The great debate

Yes, you bet we’re going to wade into the Twitter-infested waters of Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James for the official title of best basketball player of all-time. Absolutely. Sharpen your social media knives. Prepare your snark weapons. But first, we must set some ground rules.

Ground rule No. 1: All of the people who think any of the following players are getting short shrift in this argument …

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Larry Bird

Kobe Bryant

Wilt Chamberlain

Tim Duncan

Magic Johnson

Shaquille O’Neal

Hakeem Olajuwon

Oscar Robertson

Bill Russell

Jerry West

… your protest has been noted and your strenuous objections have been overruled.

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Ground rule No. 2: We must acknowledge from the start that there is no easy statistical answer to the question of MJ vs. LeBron. People like to wield stats like swords, but when it comes to Jordan-James statistics, they duel back and forth, like Inigo and the Man in Black. Jordan scores more. James rebounds and passes better. They shoot about the same, block shots about the same and are both marvelous defenders. Jordan played about 100 more regular season games than James so far and the advanced numbers look like so:

Win Shares:

Jordan: 214

James: 192.5

Value Over Replacement Player:

James: 108.6

Jordan: 104.4

Player Efficiency Rating

Jordan: 27.9 (first all time)

James: 27.7 (second all-time)

Let’s just say it again: There’s nothing to separate them in the statistics. It is like trying to make the statistical argument on why blue is a better color than red.

Ground rule No. 3: Their postseason accomplishments are equally mesmerizing.

Michael Jordan led his Bulls to six NBA Finals, and of course they won all six.

LeBron James, so far, has led Cleveland and Miami to seven NBA Finals — including the last six in a row. His teams have won three of them.

Now, people will try to use this stuff to support one or the other, and it’s silly. The Jordan people will often use postseason success as the tiebreaker because Jordan’s Bulls won every time they reached the Finals, while James’ teams have not even won half of their Finals appearances. It’s a dishonest argument. Jordan had one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, Scottie Pippen, on all six teams. He also had Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman on two of them and likely Hall of Famer Toni Kukoc on three of them. He was coached by Phil Jackson for all six. Nobody can legitimately claim that James had anything close to that cast.

Put it this way: When Jordan left to play baseball, the Bulls won 55 games and reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Knicks.

When LeBron James left the Cavaliers, they went 19-63.

When James left Miami, the Heat went 37-45.

Conversely, though, LeBron people would like to make the counter-argument that Jordan could NEVER have taken those Cleveland and Miami teams to seven Finals, and that’s a dishonest  argument, too. We have no idea what Michael Jordan would have done with those teams. The man had an icy will. He came into basketball at a time of dynasties, and he broke through and built his own. Don’t underestimate that man.

Ground rule No. 4: Last one — it doesn’t matter if LeBron James can beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. That’s a cute little aside, thinking about James just backing Jordan down to the basket and overwhelming him in a make-it-take-it run or thinking about Jordan in a one-on-one game just racing by LeBron with the fastest first step in league history and then dunking at the rim. Fun to think about.

That’s not the kind of basketball we’re talking about here.

The question before the court is a simple one: If you were starting a basketball team that was playing the Devil’s All-Star team for your very soul, and you had the first pick of every player in the history of the NBA, would you take Michael or would you take LeBron?

* * *

To begin with: Both sides — the MJ fans and the LeBron fans — feel pretty sure that their man is supreme. But I suspect Jordan fans believe it more. Many Jordan fans (and as someone who grew up at the altar of Michael Jordan I know this) SEETHE over the very notion that James could be the legend’s equal.

See, there are athletes that come along who transcend our previous notions of excellence. Think Willie Mays. Think Jim Brown. Think Babe Ruth. Think Bobby Orr. Think Ben Hogan. Think Sandy Koufax. Think Roger Federer. You can think of your favorites.

These athletes and others like them so surprise and intoxicate us that we cannot imagine ever seeing anyone better. And even while those athletes fade, the intoxication grows. Most people still rank Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player ever, even though he played a very different game in a very different time and the only thing that’s left of him are a few grainy black and white movies and unreal statistics that mean whatever we want them to mean.

Superior athletes position us in time and place. They make us young again. How could anyone ever seem as great to me as the running back Earl Campbell was? I was just a kid then, so new to the world, and every tackle he broke, every time he pulled away from the grasp of a defender (often losing his jersey in the process), every time he plowed over someone standing up too tall, it was like a little miracle to me. He blew up my mind over and over. Now that I close in on 50 years old, will anyone ever astonish me the way Campbell did? Probably not. No athlete can really compete with my imagination.

The movie “Bad Teacher” was not especially good or memorable. But there was one magnificent exchange between a student named Shawn and the character player by Jason Segel:

Segel: “You’re out of your mind. There is no way that LeBron will ever be Jordan. Nobody will ever be Jordan, OK?”

Shawn: “OK, LeBron James (is) a better rebound AND passer.”

Segel: “Will you let me finish? Can you let me finish? Call me when LeBron has six championships.”

Kid: “Is that your only argument?”


I love that so much — it’s the truest sports argument I’ve ever seen in the movies — because that flustered, red-faced, sputtering, “It’s the only argument I need, Shawn!” bit of fury is so true to life. I mentioned above that postseason is off-limits for our discussion, but Segel is not even trying to argue that Jordan is a better basketball player. He’s not arguing that because EVEN HAVING THAT ARGUMENT is an insult. Segel, like Colonel Jessup of “A Few Good Men,” has neither the time nor the inclination to explain the unsurpassable greatness of Michael Jordan to a young kid who never even saw him play.

Our generation comes from a time when emotion and passion drove arguments.

That, I think, is the Jordan argument at its core.

* * *

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My pal Michael Schur, executive producer of “Parks and Recreation” and the upcoming show “The Good Place,” has been texting me lately about LeBron and Jordan (this, I should say, was after we inexplicably drafted Taylor Swift songs on the PosCast).

Here is the latest stream of texts:

“LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan.”

“LeBron and Michael have the same number of titles at age 31. LeBron has also been to way more finals. LeBron has also played on worse teams with worse coaches. LeBron also plays every position including center and defense incredibly well at all of them. LeBron also can’t hand check on defense. LeBron is taller and stronger and more powerful but also a better three-pointer shooter than Jordan. What’s the argument?”

“He’s better than Jordan and the sooner everyone else realizes it the faster we will advance as a society.”

Well, there’s a lot there, some of it persuasive, some of it questionable (LeBron is probably not a better 3-point shooter than Michael; you can play with the numbers and the video, but prime Jordan can be shown to be a demonstrably better outside shooter than James).

But here’s the larger point: The LeBron argument tends to be built more on LeBron James being a more advanced version of Michael Jordan. James is bigger. James is stronger. James is a more versatile defender. James can beat you more ways. It’s an argument of logical progression.

And this, too, speaks of the time when we live, a time of constant hardware and software updates, a time where this year’s computer has more features than last year’s computer and so it must be better, a time where people find themselves reluctant to buy stuff because the next version is just around the corner and the next version will undoubtedly be superior.

So it seems to me that the argument for many LeBron fans comes down to this: Michael Jordan was great for his time. But LeBron James is the newest iPhone.

* * *

And so am I just going to bail on the question? It’s probably obvious to you by now that my theory is that the James vs. Jordan argument says more about us than it does about them. Jordan and James are, in my view, the two greatest basketball players in NBA history, and they went about their greatness in such different ways that choosing between them is a bit like choosing between your favorite book and your favorite song.

But … I’m not going to bail. I’m going to give you an answer to mock on the social network of your choice.

To me, the biggest difference between LeBron James and Michael Jordan is their raison d’etat — the most important reason for their brilliance.

In my view:

Michael Jordan was a stone-cold killer on the basketball court.

LeBron James’ greatness, meanwhile, comes from his big basketball heart.

That’s a difference. Jordan, I think, wanted to win so badly he would go to whatever place he had to in order to get it done. There are countless examples of this. Jordan would use whatever slight — real or imagined — whatever taunt, whatever light or dark force he could find to beat you. He was the most competitive son of a gun we’ve ever seen on any field or court. It didn’t matter if it was the Lakers or Looney Tunes villains from outer space, he was going to win. Period.

Remember: Jordan’s first moment on the big stage was hitting the jump shot to win North Carolina and Dean Smith a national title. And his last moment — at least on the big stage — was hitting that final shot against the Utah Jazz, the one that cemented the idea that no one could ever beat Michael Jordan. If you needed someone to take the final shot in that basketball game for your soul, it would be Jordan and there’s no second place.

LeBron, incidentally, might not even be on that list. He could hit game-winning shots and has done so, but it is only because that was what was necessary. See, LeBron is a quantifiably different player from Jordan. It amused me that some people, in the aftermath of Cleveland’s extraordinary triumph over Golden State, felt it necessary to make the point that it was Kyrie Irving and not James who hit the game-winning shot. They seemed to be making the point as a knock — Jordan would NEVER have just stepped to the side and let Irving have the stage — which just proves that they have never understood at all what LeBron James is about.

See James’ greatness is about … generosity. He’s an extraordinarily big-hearted basketball player. Sure, he knows he’s the star because he has to be the star. He takes on that responsibility (though sometimes reluctantly). But, more, he wants to be part of great teams. That was what drove him as a young high school player in Akron. That was what frustrated him the first time in Cleveland and pushed him to help build the Super Friends in Miami. That has been the driving focus of his time in Cleveland. He wants — he NEEDS — to be part of winning families.

Is it any wonder he watches The Godfather before games? Never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking.

See, James has not taken seven mostly so-so teams to the NBA Finals just because of his own greatness. It is also because he lifts up his teammates, he challenges them, he inspires them, he bullies them, he celebrates them, he sets them up to look good. Nobody — and I mean nobody, including Irving himself — probably got more joy out of that final shot than James did. Irving hitting that shot was EXACTLY what LeBron James wanted the Cleveland Cavaliers to be about. I bet it meant more to him than if he had hit the shot himself.

Oh, before you get angry, yes, Jordan animated his teammates, too. He drove them and inspired them and made them better — who can forget him anticipating the double-team against Utah in the 1997 Finals and passing the ball off to a wide-open Steve Kerr (“You better be ready,” Jordan told Kerr). But it was different. Jordan understood that the game was about him. He was James Brown. They were the band.

Jordan was singular. James is plural.

And so, if given the choice, I would take LeBron James with the first pick. I fully appreciate that, in my play-for-my-soul scenario, the Devil would promptly take Michael Jordan, and there is nothing scarier in the history of American sports than having Michael Jordan trying to beat you. But it’s an approach-approach conflict anyway, a choice between two desirable alternatives. I don’t really think there’s a right or wrong answer.

But in the end, I guess, I would bet on James’ power to build a team that can beat anybody.

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