PUTTING AN END to the JORDAN vs LEBRON DEBATE
WHY WE ARE CONFUSING GREATNESS WITH LEGENDARY
No other athlete has had a bigger impact on a sport than Michael Jordan. You can argue Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali. If we are not ready to propel LeBron James to the Mount Rushmore of greatest athletes of all-time? The argument must end here.
The case against LeBron is simple and I’m here to make it by asking one simple question.
At what point during LeBron’s career has he been on top of the NBA mountain both on and off the court, in the regular season, the post-season and the off-season, for a continuous period of time?
The answer is never.
In fact, the debate we should really be having is Kobe vs LeBron. But every year come playoff time LeBron takes center stage. So for arguments sake and for the sake of this blog entry I’ll entertain this debate.
Rules. Let’s strictly keep the debate to on the court. Is LeBron James the greatest basketball player of all-time? Also to help make the case for LeBron (which I won’t make) let’s judge him post “The Decision”. We’ll judge Mike post-Phil Jackson. Essentially judging both players in the prime of their careers and during the height of their dominance. Let’s also keep the stat stuffing at a minimum and try to keep all the individual accolades out of the equation. I’m strictly crowning the G.O.A.T. based on one test. The eye test.
On my side of the fence is where the old NBA heads sit, folks that grew up wanting to be like Mike or (if you’re like me) hating Mike for continually shattering your teams dreams. We are loyal to this era of basketball and will never give in to the argument that LeBron is better than MJ.
We also know that trying to convince a LeBron fan boy that the G.O.A.T. is and will always be Michael Jordan is like trying to convince an android user to switch over to iPhone. An android user holds a death lock grip on his or her Galaxy phone. Going through 6 or 7 generations of the phone over a span of a decade. They resist the fact that there might be a better quality smart phone out on the market until the death or until their Galaxy s7 blows up in their face.
The LeBron is greater than Jordan debate blew up in our faces when he lost to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. It blew up in our face again in the loss to the Spurs in 2014. At what point are you going to make the switch over to the brand that revolutionized smartphones, how we listen to music, how we communicate, how we watch TV and how we live?
Michael Jordan revolutionized the game of basketball, leaving us with memorable moments along a legendary career timeline that LeBron has yet to match.
The night he poured in 63-points, the shot on Ehlo, the “Did He Just Do That?” a.k.a the lay-up against the Lakers, the 3-peat, the dunk on Ewing, the comeback, the double-nickel, the flu game, the steal, the last shot, the other 3-peat.
The all-time greats are often judged by the rings on their fingers. The all-time legends are remembered for the moments they leave along the way to those rings. Unfortunately for LeBron, one to many of his memorable moments have come in defeat.
LeBron’s best chance to jump from great to legendary was with the Big-3 in Miami. While he was at the peak of his individual dominance, winning multiple MVP awards, the Heat won not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven, but considering the bar that was set by LeBron himself, he won a disappointing two titles. This title run included a devastating loss to the Dallas Mavericks leaving an ugly blemish on LeBron’s legacy that cannot be understated when comparing him to MJ. LeBron averaged 17, 7 and 6. Shooting 60% from the free-throw line and 32% from three.
Another knock on LeBron’s legacy took place during the 2014 Finals loss to the Spurs, where the LeBron led Heat lost in 5-games by an average margin of 18 points per loss.
After a 2–2 Finals run in South Beach LeBron took his talents back to home to Cleveland, Ohio. Where it can be argued that “The King” was dethroned for at least a season and half when Stephen Curry took the league by storm beating LeBron head-to-head in the 2015 finals. Sure, LeBron redeemed himself the following season in what was his finest moment coming back from 3–1 down to win the series and bring a title to Cleveland. But the mere fact that players like Dirk, Curry and Kawhi (who are all-time greats and future hall of famers in their own right) were crowned champions during the peak of LeBron’s powers allows us common folk to question the legitimacy of his reign as “King” and the claim that he is the greatest ever.
Jordan ruled the NBA during an era that gave us Drexler, Barkley, Ewing, Stockton, Malone, Shaq, Penny, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, the legendary ’96 Draft that gave us Kobe, Iverson, Ray Allen and others (easily the best and deepest draft of all-time). The ’91 Lakers where over the hill so in fairness I’ll leave Magic Johnson out. None of aforementioned players were going to dethrone Jordan on or off the court but at no point during the 90's decade did Jordan relinquish his seat on the throne. Unless you count his 2-year minor league baseball stint.
Again, without diving deep into stats, MJ was THE permanent face of the NBA. A decade long run of pure dominance measured in more than just winning NBA titles. A relentless stampede on the game of basketball that changed the way we wore our shorts, sported our sneakers and allowed us to sometimes dream that he is me… that we could be… like Mike.
On a lesser scale, the MJ vs LeBron debate is like the Sugar Ray Leonard vs Floyd Mayweather argument. I can make a case either way for who’s the better boxer, who has faster hands, who’s more skilled, but I can’t make the case that Floyd has been legendary. If I started a sentence with the words “Remember the night when Floyd…” how would that sentence end? In disappointment. In uncertainty. In “yeah but.”
Floyd was undefeated and the greatest defensive fighter of all-time YEAH BUT he didn’t fight anyone at the height of their boxing career.
The only “yeah but” in Michael Jordan’s career is “yeah but what if he hadn’t taken 2 years off to play baseball.”
In order to be legendary in any arena you need legendary opponents. In Sugar Ray’s case, Leonard/Duran, Leonard/Hearns, Leonard/Hagler. Fights for the ages. Playing in the weaker Easter Conference LeBron has flown in clear, sunny, skies for most of his career. Whether it was getting over Larry’s Celtics, Isaiah’s Pistons, Ewing’s Knicks, Dominque’s Hawks, Shaq and Penny’s Magic or Reggie’s Pacers, Air Jordan flew under some heavy turbulence before even arriving at his NBA Finals destination.
Meanwhile from 2011 to 2017, during LeBron’s 7-straight NBA Finals run and yes he’ll be back there again this year, his Eastern Conference road blocks will have been a 5'9" point guard who may carry a bigger punch than all of LeBron’s previous Eastern Conference playoff opponents but the Celtics are still a year or two away from being real contenders. His other foes have been a former league MVP now league MIP (most injured player) Derek Rose, an aging Celtics Big 3, the force that was Roy Hibbert and the Pacers, Paul Millsap and the *60 win Hawks and of course the ultra competitor DeMar DeRozan, who after being swept out of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals by the Cavs said the following,
“If we had LeBron on our team, too, we would have won,” said DeRozan, who averaged 20.8 points in the four-game sweep, nearly seven points less than he averaged in the regular season.
This is the NBA not AAU! The best guys aren’t always going to be on your team. DeRozan is like that poker player who plays Jack-Five suited and then blames the dealer for not hitting the Flush on the river. Sure, going heads-up against LeBron when you’re short stacked and he’s holding pocket aces against your Jack-Five isn’t ideal. But poker is a game of skill first, chance second. Your opponent may have you beat pre-flop. But you like your hand, you pay the blinds to see the flop, your hand gets a little stronger so you pay to see the turn. Your hand improves so you pay to see one more card. The river card is dealt, you miss your Flush. At this point you’re not asking the dealer to reshuffle the deck and re-play the hand.
We all played pick-up ball. We pick sides, shoot for ball, first to 11 wins. Basketball at any level is a game skill first, chance second. It’s about our 5 against your 5. Sure sometimes your team is under-maned. You might get stuck with the dude that dribbles with his head down or the super annoying baller who helplessly shoots the ball in order to avoid turning the ball over. Under no circumstances do we reshuffle the deck. You try to win with the guys you have and if the best player on the court ends up on the other team, you go at him, you take your chances, win or lose.
The point is, it hasn’t exactly been murderers row for LeBron. While the gap between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference has certainly closed over the last two years. The lack of real competition in the East has hurt LeBron’s case versus Jordan. Players like DeMar DeRozan and Paul George are the Ned Starks of the NBA. Players who would much rather be the Hand of the King than sit on the Iron Throne.
In order to be legendary you need something NBA titles can’t buy. An unwavering level of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. from your peers, critics and the fans.
After LeBron’s playing days are over. After he gives his Hall of Fame induction speech. The cloud of “The Decision” will still be hovering over his head. Taking his talents to South Beach is the chink in his armor. Sure it may have gotten him the elusive NBA titles but at what cost?
Whether you want to hear it or not, the knock against LeBron will always be the fact that he left Cleveland to team up with a league rival in Dwayne Wade to win two of his three titles. What if when Steve Jobs was fired from Apple he decided to join Bill Gates at Microsoft? Would Jobs be as idolized as he is today? Probably not.
Jordan got his rings. LeBron chased his rings. All rings are not created equal. How you get to the NBA Finals matters. How you win your titles matters. Who you face along the way matters.
Coming back to Cleveland may save LeBron’s legacy. Beating the 73-win Warriors may have steered the ship back on the right path towards being the greatest of all-time. Hell, the ship will certainly pick-up steam if LeBron manages to beat the Warriors + Kevin Durant. Facing Steph, Durant, Draymond and Klay at the height of their careers gives LeBron the rival he needs to strengthen his case as the G.O.A.T.
But, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. We’ll have to wait and see if LeBron can rescue himself from the two times he jumped ship. I’m not saying that a Captain should ever go down with a sinking ship. But it sure helps to have a Captain that can guide his vessel through rough seas from time to time.
When we’re talking Sopranos or Breaking Bad, Biggie or Tupac, or going with the chicken or the pasta on my flight back to NY, I can make a strong case either way for which is the better show, better rapper and better food choice.
When we’re talking greatest basketball player of all-time, I can’t make an honest and sensible case for LeBron. So once and for all let’s forget about comparing him to Jordan, that ship has sailed!