LeBron Deserves to Be Called the G.O.A.T.

Michael Jordan is the second-greatest basketball player of all time. Of this, you will never convince anyone from Illinois. The notion seems unlikely to gain much traction outside The Prairie State either. No player will ever mean as much to the NBA, to the game of basketball as a whole, as Jordan. Jordan is the icon; he is to basketball as Pelé is to soccer, as Ali is to boxing. So legendary was Michael Jordan’s prowess on the basketball court that his name has become verbal shorthand for a person of paramount skill, i.e. “Jimi Hendrix was the Michael Jordan of the electric guitar.” LeBron is the better basketball player. LeBron’s never going to get that credit, no matter what happens against the Warriors.
 greatest basketball player

Better than, perhaps, any other team sport, basketball lends itself to discussion of who its greatest player is. Fans can debate the greatest baseball player and may come to a consensus regarding what player had the greatest combination of hitting and fielding prowess, but this will not account for the greatest pitcher. When debating the greatest football players, one must compartmentalize by position as those positions are highly specialized and in almost all cases players do not play offense and defense. When discussing hockey and soccer, the greatest goalkeepers must be considered apart from the players of other positions. In basketball, while the positions are certainly specialized, all players do all things; a center can dish out dimes, a point guard can crash the boards, everybody plays offense and defense. Any basketball player’s abilities can be measured against any other.

For the purposes of this article, top ten lists published by ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Slam, Bleacher Report, Fox Sports, and The Boston Globe were consulted, with Jordan holding the number one spot on all lists. The other players who appeared on these lists were Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain, all of whom were named on all lists. Tim Duncan was on five, Oscar Robertson, Shaquille O’Neal, and James were on four, and Kobe Bryant, listed on three. From list to list there was no consistent ranking of the players with the exception of Jordan in the number one spot. So why is Jordan, in the hearts and minds of sports journalists, superior? What eliminates the rest of those guys from consideration? Let’s start by removing the centers and power forwards; while dominant big men have many times been the key component to successful teams they, by-and-large, are more reliant upon strength and size for success and are less “skilled” than are guards and small forwards. Big men are not ball handlers and, for the most part, do not shoot from range. This eliminates Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Duncan, and Shaq. For the opposite reason we can dismiss Johnson, who, as a true point guard, had perhaps the greatest court-vision of any player ever but was not a particularly prolific scorer. So Magic’s gone, which is too bad because he seems like such a gosh-darn nice guy. We’re down to Robertson, James, Bryant, and Bird and if you think Larry Bird is the greatest of all time you’re a racist, or from Boston, or both. Bryant is a player of superfluous, Jordan-esque, skill, who has torpedoed his own legacy with a reputation for being a toxic teammate, driving away Shaq, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Phil Jackson, repelling supporting players of quality. A compelling case could be made for Oscar Robertson who, in his storied ’61-‘62 season averaged a triple-double; but Robertson has only one championship to his name and is seen largely as the player who would revolutionize the “big guard” position that Jordan would later perfect. That leaves LeBron.

Go into any sports bar in the country and suggest aloud that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time and some eavesdropping Jordan supporter is likely to answer with the following arguments: 1. Jordan has six rings, LeBron has only two! 2. LeBron hasn’t won a championship without Wade and Bosh! 3. Jordan has 10 scoring titles and 5 MVP trophies. Each of these facts are irrefutable. Each of these arguments may seem ironclad to the basketball fan from Illinois, or whose childhood memories are permanently stamped with the near-religious iconography of Jordan. But, as is so often the case, the facts do not tell the story entire. We will proceed point-by-point.

1. Jordan has Six Rings, LeBron has Two

greatest basketball player

The ultimate goal of any NBA team, and therefore any player, is, and should be, to win championships. If the metric by which we are to judge the greatness of NBA players is the number of championships they have won then, yes, Jordan is superior to LeBron and Robert Horry was better than either of them. It’s a safe assumption that nobody in the world thinks that “Big Shot Rob” was better than Jordan or James, so the championship metric does not really refer to number of rings but to number of times a player has led a team to the title. By this metric and, actually, straight number of rings, Bill Russell is the greatest basketball player of all time, having lead the Celtics to eleven championship victories. End of conversation. Using only the metric of championship campaigns lead, one can argue convincingly that Jordan was better than James, but not that he was the greatest of all time.
While championships won should factor into the consideration of who is the greatest of all time, they should not be given the weight that they have. Jordan has lead teams to the NBA finals six times and won all six, LeBron has also lead teams to the finals six times, but they have only won twice. While this may seem like a vast difference in levels of success, let us consider the truth of whether or not winning a championship is a much greater accomplishment than simply reaching the finals. Just as with all championship games and series across all sports, winning the NBA finals is, unquestionably, more rewarding for athletes and fans alike, than is losing. Winning is always better than losing, obviously, of course. What is lost in that equation is the fact that simply reaching the NBA finals is a considerable achievement, meaning, ostensibly, that a team is the best in their conference. What a finals loss should mean to a team, really, is that only a single team was better, and only for a single best-of-seven series.

2. LeBron James Has Never Won a Championship without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh

greatest basketball player

This is true, and even if the Cavs win this year, people will use the presence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin love to dismiss LeBron’s greatness. but to suggest that Jordan’s Bulls were a one-man show is an insult to other players the great Bulls teams of the ‘90s, especially to Scottie Pippen. Championships should not be credited to single players in the way that they commonly are. No team, since before the ’56-’57, when the first Celtics’ dynasty began, has won the NBA finals without at least two All-Star caliber players on the starting lineup, and only a couple of those teams had fewer than three. Yes, when James won his championships with The Heat, it was with the support of fellow superstars Wade and Bosh, but when Jordan’s Bulls won their first three championships (the “three-peat”) All-Stars Bill Cartwright, B.J. Armstrong, and Horace Grant were on the roster, and for championships four, five, and six (the “repeat three-peat”), Jordan was assisted by Dennis Rodman, a two-time All-Star, two-time Defensive player of the year, 7- time All-Defensive First Team, and seven-time NBA rebounding champion, and Jordan has never won a championship without Scottie Pippen.
Though it is unlikely that he would complain, Scottie Pippen’s legacy has largely been sacrificed to Michael Jordan’s. His name has become synonymous with being a skilled backup to a far greater talent. This is patently unfair. Pippen himself is an all-time great; seven-time All-Star, 3-time All-NBA First Team, eight-time All-Defensive first team, two time steals leader, and named to the same two Gold Medal-winning Olympic teams as Jordan. Jordan was certainly the most valuable player to the Bulls dynasty, but Pippen was so critical to those teams that it seems highly unlikely that the Bulls could have won multiple titles without him.
greatest basketball player
Also of note is the fact that Phil Jackson, arguably the greatest coach in the history of the league, coached each of the Bulls championship teams. Jackson has coached eleven teams to championship victories, and while critics may suggest that Jackson is a charlatan who has been made to look like a genius by superstars, neither Jordan, nor Kobe Bryant has ever taken home the title without Jackson at the helm. James’ coaches, Paul Silas, Brendan Malone and Mike Brown during his first stint with the Caveliers, Erik Spoelstra during his tenure with The Heat, David Blatt when he returned to Cleveland, and now Tyronn Lue, are decidedly less accomplished.
The point here is that Jordan did not do it alone. A lot of elements need to come together to win just a single championship; no man is an island in team sports. The contributions made by Jordan’s fellow starters were at least equal to that of LeBron’s. Give Scottie some love.

3. Jordan has 10 scoring titles, and 5 MVP Awards

greatest basketball player

Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Jordan was a great scorer, arguably the greatest ever, and certainly greater than LeBron. However, Jordan and LeBron are statistically comparable. Where Jordan ended his career with and impressive 30.1 points-per-game, LeBron is logging a not-too-shabby 27.2, and where Jordan recorded a career 5.3 assists-per-game, fairly pedestrian numbers for a starting shooting guard, Lebron’s current APG is 6.9, quite high for a forward. In fact, Lebron’s 6,815 career assists place him eighteenth of all time (Jordan is forty-second), and first amongst forwards. Additionally, while LeBron recorded all these assists, he was, like Jordan (excepting his second year with The Wizards), his team’s leading scorer every year. Jordan recorded more steals, LeBron is the better rebounder, and it’s about a dead heat for blocks. As far as MVP awards go, Jordan has five, LeBron has four. Fine, whatever.
The “stats metric” for determining greatness is a bit like “championships metric” in that, while you may believe Jordan’s totals are more impressive than LeBron’s, someone else’s are more impressive still. Statistically it is hard to argue that any player is more impressive than Wilt Chamberlain with his record 50.4 point-per-game, and 27.2 rebound-per-game seasons. There’s no such thing as an unbreakable record but “Wilt The Stilt’s” single-game records, 100 points and 55 rebounds respectively, are unbreakable.
So, if all of the above reasons for Jordan’s claim are now (marginally) discredited, what argument is to be made in favor of dubbing LeBron “The Greatest of All-Time?” What evidence is there of King James’ superiority to “His Airness?” There is a single, very compelling argument in James’ favor, an argument that has gone woefully unnoticed by basketball historians:

LeBron James is, Observably, Literally The Most Valuable Player in The History of The League

greatest basketball player

No player’s arrival on, or departure from, a basketball team has been more deeply impactful than LeBron James’. The 2002-03 season, the year before James entered the NBA, The Cavaliers finished 17-65, tied for the worst in the league; The Cavs finished the 2009-2010 season with a record of 61-21, winding up in the conference semi-finals. During LeBron’s first stint with the Cavs, the team’s regular season records showed gradual improvement, all while failing to sign a compelling secondary star; James lead the team to the playoffs, reaching the finals once, with only journeymen like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Anderson Varejao. In the 2010 offseason LeBron departed for Miami; the next season the Cavs dropped to 19-63, worst in the conference, second worst in the league. That year The Heat, who had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the previous season, competed in the finals, as they would do for the next three years, winning twice. When LeBron left Miami to return to Cleveland for the 2014-15 season, The Heat, who retained Wade and Bosh, dropped to a 37-45 record, failing to make the playoffs while the Cavaliers, who finished the 2013-14 season with non-playoff-qualifying record of 33-49, improved to 53-29, playing against the, freaky-good, Warriors in the finals. The impact LeBron James has is undeniable; he makes bad teams great.

Jordan made good teams great. The Bulls did show marked improvement upon Jordan’s arrival with a record of 38-44 in 1984-‘85 his rookie season, up from 27-55 in ‘83-‘84, and qualifying for the playoffs from which they were eliminated in the first round. The Bulls would not finish with a winning record until their ’87-’88 campaign when they would, for the first time in Jordan’s career, advance to the second round of the playoffs. This season was, almost certainly not coincidentally, Scottie Pippen’s rookie year. The Bulls would show steady improvement throughout the late eighties, culminating in their back-to-back-to-back championship victories 1991 to 1993. When Jordan temporarily retired for the ’93-’94 season and most of the ’94-’95 season, the Bulls were still a successful team, finishing with a records of 55-27 and 47-35 respectively and advancing to the second round of the playoffs both years. The lockout-shortened season following the final year of the Bulls’ “repeat three-peat,” when Jordan retired for second time, Chicago finished with a record of 13-37, but Pippen had been traded to The Rockets, so it would be wrong to suggest that this severe decline was due entirely to Jordan’s departure. Jordan was the most important piece of great, dynasty-building teams. LeBron James’s impact on his teams is transformative.There it is. This is why LeBron James is the greatest ever. But, as we do not live in just world, he will never be recognized as such. The idea of James being the greatest ever has been widely rejected, largely, it seems, due to public perception. While LeBron has never had behavioral issues, per se, he does seem to rub certain fans the wrong way. Many fans did not like how James, Wade, and Bosh seemingly engineered their convergence in Miami. Even more they did not like “The Decision” the television event in which LeBron informed the American public that he would be leaving Cleveland for Miami. While “The Decision” was ill-conceived, the move was not; departing the Cavaliers, who were then failing to build a team around LeBron, for the Heat was the best decision James could make for his career. Sports fans are often weird and inappropriate when it comes to athletes leaving teams. In what arena but professional sports do people think that an adult stranger should consider their feelings when choosing where to ply their trade? Jordan, for his part, does not have a reputation for being a great guy. Putting aside the unseemly reports of mistresses and heavy gambling losses, Jordan has not been gracious in his role as the most lauded player in league history, dedicating his Hall of Fame induction speech to calling out anyone he felt had slighted him over the course of his career. Also he punched Steve Kerr at practice one. Yet, even with a nasty reputation, Jordan’s image is weirdly untarnished.

There is another argument that Jordan supporters may use to affirm his superiority to LeBron, and that idea that the league is “softer” now that it used to be. It is not. The notion that NBA players used to be tougher is, pardon the expression, a hot load of bullshit; it is purely nostalgia. And nostalgia, to quote John Hodgman, is a toxic impulse. If there are more fouls called now, it is because the game requires more foul calls now. Just look at the players now and compare them to what they used to look like; do you think George Mikan could stand in against Blake Griffin? The answer is “no.” If we were to stipulate that NBA officials are now handing out more calls in a show of preferential treatment, and we are not stipulating that, than we must stipulate that the trend began with Jordan’s career. Magic Johnson himself has noted that Jordan seemed to get preferential treatment from officials, so if that is the truth, which it likely is not, Jordan’s circumstances were not different from LeBron’s.

Jordan’s legacy is too permanently etched in the American psyche; so deep that fans reject the notion of a player challenging Jordan’s place in history out-of-hand. The iconography of Jordan is powerful; his emphatic, jubilant celebration after making “the shot,” weeping while embracing the Naismith trophy, faking out (maybe pushing-off) Byron Russell to nail the game-winning shot of the ’98 Finals, James does not have similarly indelible moments. This could be largely due to the fact that fans’ access to the NBA and its players was more heavily curated by the league during Jordan’s career than it is now. The league was able to create an icon around which the NBA could increase its popularity. Jordan was a superb player, yes, but he was the legend the NBA chose to create. Where LeBron is the most valuable player in the league, Jordan was the most valuable player to the league.

ALL-STARS STARTING ON CHAMPIONSHIP TEAMS

As stated above, no team since the Celtics dynasty of the 50s and 60s has won a championship without at least two All-Stars caliber players. This does not necessarily mean that those players played in the All-Star game the season that their team won the championship, simply that they were “All-Star caliber” and were named to an All-Star team during their career. The following list names championship teams and their star players. The “All-Star caliber” players are only counted if they were listed as a starter on the team’s depth chart for the given year to rule out formerly great players finishing their careers as bench players for good teams. The years listed after a player’s name are the All-Star teams to which he was named.
1956-57: Boston Celtics
Bob Cousy (’51-’63), Tommy Heinsohn (’57, ’61-’65), Bill Russell (’58-’69) Bill Sharman (’53-‘60)
1957-58: St. Louis Hawks
Cliff, Hagen (’58-’62) Slater Martin (’53-’59) Ed McCauley (’51-’57), Bob Petit (’55-’56)
1958-59: Celtics
Cousy, Heinsohn, Russell, Sharman
1959-60: Celtics
Cousy, Heinsohn, Russell, Sharman
1960-61: Celtics
Cousy, Heinsohn, Russell, Sharman
1961-62: Celtics
Cousy, Heinsohn, Sam Jones (’62, ’64-’66, ’68),  Russell
1962-63: Celtics
Cousy, Jones, Heinsohn, Russell
1963-64: Celtics
S. Jones, John Havlicek (’66-’78), Russell
1964-65: Celtics
Jones, Heinsohn, Russell
1965-66: Celtics
Jones, Havlicek, Russell
1966-67: 76er’s
Wilt Chamberlain (’60-’69, ’71-’73) Billy Cunningham (’69-’72), Hal Greer (’61-’70), Chet Walker (’64, ‘’66, ’67, ’70, ’71, ’73, ’74)
1967-68: Celtics
Jones, Havlicek, Bailey Howell (’61-’64. ’66, ’67). Russell
1968-69- Celtics
Jones, Havlicek, Howell, Russell
1969-70: New York Knicks
Dick Barnett (’68) ( Bill Bradley (’73), Dave DeBusschere (66-69, ’69-’74) Walt Frazier (’70-’76), Willis Reed (’65-’71)
1970-71: Milwaukee Bucks
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (’70-’77, ’79-’89), Bob Dandridge (’73, ’75, ’76, ’79) Jon McGlocklin (’69)  Oscar Robertson (’61-’72)
1971-72: Los Angeles Lakers
Elgin Baylor (’59-’65, ’67-’70) Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich (’69, ’72-’75) Flynn Robinson (’70), Jerry West (’61-’74)
1972-73: Knicks
Bradley, DeBusschere, Frazier, Earl Monroe (’69, ’71, ’75, ’77), Reed
1973-74: Celtics
Dave Cowens (’72-’78), Havlicek, Paul Silas (’72-’75) Jo Jo White (’71-’77)
1974-75: Golden State Warriors
Rick Barry (’66, ’67, ’73-’78), Butch Beard (’72), Jamaal Wilkes (’75, ’80, ’82, ’85)
1975-76: Celtics
Cowens, Havlicek, Charlie Scott (’73-’75), Silas, White
1976-77: Portland Trailblazers
Lionel Hollins (’78), Maurice Lucas ’77-79. ’83) Bill Walton (’77-’78)
1977-78: Washington Bullets
Bob Dandridge (’73, ’75. ’76, ’79), Elvin Hayes (’69-’80), Wes Unseld (’69, ’71-’73, ’75)
1978-79: Seattle Supersonics
Dennis Johnson (’79-’82, ’85), John Johnson (’71-’72), Lonnie Shelton (’82), Jack Silkma (’79-’85), Gus Williams (’82-’83)
1979-80: Lakers
Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood (’72-75), Magic Johnson (’80, ’82-’92), Norm Nixon (’82, ’85) Jamaal Wilkes
1980-81: Celtics
Nate Archibald (’73, ’75, ’76. ’80-’82) Larry Bird (’80-88’, 90’-’92), Robert Parish (’81-’87, ’90, ’91)
1981-82: Lakers
Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Nixon, Wilkes
1982-83: 76ers
Maurice Cheeks (’83, ’86-’88), Julius Erving (’77-’87) Bobby Jones (’77, ’78, ’81, ’82), Moses Malone (’78-’89) Andrew Toney (’83-’84)
1983-84: Celtics
Bird, Dennis Johnson, Parish
1984-85: Lakers
Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, James Worthy (’86-’92)
1985-86: Celtics
Danny Ainge (’88), Bird, D. Johnson, Kevin McHale (’84, ‘’86-’91), Parish
1986-87: Lakers
Abdul-Jabbar, A.C. Green (’90), Johnson, Worthy
1987-88: Lakers
Abdul-Jabbar, Green, Johnson, Worthy
1988-89: Detroit Pistons
Mark Aguiree (’84, ’87-’89) Joe Dumars (’90-’93, ’95, ‘97( Bill Laimbeer (’83-’85, ’87) Isiah Thomas (’82-’93)
1989-90: Pistons
Dumars, Laimbeer, Rodman (’90, ’92), Thomas
1990-91: Chicago Bulls
Bill Cartwright (’80, ’91), Horace Grant (’94), Michael Jordan (’85-’93, ’96-’98, ’02, ’03), Scottie Pippen (’90, ’92-’97)
1991-92: Bulls
B.J. Armstrong (1994), Cartwright, Grant, Jordan, Pippen
1992-93: Bulls
Armstrong, Cartwright, Grant, Jordan, Pippen
1993-94: Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon (’85-’90, ’92-’97), Otis Thorpe (’92)
1994-95: Rockets
Clyde Drexler (’86, ’88-’94, ’96, ’97), Olajuwon
1995-96: Bulls
Jordan, Pippen, Rodman
1996-97: Bulls
Jordan, Pippen, Rodman
1997-98: Bulls
Jordan, Pippen, Rodman
1998-99: San Antonio Spurs
Tim Duncan (’98, ’00-’11, ’13, ’15), Sean Elliot (’93, ’96) David Robinson (’90-’96, ’98, ’00, ’01)
1999-2000: Lakers
Kobe Bryant ( ’98, ’00-‘’16), A.C. Green, Shaquille O’Neal (’93-’98, ’00-’07, ’09) Glen Rice (’96-’98)
2000-01: Lakers
Bryant, Horace Grant, O’Neal
2001-02: Lakers
Bryant, O’Neal
2002-03: Spurs
Duncan, Tony Parker (’06, ’07, ’09, ’12-’14) Robinson
2003-04: Pistons
Chauncey Billups (’06-’10) Rip Hamilton (’06-’08), Ben Wallce (’03-’06), Rasheed Wallace (’00, ’01, ’06, ’08)
2004-05: Spurs
Duncan, Manu Ginobili (’05, ’11), Parker
2005-06: Miami Heat
O’Neal, Dwyane Wade (’05-’16), Antoine Walker (’98, ’02, ’03)
2006-2007: Spurs
Duncan, Michael Finley (’00, ’01), Parker
2007-08: Celtics
Ray Allen (’00-’02, ’04-’09, ’11), Kevin Garnett (’97, ’98, ’00-11, ’13),  Paul Pierce (02’-’06, ’08-’12), Rajon Rondo (’10-’13)
2008-09: Lakers
Bryant, Andrew Bynum (’12), Pau Gasol (’06, ’09-’11, ’15, ’16)
2009-10: Lakers
Ron Artest (’04) Bryant, Bynum, Gasol
2010-11: Mavericks
Tyson Chandler (’13), Jason Kidd (’99-’02, ’04), Shawn Marion (’03, ’05-’07) Dirk Nowitzki (’02-’12, ’14, ’15)
2011-12: Heat
Chris Bosh (’06-’16), Lebron James (’05-’16), Wade
2012-13: Heat
Bosh, James, Wade
2013-14: Spurs
Duncan, Kawhi Leonard (’16), Parker
2014-15: Warriors
Stephan Curry (’14-’16), Draymond Green (’16) Andre Iguodala (’12), Klay Thompson (’15-’16)

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