LeBron Is the GOAT
Let’s dispense with the throat-clearing: LeBron James is the greatest basketball player ever. He is, quite simply, the GOAT. Yes, that title unquestionably belonged to Michael Jordan for 20 years, but it’s time to pass the baton. No? OK, buckle up…
A quick look at their per game averages* reveals a difference in style and era, but not much of a difference in value.
MJ averaged a few more points, had more steals and turned the ball over less often. LeBron has the edge in shooting from inside and outside the arc, as well as rebounds and assists. But how much of MJ’s edge is due to having not played nearly as many games? LeBron’s laced them up 257 more times, about 4 seasons worth of games. The King has been so consistent for so long that even cherry-picking the 14 best out of his 18-plus seasons doesn’t change his seasonal averages in any meaningful way.
The advanced stats don’t shed much light, either. MJ has an edge in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares per 48 minutes, and Box Plus/Minus, but at LeBron's ~1,000-game peak, he moves ahead in Box+/- and PER, and all but closes the gap in WS/48. Either way, neither man creates enough space to feel conclusive.
A preference for peak over longevity does neither man any real favors. Jordan’s peak lasted a decade, and was a touch higher than LeBron’s, but LeBron’s been averaging 25-5-5 for 18 consecutive years now, failing to do so only in his rookie year – he’s essentially all peak. Take a look below at their respective Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) by age – this isn’t peak vs. compiler, it’s “high” peak vs “nearly as high, much longer” peak.
That’s Jordan in orange, obvious from the huge gaps in his record. Don’t be fooled by his appearing to be James’ equal toward the end there, because that age-37 total for LeBron represents just 27 games this season and a COVD-shortened 45 games last season.
Their won-loss records don’t tell us all that much, either, with MJ going 706-366 (.659), just a hair short of LeBron’s 884-453 (.661). In the playoffs, LeBron has gone 174-92 (.654), while Jordan went 119-60 (.665). Again, not a lot of daylight.
So how to create some space between the two men? Imagine if Jordan had played four more seasons and in that time averaged 12 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists while shooting .624% from the floor, and in those four seasons his teams went 174-83 (.677) in the regular season and 55-32 (.632%) in the playoffs – would that have tarnished his legacy? Of course not, we’d consider him even greater than we already do. That’s effectively what LeBron has done with his additional time on the court.
This is when Jordan’s defenders start sputtering about how Jordan could’ve matched LeBron’s numbers if he’d kept playing, rather than retire twice and miss four and two-thirds seasons. Ironically, it’s that argument right there that puts the nail in MJ’s GOAT coffin. The biggest knock against LeBron (as a player) is that he’s a quitter, failing to show up in the fourth quarter and/or in the playoffs, most notably in the finals against the Mavericks in 2011. And, OK, maybe that’s fair, he hasn’t always distinguished himself in the heat of the moment (though he did make arguably the greatest clutch defensive play in finals history). But when it comes to quitting, James can’t hold a candle to Jordan, who literally quit on his team twice, including once when he had the chance to make a run at the Boston Celtics’ record for consecutive titles.
Why Jordan quit is anybody’s guess. He claims in The Last Dance (imagine having final cut on your own life story, and that’s the best version of yourself you can come up with) that he’d been planning for a while to pursue a career in baseball, his first love. Maybe it was the sorrow that lingered after the passing of his father, maybe he was bored, felt he had nothing left to prove – it’s hard to know for sure. But just months after Simone Biles got put through the ringer (yes, she was also, weirdly, lionized) for stepping away from competing out of fear of injuring herself, one has to wonder why most folks don’t look back at Jordan’s sabbaticals and consider them serious black marks on his record. For the greats, part of greatness is pushing through all the bullshit, digging deep and finding the courage and drive to crush opponents – or at least try. But twice in his career, Jordan just couldn’t be bothered. He didn’t want it badly enough, and that has to be considered a chink in his armor. This wasn’t Ted Williams missing five years to fight in WWII and Korea; it wasn’t Sandy Koufax walking away so that he could lift his arm above his head later in life; this was a guy who just couldn’t be fucked. That is not the hallmark of the GOAT.
What’s also instructive about Jordan’s vacations is what became of the Bulls in his first absence. With Jordan gone, the Bulls brought in 30-year-old Italian League reject Pete Meyers to be their two-guard, and saw their win total fall all the way from 57 to 55. Yes, they also added Toni Kukoč and Steve Kerr to the rotation for that season, but those two along with Meyers combined for 27-8-9 over 74 minutes compared to Jordan’s 33-7-6 in 39 minutes the previous season, hardly a quality replacement. The Bulls went from the second-best record in the East to third-best. When LeBron left the Cavs that first time, on the other hand, the team cratered, falling from 61 wins to 19.
Upon his departure from Cleveland, when LeBron famously decided to take his talents to South Beach, many began accusing him of teammate-shopping, moving from city to city or playing GM to surround himself with top-shelf talent. Which, sure, who wouldn’t do that? You hear the old heads say that Magic or Bird of MJ would never have done such a thing, and well, why the hell should they have? They were surrounded by some of the greatest teams in league history. Jordan had Pippen riding shotgun for the first three-peat and then Pippen, Kukoč and Rodman for the second – that’s 12 seasons of Hall of Fame teammates over six title runs. LeBron’s squad in Miami, with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, may have been a hair better than MJ’s first three-peat squad – they did manage Four finals appearances and two titles – but none of LeBron’s other teams can touch Jordan’s championship rosters.
Team MJ likes to point to how much better and tougher the NBA was in Michael’s time, but Michael couldn’t get past the Celtics, Lakers and Pistons until they were well past their peaks, while LeBron beat both the Spurs and Warriors juggernauts when they still had titles in their futures. And there’s no reason to believe that NBA players alone are the one demographic of world-class athletes that are not way better than they were 20 years ago. As for toughness, Michael was a muscular but slender 6-6, 198, while LeBron is built like Gronk at 6-9, 250 – it’s hard to believe that James couldn’t have stood up to anyone that MJ did, like Charles Oakley who was 6-8, 225. Further, MJ never had to contend with as disruptive a force as Steph Curry, who midway through the King’s career completely changed the way NBA basketball was played. Before Curry came along and broke the mold in the 2013-14 season, LeBron had been a .331 shooter from beyond the arc; since then he’s shot .359 from downtown.
Yes, LeBron has gotten awfully salty in his old age, and his grasp of geopolitics leaves something to be desired, but you have seen The Last Dance? Even with final approval, Jordan still came off looking alternately sociopathic and petulant. Neither man is, shall we say, cuddly. But LeBron’s career started with a level of pressure and scrutiny that Jordan couldn’t’ve imagined as a teen. At 17, LeBron was on the cover of Sports Illustrated next to the words THE CHOSEN ONE, and soon thereafter was the top pick in the draft, taken by his hometown Cavs, ahead of three future Hall of Famers (Wade, Bosh and Carmelo Anthony). Jordan, on the other hand, was taken third in the 1984 draft, behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie; he sat out most of his second season in the NBA, and didn’t really take the world by storm until he was 23.
Jordan was incredible, there’s no denying it. He did things on the court that defied not just our understanding of the human body’s limitations, but of gravity. He was fast and strong and gifted and ruthless. He did things we’d never seen before, and that makes a huge impression on how we perceive a guy. But so much of the argument in favor of his GOAT-ness is based on how he made us feel watching him and how many rings he won. There’s more to it than that.
LeBron started playing NBA basketball at an age when Michael was a freshman at UNC (and winning his only NCAA title when he was UNC’s third-leading scorer). At an age when Michael was nursing a busted ankle, LeBron was leading a wholly unimpressive Cavaliers team to the NBA finals; at an age when Michael was playing minor league baseball, LeBron was leading the Cavs to two more finals appearances against the Warriors, managing to win one; at an age when Michael was stripping the Hornets for parts so they could draft Kwame Brown, LeBron was leading the Lakers to a championship. And next year, when LeBron reaches the age at which Michael was averaging 23-6-5 for the Wizards, LeBron will almost certainly be putting up comparable numbers with an eye toward finishing the season as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and the only player ever to compile 30,000-10,000-10,000. When you consider their entire bodies of work, LeBron has clearly done enough to wear the mantle of the GOAT.
*All stats through January 4, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com