#23 vs. #23: Who is the Real GOAT?

A day before I began writing this article, I was scrolling through the Instagram discover page, and through posts that were about sports. I happened to stumble upon a graphic that listed what NBA player was the best rebounder, what player was the best passer, and many other categories. The two categories that puzzled me the most were dubbed “Best Player” and “Best All-Around Player.”

As I saw the account put Michael Jordan as “Best Player,” and put LeBron James as “Best All-Around Player,” two questions came in mind. Isn’t the best NBA all-around player also known as the best overall NBA player? Also, who really is the best NBA player of all-time? Buckle your seat belts sports fans and haters. Let’s dive into this debate, but be warned: you might not like the result.

 

Firstly, the two players in this discussion are LeBron and MJ. No question. No other NBA player has dominated the game and the league like they have. Sure, Kareem has the most points of all time, Bill Russell has got 11 championships, and the Black Mamba was nearly unstoppable. However, points and championships are only two of the many factors that come into the debate of who’s the best all-time.

Instead of waiting till the very end to tell you who I think is the G.O.A.T, I’m going to tell you straight up. With no doubt in my mind, LeBron James is the best basketball player to ever live. There I said it. Feel free to leave your hate comment down below now, or direct message our Twitter, @TheSidelineO.

Of course, it’s very hard to compare these two. They both played in very different times, with different teams, different players, and so on. But for the sake of debate, we have to compare them through the quality of their own teams as well as that of the teams each faced.

In the first part of many in my LeBron vs. Jordan series, we’re going to look at their playoff history and why Jordan’s 6-0 finals record is dwarfed in the context of this argument.

First, let’s get into basic regular season statistics. Jordan averaged 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.3 spg, and 0.8 bpg. James has averaged 27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.6 spg, and 0.8 bpg. Both stat lines don’t say much comparatively by just looking at them. Jordan excels in points and steals while James rebounds more, passes more, and blocks the same amount of shots as Jordan. Keep in mind, both have played 15 seasons and James has played 71 more total games.

A similar trend emerges in the playoffs. Jordan has scored more points per game and steals per game, and James has more assists and rebounds per game. Their blocks remain effectively even at 0.8 bpg.

Looking at totals instead of averages can help us gain a better picture. If you look at the playoff totals, LeBron beats Jordan handedly in every category. LeBron has been to 60 more playoff games than Jordan in the same amount of seasons.

Jordan supporters love to argue how Jordan has a undefeated Finals record compared to LeBron’s 3-6 record. What they don’t look at is how Jordan has missed the playoffs twice, lost in the first round three times (swept twice), lost in the second round twice, and lost in the conference finals twice. Out of 13 seasons in the playoffs for Jordan, he was eliminated before the Finals seven times.

Let’s look at LeBron’s playoff history.

LeBron’s missed the playoffs twice, never lost in the first round, lost in the second round three times, and lost in the conference finals once. Out of LeBron’s 13 playoff seasons, he’s missed the Finals four times.

LeBron’s totals are more than Jordan’s, yet they both have had 13 seasons in which they made the playoffs. LeBron has simply made it further in the playoffs than Jordan has on a consistent basis.

Now, I haven’t forgotten the fact that Jordan has won in the Finals every time he was in it, and that alone is very impressive. LeBron has made the Finals three more times; nevertheless, he has three fewer rings than Jordan. However, but when you compare the quality of competition each player faced, the discrepancy in finals performances grows must take into account more than just wins and losses.

Jordan had to face:

  • A Laker team in the final year of their “Showtime” dynasty (LA wouldn’t make the Finals again until 2000).
  • A Trail Blazers team led single-handedly by Clyde Drexler.
  • A Suns team led by that year’s MVP Charles Barkley.
  • A Supersonic team with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.
  • For two years in a row, a Jazz team stacked with John Stockton and Karl Malone.

If you ask me, that’s very impressive of the Bulls, but keep in mind the star-studded roster that surrounded Jordan in his six championship wins. Now, let’s look at the teams LeBron lost to in the Finals.

  • A Spurs team with Parker, Manu, and Tim Duncan all still in their prime and coached by one of the greatest coaches of all time, Gregg Popovich.
  • A Mavericks team with Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd and a plethora of other highly-regarded players such as Shawn Marion and Jason Terry.
  • The same Spurs team from 2007 plus Kawhi Leonard.
  • A Warriors team with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes. The same team that would go 73-9 the following years with basically the same roster.
  • Two years in a row, the same Warriors team from 2015 but instead of Harrison Barnes, they have a future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant.

Jordan faced five different teams in his Finals history; only the Jazz were good enough to face the Bulls in the Finals twice during their dynasty. In nine appearances to the Finals, which includes a tenure of eight straight appearances, Lebron has faced nine different teams.

In the seasons that Jordan won a championship, his core Bulls team were basically the only dynasty or superteam that would consistently make the Finals. In the seasons LeBron made the Finals, he was playing in the era of two of the greatest dynasties ever, the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors.

Given the teams each player faced and their playoff statistics, if you switched their teams so LeBron would’ve played with the Bulls and Jordan played with the Cavs and Heat, do you really think either record would be drastically changed or changed at all?

Lastly, when it comes down to playoffs and debunking the Finals records debate, you have to look at the rosters of each player’s teams. In Jordan’s first three title wins, he had one of the best small forwards of all time, Scottie Pippen.

No one can question Pippen’s play as in that three-year span he averaged 19.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 6.5 apg, and a 50% field goal percentage. Pippen also made the NBA All-Defensive First team from 1992-1999, NBA All-Defensive Second team in 1991, and an All-NBA team from 1992-1998. Jordan and Pippen were arguably the best duo in the history of the NBA.

Add one of the best rebounders and defenders at the time, Horace Grant, and you get a trio that dominated the NBA for three years till Jordan left for a year. One would think that without “the greatest player of all time” that the Bulls would do a lot worse the following year. They went from 57 regular season wins, to a Jordan-less 55 wins. Talk about impact.

“LeBron James is a better basketball player than Michael Jordan. I understand people don’t want to get it because they love the six rings argument, but LeBron James is flatly better.”- ESPN Analyst, Nick Wright

Now in Jordan’s second three-peat, the Bulls lost Horace Grant but just casually replaced him with 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 7x All-Defensive 1st team, and 7x NBA rebounding leader, Dennis Rodman. Add solid role players in Ron Harper, Steve Kerr (has the highest 3P% in history minimum 250 3pFG), Toni Kukoc, and Luc Longley, and you get one of the best teams in NBA history.

In short, not only did Jordan always have next to him one of the best players at the time, and two of the best rebounding defenders of all time, but he was apart of one of the best teams in NBA history for three of his six championships.

LeBron’s team that he took to his very first Finals in 2007 against the Spurs was an actual joke. Their second best player was Larry Hughes who wasn’t bad, but he was no All-Star caliber player.

LeBron did find his championship-caliber team in the Heat with a big three consisting of him, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. However, I would much rather take Pippen and Rodman or even Pippen and Grant over Bosh and Wade.

The Heat bench wasn’t any spectacle as only Mike Miller, old Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Chris Andersen had any kind of impact. I won’t deny that he had a great team, but it was no 1995 Bulls team.

LeBron’s stint with the Cavaliers couldn’t have come in any worse time. Nonetheless, they also had a big three with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (still not better than Wade and Bosh), but the bench wasn’t any good, arguably even worse than the Heat bench.

Add the fact that LeBron’s second run with the Cavs came when Golden State became one of the best dynasties in the history of the league; it should’ve been four straight titles for the Warriors. Instead,LeBron averaged nearly 30 ppg, 11 rpg, and 9 apg to lead the Cavs to a historic 3-1 series comeback to win his third ring.

Don’t forget the coaches too. Jordan had probably the GOAT of coaches, Phil Jackson, for his six titles while James had Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, and Tyronn Lue for his nine Finals appearances. Spoelstra was a pretty good coach but there isn’t much to be said about the others.

As I wrap up this very long part one of my series on Lebron vs. MJ, I take you back to an earlier question. Given everything I pointed out, if both players switched each others’ time periods, would they have the same playoff stats and championship rings?

-Mateo Gutierrez

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