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As time expired on the game clock on Oct. 11, it signified the end of one of the most perplexing NBA seasons of all time. After being sequestered in the league bubble for 95 days, the Los Angeles Lakers were taking the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to the city of angels. This was more than just a trophy after a Playoffs where many critics were placing a mental asterisk as a result of an unconventional season restart due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the franchise’s first title since 2010 and its first since the tragic death of Kobe Bryant.
On a personal level, it was LeBron James’ fourth title and fourth NBA Finals MVP, making him the first player in history to win the award with three different franchises – Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Miami. James is no stranger to breaking records. He’s done it his entire 17-year career. Thus, the “kid from Akron” didn’t even get a chance to put on his championship T-shirt before the debates amped back up.
When you think of NBA dominance, a few names come to mind depending on the generation being discussed. When it comes to the “modern era,” more than a few people skip over Bryant and head straight to the LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan GOAT debate. It’s a natural tendency to compare greatness, and to truly understand and decide on who your GOAT is, there are factors beyond the rings and statistics that have to be taken into account. However, since there would not even be a debate without ball, let’s start there.
Men Lie, Women Lie, Numbers Don’t
The fact that Jordan retired just before James entered the league in 2003 adds even more fuel to the fire — two different eras, yet so close in time. Jordan played 15 seasons, while James is in his 17th with no signs of stopping any time soon. So, the stats may be a little skewed in that regard.
When it comes to the playoffs, no player has scored more points than James. He became just the fourth player in history to make 10 Finals appearances – including a staggering eight straight with the Heat (4) and the Cavaliers (4). Ironically, critics have used James’ number of trips to the Finals in their arguments against him. In those ten trips, he’s come away with four titles while Jordan went on to win the championship in each of his six trips to the Finals. Even more impressive, Jordan and the Bulls won six titles in eight seasons.
But, are all titles created equal? Let’s take a look.
Each and every time Jordan and the Bulls took the floor in the Finals, they were heavily favored to win. The Bulls’ odds in each Finals were as follows: 1991 (-200 vs Lakers); 1992 (-250 vs Blazers); 1993 (-240 vs Suns); 1996 (-950 vs Super Sonics); 1997 (-600 vs Jazz); and 1998 (-115 vs Jazz).
In his 10 trips to the Finals, James’ teams have only been favored three times – twice with the Heat and with this latest Lakers team. It must also be mentioned that one of James’ titles came after erasing a 3-1 Finals deficit to a 73-9 Golden State Warriors team which featured three All-Stars in Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson.
The differences in levels of competition are another subject of contention as people further examine the James/Jordan debate. It’s no secret that Jordan played in a different era – an era that has been fondly remembered as more physical and competitive, according to the stars of yesteryear. There have been several instances where Charles Barkley and Shaq O’Neal, Hall of Famers turned analysts, have been very vocal in admonishing today’s stars.
At first glance, their claims over the new style of play appear to be accurate. Deep three-point shots have taken the place of some of the more physical post play and “bully ball” of the past. However, a deeper look into the changes after Jordan’s era cause the more knowledgeable basketball fan to pause for a bit. More physical aspects don’t necessarily equate to better defense. The single most glaring rule change that Jordan fans like to point out is the hand checking rule. Critics of today’s game say that Jordan, and many other stars of that era, would score in bunches in today’s “softer” league where hand checking is not allowed. However, one should not jump to the immediate conclusion that it is easier to score in today’s NBA.
In the early 2000s, the league began to allow teams to play a hybrid man-zone defensive scheme all over the court. This singular change would have affected Jordan tremendously as he was known as an “ISO” player; just ask Bryon Russell.
Next, critics move to the “super team” argument. Again, past players have been very critical of today’s superstars teaming up to chase rings. Kevin Durant, as well as James, caught heavy criticism when they moved on to new teams in quest of championships. However, once again, as one dives deep into NBA research, you will be surprised to learn that Jordan had a bit of indirect help as it pertains to league talent and distribution, as well. The NBA added four teams – the Heat, Hornets, Timberwolves, and Magic – in 1988 and 1989. As talent was redistributed to accommodate these teams, the Bulls’ dominance shined through even more clearly. The situation repeated itself in 1995 with the addition of the expansion of the Raptors and the Grizzlies teams. We won’t even mention the shortening of the 3-point line during that timeframe.
When you consider those factors, the GOAT debate gets a little murkier.
More Than an Athlete
All things on the court considered, to truly be the GOAT, one would have to transcend hardwood feats. As evenly matched as the two are on the court in terms of scoring and tenacity, the gap widens a bit when it comes to community involvement, cultural influence, and social justice initiatives.
At the height of his career and beyond, the desire to “Be Like Mike” has transcended generations and his shoe sales have made Jordan over $1.3 billion as of May 2020, according to Forbes. The partnership has been just as beneficial for Nike as Jordan singlehandedly took them from underdog company to the mega power it is today in athletic shoes and apparel. Jordan retired — for good — from the NBA 17 years ago and his sneakers still sell out within minutes. James himself has a hefty shoe endorsement deal with Nike, as well. In 2015, he signed a lifetime deal worth more than $1 billion, according to his business partner Maverick Carter.
Follow the Leader
The Lakers had a chance to close out the Finals against the Miami Heat in Game 5 when James passed the ball to an open Danny Green who missed the game-winning shot. Immediately, people looked to that play to showcase the difference between Jordan and James when it comes to leadership and killer instinct. Would Jordan have taken the shot? Absolutely. But, is that the only area of leadership that should be considered in this GOAT argument?
While both are cultural icons, the largest gap between the two has to be their vocal involvement in the push for social justice. Jordan is infamous for sticking to sports, which was showcased in his ESPN docu-series, “The Last Dance.” The program included the backlash Jordan famously received for failing to publicly endorse Harvey Gantt in the 1990 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina. Gantt, a Black Democrat, was hoping to unseat racist Republican incumbent Jesse Helms. Gantt lost 53 percent to 47 percent and Jordan was vilified for his comment that “Republicans buy sneakers too.” In “The Last Dance,” he clarified the statement by saying that it was just a joke told to his Bulls teammates.
“I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player,” he said. “I wasn’t a politician. I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft.
“Was that selfish? Probably,” Jordan said. “But, that was my energy.”
It is an energy not shared by James who has been unapologetically on the frontlines of the crusade against social injustice and systemic oppression. In addition to his establishment of the I Promise school, James has gone on to help form “More Than a Vote” – a venture aimed at fighting voter suppression. When told to “shut up and dribble,” James parlayed the insult into three-part docu-series looking at the involvement of today’s athletes in the political climate.
While Jordan’s decision to remain silent at the height of his career could have just been the social norm at the time, he has broken his silence as of late and issued the following statement after the killing of George Floyd.
Additionally, Jordan has also committed $100 million over the next ten years to organizations assisting in social justice reform and education access to minorities. Some will argue that Jordan waited until it was “safe” to be visible while others take the “better late than never” approach. While both men are arguably two of the greatest athletes to ever pick up a basketball, they will forever be mentioned in the same sentence when it comes down to who’s the greatest.
Two eras, two athletes. Is there really a GOAT?