Debating the greatest basketball player of all time: Jordan vs. James


LeBron James (left) playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Michael Jordan (right) playing for the Chicago Bulls.

Adam Shefet, Editorials Assistant Editor

One of the most debated topics in all of sports is the argument as to who is the best basketball player of all time. Although there is a consensus top two, Micheal Jordan and LeBron James, the order of these two is a polarizing topic in the sports community. Jordan’s case was made over 20 years ago, before James made it to the NBA, but with his 17th season just passed, a strong case can be made for James’ ranking to surpass Jordan’s. In order to compare the two greats, specific aspects of their careers need to be examined including trophies, statistics and dominance.

When it comes to trophies, these two are some of the most decorated NBA athletes ever. Jordan has won Rookie of the Year, five league MVPs, NBA defensive players of the year and six NBA championships. James has won Rookie of the Year, four league MVPs and four NBA championships. While these trophies may make it seem that Jordan is far ahead, the team achievements such as an NBA championship can skew the narrative. 

Both players were the best players on their teams when winning championships, but the competition and supporting cast play a large role in winning a championship. Jordan consistently had easier competition and a better team surrounding him, playing all of his finals appearances with at least one, if not two future hall-of-famers by his side. Jordan also played in an era where the NBA’s talent was still unbelievable, but not at the level it is today. The current era of NBA basketball consists of the best collective talent ever seen in the NBA, making it harder for a single player to win multiple championships. On the surface it may seem like Jordan blows James out of the water in this category, but if one looks into the details, it is much closer than it seems, and to some, maybe the other way around.

When comparing the individual statistics, both players have recorded incredibly impressive numbers, but James’ career totals have already surpassed Jordan’s with his career entering its 18th season. James has scored 2,000 more points, recorded 3,000 more rebounds, 4,000 more assists and over 100 more blocks. As of the end of the 2020 season, James’ career is only two seasons longer than Jordan’s, and he has already created a sizable gap in every major statistical category.

A common counter-argument is that Jordan averaged more points in a season than James for the entirety of his career, with 30 over James’ 27. In reality, the fact that the gap is only an average of three points makes it an impressive statistic for James. For the first seven seasons of James’ career, he played with such subpar talent alongside him that it forced him to leave his Cleveland Cavaliers in search for help on another team. Although James is the best player of his generation, no player can beat a team single handedly. Without a solid offensive system, it is an added challenge for any star to score efficiently on offense.

On the other hand, by his fourth year Jordan already had a future hall-of-famer by his side in Scottie Pippen with whom he would play with for the next 12 seasons. Not to mention, the addition of a third hall-of-famer for three seasons in Dennis Rodman, it is obvious that Jordan would score more points. He had a team built around him that allowed him to find easier opportunities. On top of all this, he was coached by possibly the best offensive minded coach of all-time, Phil Jackson. While Jordan’s circumstances should not be held against him, they should be taken into consideration when looking at the small gap between the pair’s average scoring numbers.

The last category in deciding the greatest of all time is the longevity and dominance of a player demonstrated. For Jordan, his career lasted 15 seasons with a two year gap in the middle in order to pursue a baseball career that did not quite work out. He made the NBA Finals six times, and based on statistics had about a 10-year span where he was considered in his prime, which is incredibly long.

Entering the NBA at just 18, James is entering his eighteenth season at age 35. He has reached the NBA Finals 10 times, eight of them in consecutive years. He dominated his conference throughout the 2010’s reaching the NBA finals nine out of the ten years with three different teams. Based on statistics, James is still considered in his prime and has been for the last 13 years, easily the longest the NBA has ever seen.

To conclude, both players are generational talents that have and are still proving their greatness over long successful careers. While an argument for either to claim the title of G.O.A.T is valid, James’ context pushes him over the edge. His ability to play every aspect of the game at an elite level and his dominance in the most competitive era of NBA history solidifies his spot at number one.