After being led by none other than the king himself, LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th NBA championship on Oct. 11 against the Miami Heat. In 2012 and 2013, however, it was the Heat who benefited off of the superstar’s greatness. At this point, almost every NBA fan acknowledges that James is at least a top-two player of all time, rivaling only Michael Jordan. Since James’ historic 3-1 comeback in 2016 against the Golden State Warriors, the debate has been more active than ever. However, does James’ fourth ring give him the undisputed title of the greatest basketball player of all time, or does Jordan still sit on top?
James’ greatness stems from two aspects of his game: versatility and longevity. James has now led three different organizations to a championship, along with three different soon-to-be Hall of Fame players. With the Heat, James played with guard Dwyane Wade, a top-five shooting guard of all time. With the Cleveland Cavaliers, his right-hand man was point guard Kyrie Irving and the duo was unstoppable, especially in the playoffs. This year, James switched his position from forward to point guard and played with transcendent big man Anthony Davis.
Over the last decade, James has shown that he fits well with all archetypes of NBA players. No matter his teammates, James makes the team work with his masterful, all-around playstyle. James ranks fourth in all-time triple-doubles, meaning he recorded at least 10 of three out of the five major statistics: points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. James has done this 94 times in his career, compared to Jordan’s 28. James has 28 triple-doubles in the playoffs alone.
Based on his size, James is not expected to be a playmaker. He traditionally plays small forward, but that hasn’t stopped him from being an all-time great passer. James is eighth in career assists, making him the only non-point guard inside the top 25. Jordan ranks 46th. Even while distributing the ball as well as he does, James is still one of the best scorers of all time. Earlier this season, James passed the late Kobe Bryant as the third all-time leading scorer in NBA history with 34,241 points. He is also well on pace to pass the next two highest scorers, former Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone (36,928) and former Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).
These numbers are unmatched in terms of an all-around offensive superstar, and James can thank his long career for it. James has been in the league for 17 years and counting and has seemingly always been in his prime. That is partially the reason for his greatness: his body has miraculously never slowed down. In those years, he is still adding on to the monstrous resume which features 16 All-NBA selections, six All-Defensive selections, 16 All-Star Game appearances, four MVPs and four championships.
Unlike James, Jordan only spent 15 years in the league. But these years include when he was 39 and 40 with the Washington Wizards. Jordan also sacrificed some seasons that would have been in his prime. He spent three years at college, whereas James joined the league right out of high school. In addition, he also retired twice during his prime, once in 1993 and once in 1998. His all-time stats may not be as high as James’, but they are just as impressive.
Obviously, Jordan’s case as the greatest player of all time does not stem from his longevity — it comes from his unmatched ability to score, defend and, most of all, win. Jordan averaged over 30 points per game eight seasons in his career, compared to two so far for James. In his 15 seasons, Jordan led the league in scoring 10 times. In addition to putting the ball in the basket, Jordan dominated on the other side of the court, being recognized as one of the best defenders ever. He earned nine All-Defensive selections, led the league in steals three times and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. While the one Defensive Player of the Year award may not seem too impressive, Jordan is one of only five guards to win the award, proving his all-time great defensive dominance.
Still, with all this said, most would agree that James’ numbers are superior to just about anyone’s ever. But Jordan is arguably the greatest winner in sports history, which many believe gives him the edge over James. Between 1991 and 1993 and 1996 through 1998, he won every single championship. In 1994 and 1995, Jordan attempted to make it in the MLB but realized his life was meant for basketball. He won every single NBA Finals he played in unlike James who, even with this ring, is still below .500 in his finals appearances.
Critics will counter the Jordan argument by bringing up James’ appearance in 10 finals, but most people would agree that second place only counts for so much; at the end of the day, it comes down to who can take home the championship. Aside from the 1960s Boston Celtics’ historic eight straight championships, Jordan is the only other person in NBA history to have a winning streak that impressive. It’s widely agreed that the competition was so weak for the Celtics that the championships won then are not as heavily weighted as the ones won from the late 1970s to today.
During his playoff runs, Jordan also featured more incredibly clutch moments than anyone ever. From the “Flu Game” to the multiple buzzer-beaters, to the shrug and to a finals-winning steal and shot, Jordan never missed an opportunity to seize the moment. Jordan finished his career 6-0 in the finals, won five MVPs — the second most of all time — was a 14-time All-Star and made the All-NBA team 11 times. Even in a shorter career than some all-time greats, Jordan managed to accomplish more from a winning perspective than any one player in NBA history.
It’s no secret that both James and Jordan have put together remarkable careers. Yet I give the nod to Jordan because I don’t think stats can make up for any amount of winning, especially in the manner in which Jordan won. In my opinion, six wins and zero losses is a more important statistic than any amount of assists or triple-doubles. However, I do not believe that it should take anything away from James’ career. He is still adding to that incredible resume and will continue to chase Jordan’s legacy until he retires. Either way, James’ career is closer to ending than not, so let’s enjoy the king’s greatness while we still can.