LeBron vs. Jordan: Not Even Worth Discussing. But I Will Anyway.

In Uncategorized on May 13, 2009 at 10:29 pm

With the Cleveland Cavaliers looking dominant following their second sweep of the postseason, the inevitable debate has arisen again: LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan. Is James better than Jordan? Can Lebron surpass Jordan’s legacy? When all is said and done, is it possible that LeBron James will retire as the greatest NBA player in history?

The short answer: No. Of course not.

The long answer? Here we go:

Jordan finishing

I don’t consider myself a statistics guy. Call me old school, but I judge athletes by the way they make me feel when I watch them. But even I know that in our current Moneyball Era, stats rule the day. (I can hear it now: You’re trying to have a sports dicussion without statistics?? What?? But what about Bill James?? This is sacrelige! You’re a phony! You have no credibility! Oh my god, where’s my calculator??? AHHHHH). So, I’ll kick off the debate with statistics. Here it goes:

Statistically, LeBron James isn’t as good as Michael Jordan.

What, you need more? Like…specifics? Okay:

Through his first six professional seasons (LeBron is in his 6th now), MJ averaged 31.5 points. And that includes a sophomore season in which he only played in 18 games because of an injury, posting a 27.2 PPG.

LeBron’s scoring average through his first six seasons? 27.53.

But he’s younger, James’ fans yell. And It isn’t all about scoring, he’s a great rebounder and passer too!

Yeah, you’re right; Jordan didn’t enter the NBA until he was 21. James was only 19 when he turned pro. But at the same age Rookie Lebron was learning the ropes with a struggling Cavs team, Jordan was busy winning an NCAA championship for North Carolina.

You’re also right that James is a more prolific rebounder and passer than Jordan was. LeBron has averaged about 2 more rebounds and 1 more assist a game than MJ over his first 6 years.

Wow. 2 more rebounds and 1 more assist a game. That’s the stuff of legend right there.

Lebron's jumper isn't as pretty as MJ's

Lebron's jumper isn't as pretty as MJ's

The fact is this: NBA fans want to see scoring. The game’s greatest legends are its virtuoso scorers. Wilt. Bird. Kareem. And Jordan. The guy was able to put the ball in the net better than anyone during his career, and much better than LeBron through his first six years. There’s no argument. Jordan just had a smoother jumpshot than LeBron and he had the drive to make himself into a good 3-point shooter as well. The elephant in the room of any Lebron-MJ discussion is that LeBron isn’t really all that good a shooter. His stroke is awkward and he is abysmal from behind the arc. He makes up for it because he’s 2 inches taller than Jordan was and weighs 250 pounds, so he can easily barrel his way to the basket like a bull in a China shop, all elbows and muscle, for easy 2’s. But that doesn’t make him a better player. It makes him a simpler player.

(Actually, I was wrong: LeBron was a better scorer than MJ during one season. In 2003-2004, LeBron’s rookie year, he scored almost one more point per game than Jordan, with a 20.9 PPG.

Jordan was 38 and playing for the Wizards.)

MJ was as good at 38 as Lebron was at 19

MJ was as good at 38 as Lebron was at 19

So, we’ve already established that Jordan was a statistically better scorer than LeBron. That takes care of one side of the ball. Unfortunately for LeBron, MJ was also a better defender. He was a 9-time All-Defensive selection, 3 of those awards coming during his first six seasons. In his fourth season, Jordan was even named the Defensive Player of the Year. (He was also the scoring champion. And the MVP. And the All-Star game MVP.) This season, LeBron was finally named to the All-Defensive First Team. Alright! Maybe he’s turning it around, but thus far it’s been clear that LeBron just isn’t a dominant defensive player. Scoring is the name of his game. So why doesn’t he do it as well as Jordan did?

Jordan - the ultimate competitor

Now that the statistics are out of the way, I can finally talk about my favorite, non-quantifiable category – intangibles. Michael Jordan was dripping with intangibles. His intangibles had intangibles. First of all, there was his innate need to win at any cost. You always hear about MJ’s legendary competitiveness, his relentless drive to be the best at every single thing he did. We’re talking about a guy who wouldn’t speak to Roy Williams for a day after the assistant coach beat Jordan in a game of pool while he was at North Carolina. Jordan simply hated to lose; couldn’t tolerate it. So he worked harder than everyone else in order to ensure that he rarely had to deal with it. It’s the old cliche – he showed up at the gym an hour before everyone else and left an hour after them. He had that killer instinct that all the greats have and the wannabes try to emulate. If he didn’t hate the team he was playing, he would invent or construct a perceived slight that he could use for motivation, for fuel. He didn’t only want to beat teams. He wanted to embarass them, to rip their heart out.

Does Lebron have that kind of competitive fire? It remains to be seen. We saw a flash of something earlier this season when he responded to Kobe’s 61 point game with a 50 point triple-double at Madison Square Garden two days later. But the difference is, Jordan never answered to anybody during his time in the league. He made people answer to him. LeBron needs to get on the right side of that line before we can annoint him as a true competitor.

MJ wasn’t only a fiery player, he was also an impossibly clutch player. If the Bulls were down with only a couple seconds left on the clock and a chance to win, the ball was going to Jordan. Every time. Everyone on the Bulls knew it, and everyone on the opposing team knew it. Yet a staggering amount of the time, Jordan still buried the buzzer-beater for the win – over two defenders, three sometimes, even four – capping off the dagger with one of his patented fist pumps. Throughout his career, Jordan nailed 25 of those game-winning attempts – a remarkable number. The Bulls kept coming back to the well, again and again, and Jordan always seemed to come through when called upon. History has remembered Jordan as perhaps the greatest clutch player of all time.

Mr. Clutch

Mr. Clutch

LeBron, on the other hand, isn’t even thought of as the most clutch player in the league now. Carmelo Anthony holds that title, with Kobe a close second. Sure, LeBron is a good finisher but until he crafts a reliable jump shot, he won’t be racking up the game-winners. Certainly not from 3-point land. But he needs to make those shots if he even wants to remain in the Jordan discussion (which he clearly does). He just hasn’t yet, not often enough.

Jordan had legendary swagger

But let’s take a minute now and go back to the aforementioned Jordan fist pumps, because they are representative of perhaps Jordan’s most memorable intangible – his trademark swagger. MJ carried himself with such confidence, such cocky flair, that it seemed impossible for him to fail. He talked trash, he smirked after big shots, and he demonstrated a smooth grace up and down the court, every single night. He was the biggest guy in the room at all times – the room often a 20,000-plus capacity arena. When Jordan walked on the court, everyone in attendence sat up straighter and craned their neck to get a better look. Flashbulbs sparkled throughout the stands. The Man is here, was the feeling. Off the court was no different. In interviews Jordan oozed charm, always dressed in the best suits and smoking the finest cigars. He was so good at everything that it was almost a shock to watch him struggle on the baseball field during his first retirement. But no one was surprised when he homered in his final at-bat.

Of course he did. He’s Michael Jordan.

Lebron's pregame performance

LeBron's pregame performance

Lebron can’t touch MJ’s swagger. He has to orchestrate every cool thing that he does, like his pregame chalk ritual at the scorer’s table or his one signature tomahawk dunk. Only Kobe comes close to matching Jordan in the swagger category, and that’s only because he tries as hard as he can to imitate Jordan’s characteristics, to the point that it’s actually creepy. Lebron can aspire to Icon status, he can throw chalk around and he can slam rim-rattling dunks, but he’ll never touch Jordan’s easy grace and innate confidence. He just won’t.

Then there’s this fact: Jordan played during an infinitely tougher era in NBA history. The new rules protecting players hadn’t been written yet. David Stern was years away from deciding that it would be a good idea to turn the NBA into a cupcake league in which suspensions are handed out like candy on Halloween. No, during Jordan’s era, teams were still allowed to play with intense physicality. MJ had to face squads like the Bad Boy Pistons with their “Jordan Rules” – put simply, to beat Jordan to a pulp until he was no longer capable of carrying his Bulls team. And if it wasn’t the Pistons, it was the Knicks and their cheap shots – closelines and chokeslams, punches and elbows. In 2009, every one of them would result in a whistle, a flagrant call, and a possible suspension, pending review. Stern has closed the door on physical play and as a result, a guy as big as LeBron is free to run roughshod over the league, scoring at will. It must be nice. But Jordan – all 6′ 6″, 215 pounds of him – spent much of his career on his back and still managed to become the greatest player of all time.

I can sit here all day talking about Jordan’s superior scoring ability, swagger, and toughness, but ultimately it all boils down to this: Which player has been more fun to watch? At the end of the day, NBA basketball is simply a form of entertainment. Thus the Jordan-LeBron debate must come down to a question of who entertained better.

So who did entertain better – Michael Jordan or LeBron James? The answer is quick, easy and timeless.

The answer is Michael Jordan.

Behind the back, through the window, off the backboard....

When Jordan exploded onto the scene in the late 80’s, he captivated everybody. We’re not just talking about America; this guy was a household name all over the world. By the 90’s, there were kids in third-world countries – with no televisions and no access to newspapers – who knew about Air Jordan. There were serious debates in the media and amongst fans about whether this Jordan guy could actually fly. He sold countless shoes to kids of all different races and socioeconomic status. His commercials were legendary. He singlehandedly put Nike on the map.

Michael Jordan jumpstarted a cottage industry of athletic adoration. Millions of young kids wanted to be Jordan, and millions more were – in their driveways with a mini ball and a mini-hoop, calling their own play-by-play in their best Marv Albert voice. I did it – I remember it like it was yesterday. Ten seconds left, the ball goes to Jordan at the top of the key. He dribbles right, 9 seconds now. He starts to drive the lane, 8, 7, pulls up, 6, elevates, 5, there’s the shot! 4, 3, 2…. It looks good. At the buzzer… YESSSSSS! And the Bulls win! Another spectacular play as time runs out by Mich-ael Jor-dan! Every day after school I was Jordan, facing insurmountable odds with the clock winding down, and it was the greatest thing in the world.

Call it nostalgia, call it a rosy-tinted view of my own youth, but I refuse to believe that kids today channel LeBron to the same degree that they once channeled MJ. And not only because kids don’t play outside anymore anyway, too busy navigating the latest Call of Duty release or playing on the computer. No, Jordan just had that extra something that only comes around once in a lifetime. Babe Ruth had it during the 20’s. Muhammad Ali had it in the 60’s. And Jordan had gobs of it in the 90’s, perhaps more than anyone before.

MJ happened to come along at the perfect juncture in our history – right as ESPN’s media takeover was revving into gear. Sportscenter was still flashy and new, and those guys had a field day with Jordan. They constantly replayed his highlights, which were then taped and made into documentary films: Come Fly With Me, Air Time, and Michael Jordan’s Playground. I’ve seen them all, at least 20 times. And so have millions of other people around the world, because of the unavoidable fact that lies at the heart of this discussion we’re having:

Watching Michael Jordan play basketball was unlike watching any other athlete do anything, ever.

And the LeBron-Jordan conversation ultimately comes down to that simple truth. Michael Jordan was his own entity, LeBron James is not. Even if LeBron one day does approach the allure of Jordan in the public eye (which he won’t), even if he comes within throwing distance of the fascination we had with Jordan (not a chance), people will still talk about LeBron in the context of MJ. They’ll stare with wonder and squawk, LeBron really is the next Jordan! LeBron is always going to have that comparison to live up to, whereas Jordan surpassed any comparisons by the end of his career. He was the Global Icon that LeBron aspires to be; still is, actually. MJ came around at the perfect time, admist the perfect convergence of media and money, and he redefined the nature of the Athletic Superstar. The timing of Jordan’s emergence is impossible to replicate. LeBron can’t do it. No one ever will.

MJ ran out of fingers for all his rings

For ten years, the gaping hole left by MJ’s depature let all the air out of the NBA. The League is only just now figuring out how to succeed in the post-Jordan era. Sure, LeBron is a great player and he is one of the keys to the NBA’s future success. But he’s not Jordan, and he never will be. MJ was the better scorer, the bigger legend, the greater icon. And then there’s the issue of those 6 rings Jordan has.

Even if LeBron retires with 6 championships to his name – or 10, or 12 – will he win them with the same flair, the same panache, and the same class that Jordan did? Will LeBron continually rewrite his own legend along the way like Jordan? Can James recreate the magic of the Flu Game or MJ’s Final Shot against Utah in ’98? Can he lead one team to three consecutive championships? Can he do it twice?

Can LeBron James become a myth?

It’s a tall task, even for such a tall man. And even if LeBron James comes close to reaching the Michael Jordan stratosphere, he’ll still always be only the second guy to do it.

Forever the second.

The second biggest. The second brightest. The second best.

  1. “(Actually, I was wrong: Lebron was a better scorer than MJ during one season. In 2003-2004, Lebron’s rookie year, he scored almost one more point per game than Jordan, with a 20.9 PPG.

    Jordan was 38 and playing for the Wizards.)”

    What are you trying to say? LeBron James has scored 31.4 PPG for a season, are you saying MJ has never scored less than that in a season besides his final year in the league?

    Your argument makes no sense. Are you adjusting those stats for pace? The pace of the game is much slower now, with fewer possessions per game and less scoring.

    And you talk about LeBron behind horrible from behind the arc? Jordan didn’t shoot above .300 until his 6th year in the league! LeBron has shot above .300 every year except his rookie season (.290)

    Through their first 6 seasons, 3pt%:
    MJ: .282
    LJ: .328

    For you to suggest that LeBron is awful from behind the arc and won’t improve his ridiculous speculation.

    You also said that 2 rebounds and 1 assist per game more was ” the stuff of legend right there.”

    2 RPG and 1 APG may not sound like much, but when you’re comparing that to the GREATEST OF ALL TIME it is the STUFF OF LEGENDS RIGHT THERE.

    I didn’t even finish your article because it is so completely biased.

  2. […] didn’t even finish your article because it is so completely […]

    • Jordan is the best, period. If the 2 RPG & 1 APG is all you have in your quiver for ammo you are a long way from arguing Lebron’s case. Try back in another 5 years LOL.

  3. LOL GREAT REBUTTAL HENRY! (I don’t see an author on this article so I’ll just assume it was you, Henry…)

    Way to address my points.

    Comparing stats across eras is useless, especially so if you do not account for pace.

    I’ll repeat myself here since you seemed to miss it the first time:

    And you talk about LeBron behind horrible from behind the arc? Jordan didn’t shoot above .300 until his 6th year in the league! LeBron has shot above .300 every year except his rookie season (.290)

    Through their first 6 seasons, 3pt%:
    MJ: .282
    LJ: .328

    For you to suggest that LeBron is awful from behind the arc and won’t improve his ridiculous speculation.

    “is it possible that LeBron James will retire as the greatest NBA player in history?

    The short answer: No. Of course not.”


    So it is IMPOSSIBLE huh? You can see the future that well?

    Well hot damn, might as well quit now, since the all-powerful Henry speaks in absolutes!

    Go ahead, refute my points, but it may be difficult with your head so far up Jordan’s ***

    • LOL, he also said LeBron was not clutch, unfortunitly he is. In per 48 min a game, he scored 55.9 points in 31 games, while shooting a .556%. He is 2nd in makes to Kobe, but Kobe had 10 more games to compile only .08 more points. Who does this guy think the ball goes to at the end of the game? Guess who has the most game winning shots since 2003? LeBron James, that’s who, he also averaged .340 shooting, better then the other best player in the game today, Kobe. Kobe shot a .240 in game winners,lol. But anyways, does he not know that LeBron has 17 game winning shots, while Jordan has had 25? LeBron has been in the leauge for 6 seasons, Jordan for double that, so why is he only 8 game wining shots behind him? If LeBron makes the same amount of game winning shots he made now, for 7 more seasons, then he would have like 37 game winning shots. He would still only be around 30 years old. I do not think LeBron has even hit his peak, so it could be more. Another thing, when Jordan had his best scoreing season in the leauge , his third year, he was the same age as LeBron now. Jordan took 637 more shots then LeBron and made 300. Jordan’s shooting % was .482, while LeBrons was .484, as well as Jordan playing 200 more minutes. Do you want to know something else, LeBron’s team won 66 games, while Jordans won 40 games, he made it to the playoffs but where sweept by the Celtics, just like the 2 years before that, I mean getting kicked out of the first round is something that has never happend to LeBron. It took awhile for Jordan to realize that his shooting to much hurt his teams chances to win, so that is why he later on did’nt take as many attemps. I mean, why else would a team lose when a player scores 63 points. Jordan shot 41 times, as well as 22 free throws. LeBron shot 36 times once, and that is the most he has ever shot in a game. But I am sure you remember that, that’s when he scored 56 points grabed 10 rebounds dished 5 assists had 2 steals, shot 18/36-fg’s 6/12-3pt 14/15-ft’s and he became the youngest player to score 50 points in a game. So to say LeBron isnt a scorer, is just nutts, because he is. However, he does what ever his teams need him to to, and that is not allways shooting the ball. But at the end of the game, the ball goes to the clutch player’s hand, and they know what to do with it. LeBron would either shoot, because of his 17 makes, or he would assist, just look at his 6 game winning assist. Jordan could have averaged 40 points a game, but he did’nt, because it effected his team. Jordan finally made it out of the first round in his forth season, but lost in the 2nd round, the next year he made it to the ECF, and lost, and the following year, he lost again in the ECF. With in this time Jordan lead in scoreing twice, won MVP, and defensive player of the year once. LeBron Lead in scoreing once, but came in 2nd a few times, won an MVP and came in 2nd in defensive player of the year. So as you can see, while Jordan was more mature, and had more expierence then LeBron, LeBron has keept his own gainst Jordan. LeBron is on pace to score more points then Jordan, more assist, more rebounds, Blks…. while he has’nt even hit his prime. So for you to say that there is no chance of LeBron being better, I say to you, that you are wrong. LeBron james is closer to Jordan then anybody else has ever been.

  4. […] their teeth and say I’m living in the past, blinded by nostalgia and rose-colored glasses. My Game 6 post dismissing the LeBron vs. Jordan debate as foolish and wildly premature has inspired more comments […]

  5. Lebron Clutch?? LMAO!!!!! that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day…Lebron is far from clutch…very far…

    I don’t believe him and neither does the NBA and it’s defenders. With Kobe and Melo and Lebron any coach would choose Kobe 1st and Melo 2nd. Lebron would not even be considered in the top 2 options with the game on the line.
    When MJ was coming up, Bird, Magic and Isaiah would be in the same team as MJ, and the coach will go to MJ. Period.

  6. This is the reason I read Shocking posts.

  7. I think people are missing the point. The point is that what made Jordan the best ever was NOT THE NUMBERS. It was Jordan’s personality that truly distinguished him as the greatest basketball player, possibly the greatest athlete ever. You can’t argue against it unless you’ve actually watched him play.

    I have a collection of Jordan’s games that you can watch and educate yourselves before saying Lebron is anything close to Jordan.

  8. Hey, im not a big fan of basketball, but when michael jordan would start a jump from the 3 point line and dunk it, that is history right there, that is what you want to see, feel.

  9. southpaw is an idiot. melo isnt even in this conversation &lebron is way better than melo.did ya’ll also forget that in 2007, lebron james took the cavs to the finals,by himself. and dont say that jordan did it by himself.dont say that jordan took the bulls to 6 chamionships by himself! are you forgetting about scottie and steve kerr. ya jordan would get his 30-32 points but scottie would get his 25 and kerr gets his 18 points. in 2007 Lebron would get his 40 points and lose to the spurs but look at the rest of the team. dont even say that big Z could dominate the paint. he couldnt then and he couldnt now. he would have what, 12 points? that 12 points aint gonna get them past the spurs.if bruce bowen was “D”ing jordan up, the 95-95 bulls would not have beaten the 2007 san antonio spurs and all of you gys know it!!!!

    • Jordan’s teams were made up of nobodies. HE made them great players. When he retired, ALL of his former teammates returned to their average, or in some cases below average selves. NO ONE Jordan played with ever elevated their game without him BEFORE or AFTER playing with him. So using the arguement of —“oooh he had scottie pippen, or steve kerr…or bj or horace grant.” is completely ignorant of who he shaped these players to be. And completely ignorant of the fact that they were never able to reach that same level of play without him.

  10. (sigh) as for your last comment about bruce bowen gaurding Jordan. It pains me to even address such sillyness. First of all, The 80’s and 90’s allowed for the toughest of the tough to play defense extremely hard, and it was still not enough to stop jordan’s mind from finding ways to trick and out play other teams. Second, Joe Dumars was far superior to Bruce Bowen, and well, we know how that ended up. Last, you make the same mistake every competitor made against Jordan. You state that if Bruce covered him it would have affected him. See, the truth of the matter is once you think you can take it a personal challenge to cover jordan…he has you. And he did it over, and over and over against the best defenders… Tricking the best defenders into stepping up to the challenge as if it’s something they alone could do….Jordan knew it, the coaches knew it…he couldn’t be gaurded by one individual despite how good they were. It took a team…an entire freaking team to stop him. Bruce bowen would have failed just like everyone else and he would have cried long nights of Whoa just like everyone else.

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