were one win away from going to the conference finals, and then how bad of a look would that have been for Michael?
For comparison, the 2009-10 Cavaliers won 61 games. The following season when LeBron left for the Miami Heat, the Cavaliers won 19 games (42-game drop off) and literally WON the draft lottery for the No. 1 overall pick. The 2013-14 Heat won 54 games, and the following season when LeBron went back to Cleveland, the Heat dropped to 33 wins (21 game drop-off). And finally, the 2017-18 Cavaliers went to the NBA Finals on LeBron’s back, only to drop to 19 wins (31 game drop-off) the following season when LeBron joined the Lakers.
Whenever LeBron leaves, the impact is incredibly greater than when Michael left. There are levels to this.
PART VII: The Help
Now let’s do it, let’s talk about the help. Before we proceed, here’s an important disclaimer: both LeBron James and Michael Jordan played/have played with all-time great teammates. Nobody is going to discount that. With that being said, Michael’s all-time great teammates were better.
I just laid out the skeleton for why Scottie Pippen was a better sidekick than LeBron has ever had. Yes, I would agree that Dwyane Wade is a better all-time player in the ranks, but people tend to forget that the D-Wade that LeBron got was NOT prime, scoring-title-D-Wade. Let’s break this down by taking a look at their four seasons shared in Miami (even though the bonus Cleveland year would further help my case).
After the 2011 Finals loss, Wade was never fully healthy. We can’t blame him for that, because injuries are often out of players’ control. However, his injuries do need to be taken into account when we talk about the help, because it determines the production that LeBron got from him. Wade played 76 games in 2011, which as I just mentioned was the healthiest he was for the King. He dropped to 49 games in 2012, 69 in 2013 and 54 in 2014. For comparison, in the Bulls’ first three championship runs, Pippen played 82, 82, and 81 games. Teammate availability sure does help.
So how about LeBron’s sidekick for the Cleveland title? We’ll see how Anthony Davis fares as LeBron’s right hand on the Lakers, but Kyrie Irving is LeBron’s undisputed best teammate of his career thus far, with all things considered. That’s one area where I can’t really argue that Michael had someone better in terms of a bucket-getter.
However, it’s worth mentioning that in the championship season of 2015-16, Irving missed the All-Star team due to injury and gave LeBron less than 20 points per game. Don’t forget that he got hurt during Game 1 of the 2015 Finals the year before, either. He wasn’t always available when the King needed him, much like Wade and not like Pippen.
Now, let’s look at the third wheels. Here, we have Chris Bosh and Kevin Love for LeBron vs. Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman for Michael.
Bosh averaged 17.3 points during the Heat’s two title runs. Meanwhile, Kevin Love averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Cavaliers in 2015-16.
Since you probably already scoffed at the mention of Horace Grant under “the Help” section, I’ll hit you with this. Grant averaged 13.4 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Bulls in their first three title runs. That’s a two-and-a-half point difference and a half rebound difference between Horace Grant and Kevin Love. I guarantee you didn’t see that coming. Their production was virtually the same, yet Love is viewed as the far better player.
As for Rodman, he led the league in rebounding in every season he spent with Chicago, all of which were championship seasons with Michael. LeBron has never had a league leader in any statistical category on his team. Not to mention Rodman’s lockdown defense, as he guarded Shawn Kemp and league MVP Karl Malone in the Finals.
Elsewhere? Both LeBron and Michael have been/were surrounded with shooters. Michael had Steve Kerr (8 PPG, 47.2% 3PT with Michael) and Toni Kukoc (13.2 PPG with Michael).
You probably loved the Ray Allen and Mike Miller combo for LeBron in Miami, right? Did you know that, along with Bosh of all people, they combined for ZERO points in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals? Yes, you read that right. In the biggest game of the season, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen and Mike Miller didn’t put the ball in the basket once. That’s something Michael never had to worry about from Grant, Kerr, and Kukoc… and he was very confident in Rodman’s consistent 13-plus rebounds every single night.
My favorite false narrative surrounding LeBron is that Ray Allen saved LeBron’s legacy with the famous clutch 3-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Indeed, it’s an all-time great shot. It’s legendary. But to say that it saved LeBron’s legacy is absurd. Why? Because context matters….
Did you know that the Heat were down by 10 points entering the fourth quarter? Did you know that LeBron proceeded to score 11 points as part of a 20-7 Heat run to start the fourth? Did you know that LeBron hit the 3-pointer to pull the Heat within two points with 20 seconds left? And STILL, after LeBron missed the next 3-pointer and Bosh pulled down the offensive rebound, LeBron was hollering for the ball back to shoot it again. He very well could have sunk it instead of Allen.
In terms of coaching, LeBron had Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt and Tyronn Lue for his nine Finals appearances. I would agree that they weren’t always as bad as they got ripped for, but they pale in comparison to Phil Jackson, Michael’s stable head coach for all six Finals appearances. Jackson won 11 championships as a coach in his career and was a Coach of the Year winner. That doesn’t really need to be elaborated on… clearly Michael’s coach was much better than LeBron’s coaches.
PART VIII: Playoff Success
The playoffs is where one’s legacy is cemented. There’s a reason we don’t view greats like Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson the same as we would if they’d won a championship.
LeBron has never lost in the first round of the playoffs. Ever. Michael lost in the first round three times. To take it a step further, LeBron first reached the Finals in his fourth season, while it took Michael seven seasons to get there. LeBron reached the Finals in eight consecutive seasons from 2011-2018, while Michael never reached more than three consecutive Finals. We’ll do a whole section on the Finals records next.
But first, I’m going to let the cat out of the bag on something that a lot of people don’t know. As FS1’s Nick Wright jokingly puts it, the NBA “burnt the tapes” in an effort to forget that this happened, but Michael actually LOST a playoff series in the middle of his career. Before everybody jumps on me and tells me I’m taking it out of context, I’ll put it in perfect context.
Michael came back from playing baseball midway through the 1994-95 season, but he “wasn’t himself” yet. So when he lost to Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic in six games in the second round, everyone excused the loss. Just weeks prior, Michael “was himself” enough to drop 55 points on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Was that not good ol’ MJ? It’s not like he got off the couch and played basketball again; he was playing another professional sport, so he was in shape. I’m not going to cling to that series loss and act like it’s a do-all end-all, but it sure is worth some limelight.
We all know that LeBron James has his three championships with three Finals MVPs. He’s been nothing short of exceptional when leading his team to the ship. My favorite is the 2016 Finals when LeBron averaged 36 points, 10 assists and 12 rebounds per game after going down 3-1. (Side note: tell me with a straight face that any time Andre Iguodala sees a shadow behind him, he doesn’t think it’s LeBron).
The flip side is Michael’s six-for-six Finals record… but is it really as incredible as you all believe? I’ll tackle that next.
PART IX: Counting Rings/LeBron’s Finals Streak
As promised, we’ll dive into the Finals records. In case you live under a rock, Michael Jordan is 6-0 on the big stage while LeBron is 3-6. Michael has never played in a Game 7 while LeBron has played in two. Before we unpack this, I’m going to go back to my favorite principle throughout this whole article: context matters.
I believe everybody universally agrees that LeBron’s losses in 2007 to the Spurs and 2015 to the Golden State Warriors are excused. The ‘07 Cavaliers had no business being in the Finals, hence getting swept. If anybody disagrees with me, I’d love to hear if they can name that team’s starting five. Nonetheless, they found themselves there thanks to the King’s 27.3 points, six assists, and 6.7 boards per game.
Also, it’s very interesting to note that LeBron was 22 years old during this Finals. What was Michael doing at 22 years old? Putting up 14 points per game at North Carolina.
The 2014 loss to the Spurs is another interesting one. I’m sure you’ve heard Skip Bayless pound the table proclaiming that LeBron’s Heat were “blown off the floor by a record Finals margin in five games.” Yet again, context matters. LeBron averaged 28-4-8 in that series, shooting 57.1% from the floor and 51.9% from deep… and was criticized for not stepping up.
I’d like to juxtapose this with Michael’s profound 1996 Finals performance when he was officially “back.” He averaged 27-4-5 on 41.5% from the floor and 31.6% from deep and won the Finals MVP. The 2014 losing version of LeBron clearly outperformed the 1996 winning version of Michael, yet that version of Michael is “untouchable.” This is why context matters.
The 2015 run is a little fresher in our memories, so maybe you recall that Kevin Love went down in the first round with a shoulder injury (Kelly Olynyk, you’re dirty) and Kyrie Irving got hurt with a season-ending leg injury during an overtime loss in game one of the Finals. LeBron still gave a Herculean effort of 35.8 points, 8.8 assists and 13.3 rebounds per game while averaging 46 minutes, pushing the Warriors to six games virtually by himself.
[Fun fact: LeBron received the same amount of Finals MVP votes in 2015’s losing effort alone (four) than Stephen Curry has received in all of his Finals appearances combined.]
Now that we’ve got those two covered, here’s what I’ll say before I go any further: counting rings don’t mean everything. I already briefly explained how you can’t determine the G.O.A.T. by counting rings alone (see Part I). I know it’s more than cliche to say “rings aren’t everything.”
But think about it. Is Bill Russell (11 championships) better than Wilt Chamberlain (two)? Is Tim Duncan (five) better than Shaquille O’Neal (four)? Is Kobe Bryant (five) better than Larry Bird (three)? It doesn’t matter if you answered yes or no to those; the point is that those are legitimate conversations to be had. You can’t just cut the cord after counting rings. At the very least, Michael supporters can stop acting like there’s no debate. In totality, counting rings is an absurd way to measure greatness.
As I mentioned before, LeBron voyaged to eight straight NBA Finals from 2011-2018. That’s October through June for eight straight years. That’s inhuman. In fact, the physical and mental toll is so insurmountable that Michael retired twice to avoid it. Stints of three Finals were enough for Michael. LeBron more than doubled it in one consecutive wave. Put it this way… last offseason, for the first time since 2011, LeBron had an extra TWO MONTHS to rest, heal, and improve. And now he’s right back where he belongs in the 2019-20 MVP discussion.
The leagues were so different when the two played in their respective eras, and there are numbers to prove it. LeBron plays in the “Super Team era,” and therefore he lost the 2017 and 2018 Finals to the unconditionally most talented team in league history: the Golden State Warriors.
You disagree? Tell me a team that Michael played, let alone any other team ever, that had two league MVPs (Durant, Curry 2x) in their prime along with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year (Draymond Green). Oh, I forgot to add Klay in there because he hasn’t won a regular season award. He’s just a perennial All-Star and a top five shooter ever, sorry. Not to mention Andre Iguodala won the Finals MVP in 2015.
Therefore, LeBron lost the 2017 and 2018 Finals to the Kevin Durant-led Warriors, who by the way only saw one Game 7 in their three years together. Just for fun, I’d like to point out that Durant was 4-17 in head-to-head games against LeBron until he joined Golden State, creating the Super Team to trump all Super Teams.
Perhaps you think LeBron can thank himself for the “Super Team era.” He created the beast by going to Miami, right? You’re wrong.
LeBron joined a 47-win, fifth-seeded Heat team that lost in the first round of the playoffs in five games. Kevin Durant joined a 73-win, first-seeded Warriors team that beat him in the conference finals after he was leading 3-1. Not to mention that Warriors team won the championship a season prior.
These two things are not comparable. On the surface level of a superstar leaving a team for another team, sure. But the magnitude of joining the team that beat you, after you were up 3-1 in the conference finals, is nothing even close to what LeBron did. Maybe if LeBron joined the Celtics in 2010 we could compare it a little closer. Put it this way: Stephen Curry’s Warriors blew a 3-1 lead to LeBron’s Cavaliers… so imagine if Steph joined the Cavaliers that offseason. It’s a disgusting thought.
But anyways, let’s get back on the tracks. LeBron’s “Super Team era” Finals losses have amassed to a Finals degree of difficulty that Michael couldn’t have faced in his worst nightmares.
Michael faced nine Hall of Famers in his Finals career. If you’d like them listed, it’s Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, and John Stockton and Karl Malone twice each.
LeBron has faced triple that amount, and counting. He’s faced Tim Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili three times each, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Kevin Durant three times, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Tracy McGrady, Kawhi Leonard twice, and Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson four times each. That’s not counting Draymond Green, who LeBron has played four times as well. When we add it all up, that’s 27 Hall of Famers without Draymond, and 31 if you count him. I’ll leave that there.
Just like we adjust our current eyes to the no hand-checking on defense and overkill 3-point shooting, we must also adjust our current eyes to see that from 2017-2019, we entered every season knowing that only two teams really had a prayer to upset a healthy Warriors team. The two teams are the flavor of the year such as the Houston Rockets or Oklahoma City Thunder, and whoever has LeBron James.
The 2011 Finals loss to Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks is undoubtedly the worst look of LeBron’s career. Rightfully so… that’s a very fair knock on him. The best explanation we have is that during that first campaign in Miami, there was far too much confusion between LeBron and Dwyane Wade over who was going to be “the man.”
That offseason, when they rightfully decided it would be the King, was the birth of the greatest seven-year stretch in the history of professional basketball. LeBron went to the Finals every year as we know, won the title three times, three Finals MVPs, two league MVPs, and was an All-NBA First Team selection each season. If only Michael had played for seven consecutive seasons in his prime….
PART X: LeBron’s “LEastern Conference”
One wouldn’t think that eight consecutive Finals appearances could possibly have holes poked in it. Low and behold, the hole-poking is plentiful. Far too often, LeBron’s road to the Finals has been deemed a cake walk. This is not even remotely true.
First of all, LeBron was drafted into the Eastern Conference by his hometown team. During this time (2003-2010), multiple championship-caliber teams existed. The “Going to Work” Detroit Pistons won a championship in the midst of seven consecutive Conference Finals appearances. The Big Three Boston Celtics also won a championship and sustained dominance atop the East. Hell, even his best friend Dwyane Wade led the Miami Heat to a title with Shaquille O’Neal on the roster as well.
Fast forward to all the great teams LeBron had to go through en route to his eight straight NBA Finals. There’s the obvious frontrunners of recent history like the Indiana Pacers (2014, 56-26 record), Atlanta Hawks (2015, 60-22 record) and Toronto Raptors (2018, 59-23 record), all of which finished as the No. 1 seed in the conference.
But we also cannot forget about the Rose/Noah/Butler Chicago Bulls and the later version of the Big Three Boston Celtics that both had a series lead on LeBron’s team once (or twice) upon a time. Those squads were worthy of the NBA title, and LeBron had to take them down.
Another underrated stat that doesn’t get enough limelight is that Michael Jordan made the playoffs three times with a losing record, the worst of which being a 30-52 record in 1986. Yes, a 30-win team made the playoffs in Michael’s East. Juxtapose that with LeBron’s first two seasons of his career in which he missed the playoffs with a 35-win team and a 42-win team… that’s pretty outrageous.
Next time somebody tells you LeBron’s East was weaker than Michael’s, just put it in context for them. It’s quite easy to understand. Because if 30-win teams made the playoffs, LeBron would still have yet to miss them.
PART XI: “LeBron Isn’t Clutch”
For my last topic, I want to squash perhaps my favorite false narrative surrounding the King: “LeBron doesn’t have the clutch gene, nor the killer mentality.” This notion is ridiculous. It’s silly, it’s laughable and it’s flat out WRONG.
Let me just lay out some LeBron statistics to get this going. In the playoffs, he’s 28-9-7 for his career. In the Finals, he’s 28-10-8. Those are jaw-dropping statlines that, once again, we’ve become numb to. Is anybody else giving you that production in any playoff run, let alone an entire career full of them? Nope. All this means is, when it matters the most, LeBron shows up.
What about when facing elimination in the playoffs? When your season is on the line, when you could be heading home after the game if you lose? Let’s bring Michael back into the equation for this one.
When facing elimination, LeBron is averaging 34.1 points, 11 rebounds and 7.5 assists. He’s shooting the ball at 48.8% and has a 14-9 record.
Michael, on the other hand, averaged 31.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and seven assists. He shot the ball at 44.5% and had a 6-7 record.
LeBron is better across the board.
To break this down, one thing that is very important to point out, yet easy to miss, is that Michael has a losing record when facing elimination while LeBron is five games above .500. We’re too often blinded by Michael’s second half of his career, when really we should be looking at the full body of work.
The statistical side of things isn’t surprising… both players put on a show when the season is at stake. Yet, LeBron just does it better. Take a look at those numbers above, I’d say that’s pretty killer-like, wouldn’t you?
The biggest pushback on this would be that Michael never let a Finals get to a seventh game, while LeBron has played in and won two, helping his numbers. The only response to that I can give is we’re simply judging off what we’ve seen, and we’ve seen LeBron rise to the occasion far more times than not when facing elimination. Michael, once again, has a losing record. We can’t just assume that Michael wouldn’t have lost a Game 7 to Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns or the Stockton/Malone Utah Jazz. We never saw Jordan under THAT pressure. We’ve seen LeBron under it twice, and he’s 2-0.
Now, how about the clutch shots? The ones we remember so well… Michael’s against the Cavaliers and Jazz in 1989 and 1998 respectively. Those are probably the two most iconic plays of Michael’s career, and rightfully so. They’re both great plays. However, they don’t tell the full story, and it’s those exact replays that have brainwashed some of us into believing Michael was one of a kind in the clutch.
Here’s a stat that I love that not enough Jordan supporters are aware of. On potential go-ahead shots in the final five seconds of playoff games (whether it be in the fourth quarter or overtime), Michael was 5-for-11 (45%) with three buzzer beaters. LeBron is 6-for-13 (46%) with four buzzer beaters.
Again, it’s that close! It’s splitting hairs. You need a microscope to find the edge that LeBron has in this regard, but like a lot of the areas in this column, the edge is there. LeBron has made more and done so at a higher percentage, albeit just 1%. That small of a difference drives Jordan supporters crazy, but it exists. And at the end of the day, if LeBron is just 1% better than Michael, that still makes LeBron the greatest basketball player of all time.
IN CLOSING: You Decide
Now that I’ve taken you on the roller coaster ride that is the G.O.A.T. debate, you can decide for yourself: who’s the greatest? For all statistical and logical purposes, the answer is LeBron James, as I’ve laid out. But of course you can disagree. That’s what makes this fun.
Essentially, this entire column I’ve written is pointless. We’re all entitled to our own opinion. However, if I can leave you with one last thing….
The answer is LeBron James. I look forward to these last few years of his career, as you all should too, when LeBron will continue to prove me right.
Thank you for your time!
Trent Balley is the sports editor and men’s basketball beat reporter for Impact 89FM WDBM. Follow him on Twitter at @TrentBalley.