LeBron vs. MJ: The GOAT Debate Intensifies
By Martin Rogers
We are now at a point where there is not only a legitimate, vibrant GOAT debate in basketball, but we are also locked on the certainty that there will always be one.
LeBron James got close enough to Michael Jordan by winning his fourth career NBA title on Sunday that there is now heavy, power-punching ammunition on both sides in the "greatest of all time" stakes, a race that somehow manages to feel intensely serious and frivolously absurd at the same time.
Those minded to lean towards James already believe there is sufficient weight of evidence to anoint him as the best ever. Yet even if the Los Angeles Lakers star were to add, say, three more titles, there would still be huge numbers of Jordan supporters who would refuse to sway on their man’s worth.
The lingering … scratch that … intensifying debate is a game within the game and anyone can play it. Some do it better than others, armed with stats and convenient perspective.
Yet remember this; it is an uneven pursuit that frames differently in the mind based on things like age and emotion and the mere fact that in sporting arguments, you are allowed to make your own rules.
"My son is 11 and he has his mind blown by the fact that LeBron has reached the NBA Finals 10 times," lifelong NBA fan Anton Symons told me. "For me, the sweet perfection of Jordan having gone 6-0 in the finals is bigger – and better."
That generational divide is part of it too, not so much for the records but for the memories. Those old enough to have lived through the Bulls’ streak of domination, especially if they were in their teenage years at the time, are unlikely to ever be pulled away from Jordan.
How could they? Jordan felt omnipresent in a way that is really no longer possible. There were fewer options for media and information a quarter century ago, which meant that if you were watching sports television, you were seeing Mike, his sneakers, his swagger and all those wins.
If you were reading about sports, through newspapers and magazines because, yes kids, that’s how it was done back in the day, you were going to be bombarded with Jordan, all the time.
Similarly, if you are growing up as an impressionable youngster right now, not just aware of James’ dominance and gravitas but living through it, how can you truly feel there is someone greater than a man who is always the story at the end of the season and has 73.5 million Instagram followers to boot?
The GOAT chatter kept us talking through the pandemic, continued during the regular season and manifested throughout the playoffs - and it isn’t going to cease in the wake of the Lakers defeating the Miami Heat in six games to conclude the bubble campaign either.
"Jordan had it," FOX Sports NBA analyst Chris Broussard said. "Now this latest narrative keeps LeBron alive or at least keeps people open-minded. I still have Jordan No. 1, LeBron No. 2. Jordan dominated the NBA in a way LeBron hasn’t. Jordan had two three-peats. Once Jordan started winning, no one else could win. He kept a host of Hall of Famers from winning championships.
"Jordan did not have a weakness. For LeBron – free throw shooting is a weakness. The lack of a midrange pull-up game is a weakness. It is a small one but it is there and it hinders him a little bit."
Until or unless James gets to six titles, it is going to be difficult for many to see past the simple differentiator of championship rings. Yet the James brigade carries a loud voice and comes armed with some compelling arguments, too.
And, with Anthony Davis now by his side in Los Angeles and momentum seemingly behind him, there will surely be opportunities for James to secure extra hardware in the coming years.
"There is a chance, maybe a good one, LeBron drives this GOAT conversation closer to a consensus than anyone would have imagined possible a decade ago," wrote Zach Lowe on ESPN.com.
On First Things First, FS1’s Nick Wright answered Broussard with a series of points referencing Jordan, including how he struggled to find success before the arrival of Scottie Pippen, that he never beat Larry Bird in the playoffs, and had a 2-6 postseason record against the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic.
"I would agree that if we are deciding the only years on Jordan’s career that count are the years he won championships, well, that’s a hell of a resume," Wright said. "But that’s not how this works. You can’t get the points you scored the other years, the MVPs you won the other years, the defensive awards you won the other years but then say (nobody else won).
"The only time the Bulls faced a real contender in the East during the title runs, the first time they faced the Magic they lost to them. That doesn’t count either though, because (your) rules are that we can only talk about what he does well. What the media doesn’t want you to know about Michael Jordan could fill a library."
Even the storylines provide fuel for dispute. Jordan’s comeback from a two-year baseball hiatus is part of his mystique, and for his followers, it only enhances his legacy. On the flip side is James’ consistency, being able to be right there, at the forefront when it matters, for more than a decade.
Frankly, we could argue this all day but there’s no need for that, because there are years more of this kind of talk to come.
By its very nature, an objective debate can have no winner. It continues, as it must, until there is no longer a debate at all because no one is willing to argue the case of the less popular side anymore.
We are not there and, as is growing increasingly likely, we may never get there.