Is LeBron James greater than Michael Jordan?
Michael Jordan has been generally considered the greatest basketball player ever for the last 20 years. Recently, many die-hard LeBron James fans have proclaimed that he has surpassed MJ as the greatest ever. While most people have scoffed at this notion, it is time to take a deeper dive into this comparison of two of the game’s greats.
The most common argument against LeBron is the fact that Michael Jordan won six NBA Finals series without losing a single one. LeBron, on the other hand, has only won three titles at this point in his career and has lost six. While this argument seems straightforward, it does not acknowledge many key factors. LeBron James first appeared in the NBA Finals during his fourth year in the NBA which was the 2006-07 season. In this season, LeBron averaged 27.3 points per game while the second leading scorer for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Larry Hughes, averaged 14.9 points and shot 40% from the field. Michael Jordan did not reach the NBA Finals until his seventh season. At this point, the Chicago Bulls were a much stronger team. Jordan had the help of one of the absolute best two-way players in the league at the time in Scottie Pippen, as well as coach Phil Jackson, whom many would argue is the greatest coach in basketball history. Also worth mentioning, LeBron was 22 during his first Finals appearance while Jordan was 28 during his. Jordan took much longer to reach the Finals and his supporting cast made success much easier.
In Jordan’s younger years, he failed to have the same playoff success as LeBron. Many will be quick to counter this by stating that Jordan had greater competition in the Eastern Conference. This is true, as Jordan matched up against the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 80s and the Detroit ‘bad boy’ Pistons. LeBron James’ competition in the playoffs before the Finals has been inferior to this point in his career. However, LeBron James has faced much greater competition in the NBA Finals than Jordan ever did. Five of LeBron’s six Finals losses came at the hands of one of the greatest teams in basketball history. Twice, LeBron led teams were defeated by the Gregg Popovich coached San Antonio Spurs, a dynasty that managed to win five titles in 15 years. Three times, LeBron’s teams were defeated by the Golden State Warriors, the dominant dynasty of the past four years that will be remembered as the greatest NBA basketball team ever assembled. Two of LeBron’s three championship victories have also been more impressive than any of Jordan’s. The Miami Heat faced the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals. This Spurs team featured an aging but still high-level Tim Duncan, Tony Parker who averaged 20.3 points per game, Manu Ginobili, and a young Kawhi Leonard. In an incredible seven-game series, LeBron averaged 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 2.3 steals, leading the Heat in all of these categories and winning the series in an incredible seven games. In the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron James led both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the opposing Golden State Warriors in every major statistical category en route to making the Cavaliers the first team to ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit. The Cavaliers managed to hang on and defeat the record-breaking, 73 win Warriors team in games five, six, and seven and won the first and only championship in the team history of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Michael Jordan never faced competition this strong in any of the Finals series he played in. The Bulls never once faced an elimination game in any of their six NBA Finals series wins.
A point that is often missed when comparing LeBron to Jordan is the impact in wins that was made on their team by their absence. In the 2009-10 season, the Cavaliers had a record of 61-21 with LeBron James. The following season, in which LeBron had decided to take his talents to South Beach, the Cavaliers had a record of 19-63, losing 42 more games without LeBron. It is important to note that the Cavaliers did have a coaching change from Mike Brown to Byron Scott, however, Brown was brought back by the Cavaliers for the 2013-14 season and was only able to win 33 games with a young Kyrie Irving. The coaching change was not the issue here. Following the Heat’s 54-28 season in 2013-14, they went 37-45 in 2014-15 after LeBron departed for the Cavaliers. The Heat retained the same core of players, outside of LeBron, and the same coach in Erik Spoelstra, however, they still had 17 more losses. Michael Jordan unexpectedly retired following the Bulls’ 1992-93 season in which they finished 57-25. In the 1993-94 season, without Jordan, the Bulls had a record of 55-27, sustaining only two more losses. LeBron has never had a supporting cast around him that was strong enough to achieve similar win totals without him.
Michael Jordan is one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA and is well deserving of the high praise he receives. However, Jordan had consistent greatness surrounding him during all his years of success. Phil Jackson is arguably the greatest coach in the history of basketball, with 11 championships to his name. Scottie Pippen is one of the greatest two-way players in history and was one of the five best players in the league during both of the Bulls’ championship three-peats. Dennis Rodman was also essential to their second three-peat. LeBron has never had a truly great coach. He has played with all-stars such as Dwayne Wade and Kyrie Irving, but Wade was already on the decline and Kyrie was only healthy for two NBA Finals series. Irving also does not have a great impact defensively. While Michael Jordan was able to make a good team great, LeBron James has consistently made mediocre teams great. Throughout the course of NBA history, no single player has been able to elevate his team in the same way that LeBron has throughout his career.