With “His Airness” scheduled to turn 50 this weekend (Happy Birthday Mike!), there has been a great deal of talk about:
(1) whether or not Michael Jeffrey Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, and
(2) whether or not LeBron James can ever usurp his throne.
As a basketball obsessive, I love listening to these debates… until they turn angry and unreasonable, and then I tend to just walk away. Rather than run down both sides of both discussions, here is my take on each topic, and I ask you, fair readers, to hit me up in the comments section (or on Facebook or Twitter) if you’re interested in continuing the conversation any further.
MJ’s G.O.A.T. Status
First thing, let’s be real Houston fans: if Money hadn’t taken his little baseball sabbatical, the Rockets wouldn’t have a pair of O’Brien Trophies in their possession. Jordan and the Bulls won three straight before he left, and three more once he was all the way back, so there is little doubt in my mind that they would have pull off an Octo-peat if MJ never embarked on his baseball odyssey.
I was thinking about hedging and talking about how you can’t judge across generations and how different players present different cases – both of which I think are completely true and important to remember in these discussion – but you’d call me chicken for not taking a stance, so here’s what I think:
Jordan is the best player I have seen with my own two eyes over a long period of time. He did things on the court that still stand out in my memory even though they happened 20 years ago. That pull-up on Craig Ehlo? Switching hands in the lane? The “I don’t know what to tell you?” smirk after canning another three against the Trailblazers in the finals? All lifetime memories, and there are a bunch more that belong at that list as well.
Michael was the kind of player who – if needed – could do anything on the court. We’re talking about a guy who averaged 30-6-5-2 with just under a block per over a 15-year career that featured two separate pauses. He averaged 20-6-4-1 as a 39-year-old man with the Wizards five years after he officially retired for the second time. (By the way, Jordan was Brett Favre before Brett Favre. Just saying.)
Six rings, six Finals MVP trophies, and five MVP awards. Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, 10 scoring titles, and a nine-time All-Defensive First Team member while being the greatest offensive threat in the league at the time. The resume is sterling.
Of all the players I have watched first-hand, Mike is the best… but the gap is closing.
I tend to follow Bill Simmons’ idea of a pyramid when it comes to sorting out the greats, and Mike is definitely a top tier, “Pantheon” dude, no question, but he’s not alone on that level. Wilt, Mr. Russell, Oscar, and Kareem are all up there with him for me. Magic is in there, so is Bean, and LeBron is doing things right now that have him on the list as well. More on that in a moment.
I don’t think there is any definitive way to say, “Player X is the best ever.” You can have your preferences, but on the whole, it’s impossible to do, at least conclusively when you’re going across era.
What makes Michael’s career better than that of Bill Russell, who averaged 15 and 22, won five MVP awards, and 11 championships in 12 seasons? Or Wilt and his career averages of 30 and 22 with four MVPs, two titles, and one of the most unbreakable records in sport, the 100-point game? And that’s not even mentioning Oscar; all he did 25-8-10, including his ridiculous season in ’61-’62 where he went for 30.8-12.5-11.4 per over the course of 79 games. We shout out guys every time the put up a triple-double; “The Big O” dropped damn near 30-11-10 a game over the first five years of his career.
If someone came close to that now, no else would ever get time on ESPN, ever.
Mike is the best I’ve ever watched over an extended period on my own, and a guaranteed “Pantheon” guy, but like I said earlier, the gap is closing.
I think 10 years from now, we’re going to be having serious MJ vs. LBJ conversations, and the difference between the two is going to be very little. They’re different players, mind you, but the championship count that we always turn to when arguing for Mike could very well be closer than the 6-1 it currently stands at, and if LeBron keeps on the way he has been this year, we could be on the verge of something incredible in Miami.
The current string of six straight scoring 30 while shooting 60+ is bonkers, and the fact that he’s averaging greater than 6.5 boards and 6.5 assists with it only makes it crazier. On the whole for the season, James is delivering 27-8-7 with nearly 2 steals and one block. He has the ability to take the game over as a scorer or a passer, and could – at 6’8″ and north of 250 pounds – be the best power forward in the league if he opted to live on the block and not worry about distributing or shooting from outside of 15 feet.
Simple and plain: LeBron is a monster, and if you’re not in awe of the season he’s putting up, you’re not watching basketball correctly. I saw LeBron play live in Toronto during his rookie year, and I was sure then that I was watching the man who would come closest to matching what Michael did on the court, and I stand by that assessment today. Considering James is still at the start of what is traditionally considered your physical prime, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him dominate for the next five years, posting something silly like 27-8-8 over that span with a couple more MVP trophies and another ring or two as well.
He might not get to the championship total that Michael finished with, but they’re different players in different eras. LeBron is going to be one of those “Pantheon” guys when it’s all said and done, and those who like engaging in “Who’s Better?” debates will have plenty of evidence to support their case for “King James” once he’s hung up his shoes.
One Final LeBron Thought, And Then I’m Gone
Here’s the thing that I’ve always believed has been undervalued or under-discussed when it comes to LBJ: my man took the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. Have you ever gone back and looked at that line-up? Here is it for you:
C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas
PF: Drew Gooden
SF: LeBron James
SG: Sasha Pavlovic
PG: Boobie Gibson
Bench: Shannon Brown (before he developed), Anderson Varejao, Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, Ira Newble, Scott Pollard, and David Wesley.
Swap out LeBron and tell me another player who brings that team to the finals? Seriously? Kobe hasn’t been to the Finals without an All-Star running mate, and Mike always had Scottie riding shotgun. The number two option on the 2007 squad was “Big Z,” and while he was a quality big with a nice touch from in space, you never thought of him as a “this is the kind of big man I can build a team around” type player. Gooden, Pavlovic, and Boobie are role players, and the bench didn’t offer any instant offense type cats who you could count on for 10 a night.
This was a one man show going up against the Duncan/Parker/Ginobli/Bowen Spurs, and yet somehow the Cavs lost all four games by a combined 24 points. This shouldn’t have even been that close.
All kinds of people want to knock LeBron for “needing” Wade and Bosh in order to win a championship, but it’s not like Mike wasn’t surrounded by exceptional talents throughout his championship run. Scottie Pippen might have been Robin to Mike’s Batman, but he was also an every-year All-Star. During the first three-peat, Horace Grant played the Chris Bosh role, and the last three-peat had both Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman along for the ride as well, so don’t tell me about how lame it is that LeBron “needed help winning a championship.”
Plus, Bird had The Chief, McHale, DJ, and Ainge, and Magic had the rest of the Showtime Lakers. Stop with the LeBron bias on that front.
Hope you liked this because I had a blast writing it. Hit me with your thoughts either here, Facebook (if you’ve got me) or Twitter (@spencerkyte).