Lebron James is a great player. He is the greatest player of his generation. He is inching closer to being the most accomplished player of all time and he has dominated the Eastern Conference for the best part of the last decade. He is a great all-around player, a great leader and a great role model. But he is not the greatest player of all time.
Let’s just say I have a little bit of a bias. I have painfully been a Chicago Bulls fan ever since I started following the NBA. I was a fervent supporter of young Lebron though, up until he packed his bags and headed to Florida and started beating up on the Bulls in the playoffs. So yes, I don’t like him. I respect him as a player and as an influential person in this game, but I don’t like him. That being said, Michael Jordan was and still is the greatest player to ever step on an NBA court.
Much of Lebron’s claim as the greatest of all time lies on his dominance of the Eastern Conference, not of the league as a whole. Both Jordan and James played in the Eastern conference, so the comparison is easy. The difference is that when Jordan played, the Eastern conference was at least on par with the West, whereas now “This could very well be the biggest top-end talent disparity we’ve seen between the conferences since the NBA-ABA merger took place before the 1976-1977 season,” per FiveThirtyEight. That disparity shows in the playoffs as well, where Jordan beat 20 50-win teams, whereas Lebron as of this past week has beaten 15, in two more seasons (let’s just glance over those last two years in Washington). Per my agreement with my editors, I have to mention that Kobe Bryant is 25–10 in those matchups.
So how could this be explained? Often, the argument is made that Lebron’s teammates never play up to his level. Sure, Lebron has had some terrible players on his team before, and his 2007 Finals team was dreadful. But he also had Kevin Love, a career 18 points and 11 rebounds, Kyrie Irving, the number one pick in the 2011 draft, Kyle Korver, a career 43 percent three-point shooter and Ray Allen, arguably the second best shooter of all time. He also got a couple of good seasons from players like Antawn Jamison in 2010, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a career 17 points and 9 rebounds and Tristan Thompson, an overpaid but sometimes competent player. Oh, and “just” Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.
If that is the argument for Lebron, you’d expect that Jordan’s teammates would be incredible.
The three names thrown around are Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc. Scottie Pippen is a top-50 player of all time, and a great all-around defensive player who usually averaged more than 5 assists and 5 rebounds. But he also never averaged more than 21 points a game while playing with Jordan and only played 44 games in Jordan’s final season with the Bulls. He was often injured in his latter years with Jordan, and was never the same after Jordan retired. Kukoc was a great sixth man, but never averaged more than 13 points a game. Finally, Rodman was 35 years old when he joined the Bulls in 1996, and even though he put in three seasons of 15+ rebounds per game, he also only averaged 5 points a game over that period of time. Some other teammates include BJ Armstrong, John Paxson and Horace Grant. Yeah.
There are many more arguments that can be made but this was more about debunking the existing ones. Lebron is dominating a conference that is the weakest it has ever been, while Jordan dominated a NBA that produced the original Dream Team. Lebron’s teammates are bad? Jordan didn’t have much help either. Lebron can’t get help with the cap now at over 100 million dollars? Jordan counted 33.1 million dollars against the 26.9 million cap in 1998, and still won the Finals in 6 games that year. Jordan and James both dragged their teams to incredible successes, and if you’re still on the fence on the debate, here is one last point.
Michael Jordan has more individual achievements than Lebron James. A six-time NBA champion, he is a six-time NBA Finals MVP, five-time NBA MVP, an NBA defensive player of the year and led the league in scoring 10 times. He also led the league in steals for three seasons, was on the All-Defensive first team nine times and the All-NBA first team 12 times. And he has a NCAA championship. The only category Lebron matches Jordan is in the All-NBA first team and although I will give you that Lebron did not in fact attend college and so could not win a collegiate championship, Jordan is just better. Sure, Lebron being a monster of consistency and continuing to be so in his age 33 season is great, but Jordan is greater. And when talking about the greatest of all time, that is what ultimately matters.
Now do I have a bias? Yes, of course, and this is just my opinion. But no matter how you look at it, Lebron’s dominance always has an asterisk. Jordan’s has none.
Post Scriptum. Lebron just had an all-time great game in game one of the Finals and almost made me scrap this article. Like he was damn amazing. He also barely played any defense, had 5 turnovers and basically tanked his team in overtime. He also lost. I’m fine with keeping this article as is.