In the first quarter of last Saturday’s game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers, LeBron James scored his 26,947th point, cementing himself in the top ten of the NBA’s all-time scoring list. With that historic layup, LeBron became the first player in league history to be in the top ten for career points and top twenty for career assists. This news isn’t shocking—LeBron is widely considered to be a “point forward” (a small forward with the passing skills of a point guard) and, upon entering the league thirteen years ago, has been very good at being a point forward. But it’s the fact that LeBron has been playing this well for this long is the truly astounding part of this recently achieved milestone. Not counting this season, LeBron’s played 46,861 minutes in his career (postseason included). By the time Michael Jordan was LeBron’s current age (31), he had played 30,487 minutes—over 16,000 less minutes. Basically, the question I’m trying to pose is: when will it be acceptable to argue LeBron a superior player to Jordan—if ever?
I’m not writing that LeBron James is a better player than Michael Jordan. For starters, we can’t truly have this debate until LeBron retires. He might be 31, but he’s shown no sign of a physical decline. He’s been just as effective on the offensive and defensive ends as he was when he was 21, and one could write that he played the best basketball of his career in last year’s Finals. Jordan, however, was in a similar position when he was James’ age. After a brief retirement stint lasting around a season and a half, Jordan re-joined the league at the ripe old age of 32, where he went on to win three more championships, two more MVP awards, and cemented his status as the consensus greatest player ever. LeBron still has a lot of basketball left to play, so until he hangs up his jersey for good, it’s unfair to compare their two careers as a whole.
The main argument against LeBron never being able to eclipse Jordan as the G.O.A.T. (and there are a lot of arguments) is his Finals record. LeBron is currently 3-3 in NBA Finals, while Jordan was a perfect 6-0. There’s no question 6-0 is better than 3-3. But there’s more to those numbers than what meets the eye. For starters, LeBron made his first Finals in 2007 at the age of 23. He single-handedly dragged a Cavaliers squad with a supporting cast of Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the NBA’s biggest stage, where he was forced to face the playoff-experienced San Antonio Spurs. Unsurprisingly, Cleveland was promptly swept. He didn’t make another Finals until 2011, his first season in Miami playing with the “Big Three” trio of himself, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. LeBron infamously melted down in the series, where the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks 4-2. This is easily the worst and least excusable Finals loss of his career, as Miami was the heavy favorite to beat the Mavs. And, finally, in 2015, LeBron was tasked with facing the Golden State Warriors in the Finals without his two star teammates in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (both of whom were injured). Although Cleveland lost the series 4-2, LeBron averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in the six games, garnering serious consideration for the Finals MVP award despite the loss.
LeBron’s Finals losses aren’t excusable, but some are clearly more understandable than others. One of the main arguments that LeBron has going for him is that he won a Finals Game 7 (last year against Golden State), and Jordan never did. The counterargument to that is that Jordan never had to play a Game 7 because he made sure his team always won before it came to a winner-take-all game. This specific comparison truly defines the LeBron-Jordan debate. First of all, there will never be a definite answer. It’s all relative. I could argue that Tracy McGrady was a better player than Michael Jordan and have it hold some merit solely based on the fact that I’m allowed to have an opinion (no matter how unconventional it may be). LeBron and Jordan played in completely different eras against completely different players with completely different rules. In all honesty, comparing these two even after LeBron retires will still be incredibly difficult. There will always be proponents who consider Jordan the greatest, and in the next decade there will be people who think its LeBron. There will never be an official answer. For now, we should revel in the fact that we get to watch a player on a nightly basis who’s even in the conversation of greatest player ever. Regardless of who you think that player actually is, that’s something special in itself.