Stop trying to force LeBron James as the G.O.A.T. over Michael Jordan

Chase Hughes
·4 min read

Stop trying to force LeBron as the G.O.A.T. over Jordan originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Sometimes no one makes it harder to appreciate LeBron James' greatness than his biggest fans.

Every time James achieves something, it isn't enough to celebrate him on his own. They have to proclaim him as the greatest of all-time and invoke comparisons to Michael Jordan. 

James recently got his fourth ring, which is short of six, but he has Jordan beat in many statistical categories thanks to his unique longevity. So, they say, he's better.

That makes it tough for those of us who believe Jordan is the greatest, but that James is not far behind. He's objectively a top-five player in the game's history and arguably top-two or -three.

Isn't that enough, at least for now? Can't we wait and see if he closes the gap?

The truth is, as close as James may be to what Jordan accomplished, he's far away from making it an open-and-shut case. It is very debatable and, if he truly were the G.O.A.T., it wouldn't be.

That's not how this generally goes. By the time Jordan retired for good, there was a general consensus he was the greatest of all-time. You can go back and watch games from the end of his NBA career and announcers refer to him as such.

When Wayne Gretzky left the game of hockey, everyone knew he was the king of the sport. Tom Brady, with six rings, is the best NFL quarterback of all-time. Usain Bolt, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps; the greatest athletes leave little doubt.

In baseball, we haven't really seen it happen. No one has come through the sport and laid out a definitive and lasting case as the best ever. Ask a group of baseball fans and you may get a different answer from each of them. Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron? Barry Bonds or Ted Williams?

Ruth and Bonds have the best numbers, but Ruth played before the game was integrated and Bonds has the reputation as a cheater. Maybe Mike Trout will someday leave the game with a conclusive case, but no one has to this point.

Gretzky is arguably the best comparison for Jordan. Their primes coincided in the 1980s and 90s. And just like Jordan, decades have passed since Gretzky retired with no obvious replacement for him as the G.O.A.T. Generations of the league have turned over, yet Gretzky is still on top.

There has been no one quite on James' level in hockey since Gretzky retired. Some of the closest would be Mario Lemieux, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. But none were good enough to truly challenge Gretzky's crown.

James has gotten close to Jordan, there is no denying it. But he's not quite there if you consider the fact Jordan has more championships (six to four), more MVPs (five to four), more Finals MVPs (six to four) a defensive player of the year award and more scoring titles (10 to one). 

James is a better passer, but not by as much as many think. Jordan was one of the best passers in the league at his position for many years, averaging as many as 8.0 assists a game in his best season (1988-89). He averaged 11.4 assists per game in the 1991 NBA Finals against the Lakers. No one has ever been better at finding open teammates at the height of a jumpshot.

James is a better outside shooter, but Jordan could do that, too. His best season from three was 1995-96 when he shot 42.7 percent from behind the arc on 3.2 attempts per game. It's not like he couldn't do it, threes just weren't a point of emphasis in the 90s.

You could also give James an edge in rebounding, though Jordan could also do that well. He averaged 8.0 boards in his best season, back in 1988-89. And from 1988 to 1996, he pulled in 6.8 rebounds per game.

Jordan, meanwhile, was a better scorer and defender than James. Not by much, but he was.

The trouble comparing Jordan and James is that neither has a weakness to pick apart. You could give either the edge in any category, but not by much as the other was great at every part of the game. That's why they are arguably the two best players to ever lace them up.

So, it's not specific skills that separate them, it is accomplishments. And Jordan has more of them.

Maybe James will catch up to him. But as long as it is a debate, it ultimately isn't much of one at all.

Someday a player will come along who is better than Jordan. And when he does, we will know. It just may not be anytime soon.