Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James: How to properly approach the GOAT debate

The 10-part ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” will chronicle Michael Jordan’s six-championship run with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.  

It’s also going to ignite another round of the generational never-ending debate for NBA fans that pops up on social media every day.  

MJ or LeBron? LeBron or MJ? Is Jordan still the greatest basketball player in NBA history? Or has James surpassed MJ and taken over the throne for good?  

If you’re going to do this, then do it right. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to settle the GOAT argument with your buddies.

Put a ring on it

This conversation starts with the six-fingered argument straight from the movie “Bad Teacher.”

Is it really the only argument you need? 

Jordan’s trump card is six NBA championships in six NBA Finals with six NBA Finals MVPs. Jordan never went to a Game 7 in the NBA Finals. 

For a generation of NBA fans that grew up with “NBA Inside Stuff” and Sunday “NBA on NBC” classics, Jordan is the gold standard of winning. Aside from Bill Russell, who won 11 NBA championships with the Celtics, nobody else can claim to be the consummate best player on the best team.  

“The Last Dance” is sure to reinforce those arguments MJ fans can recite by heart. 

Jordan retired for a season and a half after Chicago’s first three-peat. Jordan returned in March 1995, and the Bulls lost in six games to the Magic in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in May. Chicago swept Orlando in the playoffs the following season.

A strong argument could be made Jordan could have won eight straight championships if he did not retire. 

Perhaps the most impressive part of this run is those legends who didn’t get a ring because of Jordan. Half of the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” doesn’t have a championship ring. Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Karl Malone all lost against Jordan with championship-caliber teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs or NBA Finals. 

Now take it off

LeBron James is 3-6 in the NBA Finals, but he also appeared in the eight consecutive Finals series with the Heat or Cavs from 2011-19. The Eastern Conference went through James for almost an entire decade.  

James prevented the Celtics, Bulls, Hawks and Raptors from reaching the NBA Finals in that stretch.  

How much do you value simply reaching the Finals but not winning it all? Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain combined for a 3-19 record in the NBA Finals. Does that diminish them as players? No, of course not.  

James signed with the Lakers in 2019, and after a disastrous first season Los Angeles had the best record in the Western Conference before the COVID-19 outbreak suspended the 2019-20 NBA season.  

The point is James still has room to add more NBA Finals appearances. A championship or two in Los Angeles as the final act would add to that legacy.  

Acknowledge different eras

Former Pistons center Bill Laimbeer once suggested Jordan couldn’t have led the 2015 Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, but then undercut that by saying today’s NBA is soft.

Well, which one is it? Jordan won all those championships during an era that is perceived as more physical, while James thrives in an era in which pace-and-space reigns supreme. James didn’t get crushed by the “Bad Boys” Pistons each time he drove to the basket, but Jordan didn’t have to go through the Warriors, a dynasty that may go down as the greatest collection of talent ever assembled in sports history.

James could’ve dominated during Jordan’s time, and Jordan could’ve dominated the current NBA landscape. It’s a wash when you talk different eras. 

Run the numbers and awards

Jordan and James fans treat this argument like accountants when looking for any statistical advantage. Here are the key talking points.  

Stats 

James, in his 17th season since coming out after high school, ranks third all time in NBA history with 34,087 points. He averages 27.1 points per game for his career and won the scoring title one time. Jordan scored 32,292 points in 15 NBA season after three years in college, which is good for fifth all time. Jordan averaged 30.1 points per game with 10 scoring titles.  
James ranks in the top 50 in rebounds (9,353), which is well ahead of Jordan (6,672) at No. 129. James also ranks eighth in assists (9,298), which is ahead of Jordan (5,633) at No. 45).  

James has the statistical advantage because of the all-around factor.  

Awards 

Both won Rookie of the Year and won All-Star Game MVP honors three times.  

Jordan was a five-time MVP and 14-time All-Star. James has 16 All-Star appearances and four MVP awards. James has the edge in All-NBA honors with 15, while Jordan was a 11-time All-NBA selection.   

Jordan was a nine-time all-defensive team selection and the Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-88.  

Jordan has the edge in awards, and that defensive presence is a big reason why.  

Don’t make up arguments

Here are six quick-hitter arguments to stay away from:

1. “Jordan’s teams were loaded.” 

Maybe the second three-peat squad, but not the first three-peat squad. Here’s a reminder of what that first championship roster looked like, a year in which Scottie Pippen didn’t make the All-Star team.

2. “LeBron doesn’t have any help.”

He had superstar help in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland. Anthony Davis is his running mate in Los Angeles. The notion James doesn’t have enough around him is simply not true. 

3. “Jordan couldn’t carry a team by himself.” 

Go watch the “Flu Game” against the Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals again.

4. “LeBron doesn’t have the killer instinct.”

Go watch Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the Spurs again.

5. “MJ lovers are validating their childhood.” 

Maybe a little. Watch the tweets during “The Last Dance.” 

6. “LeBron lovers are stuck in the now. It’s a millennial thing.” 

Maybe a little more. Watch the reponses during “The Last Dance.” 

Have fun with it

At the end of the day, it’s OK to appreciate the greatness of both MJ and LeBron, and realize that they play different styles in different eras. It’s OK to take a side (I’ll still take Jordan in this one). 

So have fun with it. There is not a wrong answer. 

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