It’s been weeks now, and the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate is no closer to being settled. Nor should it, really. LeBron is 32 and may still be playing when his 12-year-old son, LeBron Jr., signs his rookie deal with Sacramento. But to some, MJ’s sterling Finals record and his six series MVPs, all won in one uniform, make him unapproachable. Others look at LeBron’s seven straight Finals trips and rightfully ask how many things could Jordan do better.
Here’s a fact: What LeBron is attempting to do now, Jordan never did.
Note the word choice here: Never did. Not could. Who knows what would have happened if the mid-’90s Bulls faced the ’17 Warriors? Scottie Pippen might have terrorized Kevin Durant. Jordan may have dominated Klay Thompson. John Paxson might have … OK, maybe not.
Point is, the Bulls never had to face the Warriors. Or anything close to them, really. Chicago’s Finals foes were formidable – three of them won 60-plus games. But the Warriors? Not even close. They are a 73-win team that added a top-five player. Healthy and motivated, they probably could have won 80.
In 2010, Kobe Bryant called the James-led Heat the NBA’s Voltron. These Warriors are basketball’s Borg.
Run through the list and tell me which of the Bulls’ victims were better. The ’91 Lakers? A battered 58-win team clinging to the end of the Showtime era. The ’93 Suns? Charles Barkley might be the only one who believes Phoenix was on that level. The Jazz? Karl Malone and John Stockton didn’t have this supporting cast.
The Cavs are facing perhaps the best team in NBA history. Golden State can put up 115 points on you and keep you under 100 on the other end. A recent MVP is on the floor at nearly all times. The list of potential weaknesses begins with a substitute coach who just completed a perfect conference playoff run. And it ends there.
“Just the combination of offense and defense, the talent that they’ve been able to amass, it puts them in position where this is a dynasty to me,” former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “They have their youth, their health. I see nothing preventing them from going to eight to 10 straight Finals. It will be a massive upset if they’re not there each and every year.”
Think about this, too: If James is going to win this series, he’s probably going to have to outplay Kevin Durant. Jordan faced some good opponents in the ’90s. Clyde Drexler was the runner-up for MVP in 1992. But Jordan could lean on Pippen for defensive help. James has no such sidekick.
In any other series, Durant vs. James would be a saturated storyline. A former MVP against the NBA’s best player. A once-vanquished former foe (Durant, in 2012) against the opponent (James, in Miami) who beat him. The NBA’s playoff scoring leader against one of the handful of players who could eventually eclipse him. Said Richard Jefferson: “To get those two guys that have won MVPs against each other in the prime of their career is something that I think we all should just kind of relish and enjoy.”
It’s James vs. Durant, and yes, it’s really James vs. Durant. The Warriors can move Durant around a little. He could shift over to Kevin Love or take a breather against Iman Shumpert. James? It’s a safe bet the Cavs’ best defender spends 30-plus minutes a night trying to keep Durant in front of him.
“He’s one of the most dangerous guys we have in the world already,” James said.
James’ task this series isn’t just tall – it’s Mission: Impossible. This isn’t a knock on Cleveland’s roster. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are elite, and Tristan Thompson has the ability to change a series on the offensive glass. The midseason additions of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams have filled out the bench, and Tyronn Lue is a better coach with another full season under his belt.
It’s just the Warriors are … the Warriors. They have the kind of roster NBA 2K wouldn’t let you create. They are elite at four positions and hungry after last year’s shocking Finals defeat. Take Curry. The two-time MVP was soundly outplayed by James, and a sloppy fourth-quarter turnover in Game 7 still haunts him. For Curry, these Finals are a shot at redemption.
“It’s been a great motivating factor,” Curry said. “I don’t want to feel what I felt last year, and I’m going to do everything in my power to attack every game with that kind of perspective.”
This is what James is facing, and it’s why any Jordan vs. James debate is fluid. Jordan’s career is over and his résumé is outstanding. James is in his prime and is facing his stiffest test to date. Jordan accomplished a lot. But if Cleveland upends Golden State, James will have achieved something he didn’t.