Chasing Greatness: Is LeBron James the GOAT?
For 23 years Michael Jeffrey Jordan has been considered the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. At the end of his first retirement in 1994, the Chicago Bulls made Jordan a statue that read, “The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.” That’s pretty high praise for a guy who, at that time, had only played nine seasons in the league, and had captured three NBA Championships, three Finals MVPs, and three regular season MVPs. We all know the rest of the story; Michael came back to win three more championships, three more Finals MVPs, and two more regular season MVPs.
Jordan is almost universally considered the “GOAT”, or greatest of all time. Some people still say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, others say Bill Russell and his 11 rings, while others say Magic Johnson. Today, though, a new player is writing himself into the record books and making a case for himself to be considered the GOAT. LeBron James is now in year 14 in the NBA, and doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. So the question arises: is LeBron James the greatest basketball player ever?
The case for LeBron starts as such: three NBA championships, three Finals MVPs, four regular season MVPs, and 11 All-NBA First Team selections, the latter of which only Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone have accomplished. For the last decade, LeBron has been the best player in the NBA and continues to dominate. If he makes it to the Finals this year, which is all but a certainty, he will make this his seventh straight appearance in the Finals, which has never been done before. Hardware aside, let’s look at this from a purely basketball perspective.
I will let this be known: For most of my life I’ve been the biggest Jordan fanboy, but having grown up watching LeBron’s dominance my loyalty has teetered. I’ve watched probably every Jordan highlight and I’ve watched every LeBron playoff game of importance. I wouldn’t call myself an “expert” per say, but I am very knowledgeable in the history of the NBA.
With that said, let’s break down LeBron vs. MJ as basketball players. MJ is considered the greatest scorer ever, with the greatest career-average for points per game at 30.1 with shootings splits of 49.7/32.7/83.5 for field goal, three point, and free throw percentages. LeBron is currently averaging 27.1 points a game for his career with splits of 50.1/34.2/74. The numbers don’t tell the whole story though, because MJ shot three more field goal attempts per game over his career more than LeBron has. The difference between their play styles lies in the fact that LeBron makes everybody around him a better player, and is a better assister and rebounder than Jordan.
LeBron, for his career, is averaging 7.3 rebounds and 7 assists, while MJ averaged 6.2 and 5.3. LeBron has been called by Skip Bayless the, “greatest passer I’ve ever seen.” Pretty high praise when you consider Bayless watched guys like Magic, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash play. LeBron is also a more versatile defender. At 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 250 pounds, LeBron is able to guard all five positions on the court without giving away too much of an advantage. LeBron has also been dominating longer than Jordan, who played 13 seasons with the Bulls while LeBron is in year 14 right now.
LeBron has now played 1,552 more minutes in his career, joining only 17 other players to eclipse those numbers. If LeBron plays five more seasons, he’s on pace to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who holds the number-one spot.
Besides the minutes, LeBron has made a bigger impact than Jordan on the teams he’s been on. After LeBron left Cleveland in 2010 the Cavaliers went from 61 wins to 19, and when he left Miami they went from 54 wins to 37 wins and missed the playoffs. When LeBron went back to Cleveland they increased their wins by 20 games. The year after Jordan’s first retirement the Bulls only won two less games and got robbed in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks.
We’re getting to the point where Michael Jordan defenders are having a harder and harder time arguing against LeBron. I get it; LeBron will never match up to Jordan’s accomplishments. However, did Jordan ever match up to Kareem’s accomplishments? The answer is an easy no. Kareem won six championships, two finals MVPs, six regular season MVPs, and is the number-one scorer in all of NBA history.
How then, is Michael Jordan considered better than Kareem? Because people watched him play and said, “This is the greatest basketball player we’ve ever seen.” You know what? That’s what I’m starting to say when I watch LeBron James play.
Column by Nick Fields