On Measuring the Greatness of Jordan and Lebron

With arguably the weakest supporting cast LeBron James had since returning to Cleveland, this was supposed to be the year the Cavaliers were not the last team standing in the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors looked ready to finally take the leap, especially after they jumped to an early double-digit lead on the Cavs in game one of their semifinal, but that's not what happened.

LeBron James drained the shot that sent the game into overtime, and Cleveland won game one in the extra period. The next game was a blowout–and one where James felt comfortable enough to experiment. In the third quarter, James tried nothing but fadeaway shots.

Fadeaways are traditionally the one thing missing from James' inventory of weapons, but on that night he sank nearly all of them. It called to mind The Shrug, when Michael Jordan went on a run of three-point shots against the Blazers in the 1992 finals, shrugging after the fifth one as if he couldn't explain it either. When game three ended with LeBron hitting a running floater from the left side with his right hand, I had a thought I hadn't allowed myself to have before: Michael Jordan might be the second best player of all time.

The sports-industrial complex runs on answering unanswerable questions with unassailable confidence. This might seem like a modern phenomenon, a product of 24-hour sports media, but it's an old and durable tradition. Before the rising LeBron and the entrenched Kobe Bryant were compared in the late 2000s, there was Magic and Bird in the '80s, and before them, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the '60s.

There is no way to reliably compare athletes across situations and across eras, but we do it anyway, because it's fun and it eats up time that we would otherwise spend thinking about death. There was only one position that no one dared to challenge: Michael Jordan's status as the greatest to ever play pro basketball. 

Michael Jordan was such a towering figure in the '90s that trying to sum up his career in a paragraph is simultaneously silly and daunting. Drafted third overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 1984 draft, Jordan was a player without peer, a pathological competitor driven by spite and Gatorade. Jordan was cut from his JV high school team; it was something he never forgot. His entire career from that point is an act of revenge on a high school teacher. Revenge was a motif throughout Jordan’s career. Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas froze Jordan out of the all-star game his rookie year, and his Bad Boy Pistons were always the team between Jordan's Bulls and the Finals, and the games were always brutal, physical, and personal. Once his Bulls got past Detroit in 1991, at the fourth attempt, Jordan never looked back. The remaining six full seasons he played all ended in finals wins. 

At his peak, Jordan was the most recognized athlete on the planet. He led the Chicago Bulls from also-ran to iconic global brand. As the biggest star on the biggest collection of stars in history, the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, he became the face of basketball’s efforts to become a truly global sport. Culturally, he made Nike shoes the untouchable leader in their industry, and made Gatorade, a weird niche sports drink with only two flavors, into a behemoth.

Jordan's 1998 retirement was followed up by a labor dispute and lockout that erased more than a third of the next season. It legitimately felt like basketball was in danger without him. The media searched frantically for a new Jordan, and labeled talents like Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, and Darius Myles (oops) as "The Next Jordan." 

By the time LeBron James came to the league in the 2003-04 season, we had rid ourselves of our Jimmy-Stewart-in-Vertigo neuroses and were willing to appreciate the new generation of players for what they were. To some degree, the pressure was off, but there was still a high expectation of LeBron as he came into the league. James had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was still in high school. Only fatigue and despair prevented another round of The New Jordan headlines. 

James' career has now lasted as long as Jordan's did, which means there are some interesting points of comparison. Jordan is fourth all-time in points scored, and James is seventh. But James has huge advantages in rebounds and assists, suggesting a more complete all-around game. The game was different in Jordan’s time, with less emphasis on versatility, but it's worth noting that LeBron manages to be both the best and most complete player of his generation–categories that are often distinct.

Jordan has his two sets of three-peats, and while LeBron has been to eight finals and has an active streak of seven straight appearances, he has only won three of them. Jordan never lost in the finals. It's the biggest trump card his supporters have. But he did lose in the first round three times. LeBron never has.

Jordan lost twice at the Conference Finals while LeBron has bowed out in that round only once. Some people even try to ding LeBron for the Finals he actually won, saying he should be thankful for the key shots Ray Allen and Kyrie Irving made to win key games. Curiously enough, they don't ask that Jordan make similar overtures to John Paxson and Steve Kerr. 

Michael Jordan was never in a position to be the underdog, and that speaks to his stature, but it also means there is no team in Jordan's trophy case as formidable as those in LeBron’s. His Miami Heat took down a 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder team with three future MVPs in five games, and his Cavs beat the 2016 Golden State Warriors, who set a record for regular season wins and were talked about as the greatest team of all time before their ultimate loss made such talk awkward. If Jordan is a god, then LeBron is something rarer, a man who fights gods and wins. 

If you still want to argue that Jordan is the greatest because of his cultural impact and because of how large the gap was between him and his next-best peer, then I won't disagree.

This is, in the end, an argument about the top two players in the 72-year history of the NBA. The distinctions will be small, the arguments granular, and the winner unclear. But for twenty years, they weren't. The fact that this has become a debate at all represents an accomplishment. Michael Jordan's status as the greatest of all time was the only fixed star in the sky, but now it has moved, and we once again have the freedom of the ancients, to draw the constellations to match our dreams.