Michael Jordan or LeBron James, who is the greatest?

Matt Farnham examines the careers of NBA’s biggest stars
Michael Jordan was the best thing to ever happan to the NBA - but was he better than LeBron James? Picture: Getty.Michael Jordan was the best thing to ever happan to the NBA - but was he better than LeBron James? Picture: Getty.
Michael Jordan was the best thing to ever happan to the NBA - but was he better than LeBron James? Picture: Getty.

When, in the mid-1990s, I discovered American sports, my entry point was the NBA highlights show on a Saturday afternoon. During that time the Chicago Bulls were the team, and Michael Jordan was the superstar.

The Bulls were dominant. They won the NBA championship six times in eight years, and in the two years when they didn’t win Jordan had retired, to play baseball, returning late in the 1994-95 season.

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The new Netflix and ESPN-produced documentary The Last Dance is a fascinating look at the last of those six championships and the dysfunction that made the Bulls so functional.

It is clear from the first four episodes that Michael Jordan had a drive for success throughout all of his life, and he was the engine in Chicago’s championship-winning teams.

The documentary has shown younger NBA fans how dominant Jordan was and what’s more, the series has thrown more fuel on the “who’s better” debate – Jordan or LeBron James?

Jordan won six championships in his time in the NBA, six times he was NBA Finals MVP, five times he was league MVP, and there are many other accolades. With all his achievements, it’s little wonder many consider him the GOAT – the Greatest Of All Time.

Jordan finished his career with a 30.1 points-per-game average, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Air Jordan was the engine for the authoritative Bulls.

On the other side, LeBron has played more games in his career, having not played college basketball and not – well, not yet anyway – retiring twice as Jordan did. King James also didn’t spend the majority of his career with one team; Jordan spent 13 seasons with Chicago and two with the Washington Wizards.

LeBron will always have to fight the perception that he had to leave his hometown team Cleveland after seven seasons to win his first championship with a superstar-stacked Miami Heat. LeBron, of course, did return to Cleveland where he helped the city earn its first Pro sports title in more than 50 years.

That Championship with the Cavaliers was his seventh straight appearance in the NBA Finals, and he was back a year later.

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The obvious comparison on which to base the James v Jordan debate is championship rings, and there is no arguing that Jordan’s six trump James’ three. But the feat of reaching eight straight finals, four of which were with unfancied Cleveland, is an achievement in itself.

James’ stats also show a player who is more team and team-mate friendly. His career line reads an average of 27.1 points per game, four lower than Jordan, but his rebounds and assists are both higher.

Many critics of James will say that, while he is more of a team player, that is why he has only three championships, and if he displayed a more singular instinct, like Jordan, he would have more.

In defence of LeBron, he never had a Scottie Pippen.

Scottie Pippen, inset, was Jordan’s No 2, or should I say the fuel that powered Jordan’s engine. Pippen would have been a bonafide superstar in today’s league, but with Michael Jordan leading the team he was always second fiddle. The fact that Jordan never won a championship without Pippen is a crucial point here. Jordan was always a scorer and always had enough to win singular games, but in the post-season, he needed a little help. Yes, LeBron had support, but he never had a partnership like Jordan and Pippen.

To leave it all on the court would be wrong because Michael Jordan and LeBron James both mean more to basketball than only being players.

LeBron James is the face of a star-studded league, the name that everyone knows and a player who has admitted he looks up to what Jordan achieved and aspires to match it.

King James also has to acknowledge that “His Airness” created the kingdom he inherited, launched the league into the stratosphere, and at his peak had the NBA contending with the NFL for coverage.

Jordan took the NBA and made it what it is today, LeBron only stepped on to the empty throne, and continued its ascendence. So no matter what the debate is, and we will simply never know who the better player was, Jordan is the greatest thing to have ever happened to the NBA.

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