No matter what the sport, fans and analysts alike will attempt to compare players from different generations. In baseball, you’ll see comparisons between players like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mayes and Ted Williams, while hockey will always have comparisons between talents like Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. Football is a tougher sport to compare, since players have different roles, but you have probably heard numerous debates about the talent levels of running backs like Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, in addition to quarterbacks like John Elway, Dan Marino and Joe Montana.
In basketball, the conversation usually centers on Michael Jordan, as he is recognized as the greatest to ever play the game. He has been compared to other all-time greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Bill Russell. Today, however, the debate has switched to one about LeBron James and Jordan, which is a conversation worth having because of their extremely high levels of talent.
The Case for James
LeBron James is only 29 years old, but has already won two NBA championships, is a two-time NBA finals MVP, is a four-time NBA most valuable player, has one scoring title, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and has been selected to nine all-star teams. Over the course of his career, James has averaged nearly 27.5 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game, 6.9 assists per game and 1.7 steals per game. When you factor in James' physical qualities, as he is 6’8” and weighs 250 pounds, it is easy to see why he has been so dominant over the course of his career.
Of course, much of the criticism that James encounters revolves around his clutch performances. Teammate Chris Bosh noted in 2011 that he would rather have Dwyane Wade take a last second shot to win a game than James. He has also faced criticism for passing when the game is on the line and allowing someone else to take the shot. While clutch is not a quantifiable aspect of the game, it is a prevalent idea in sports and the consensus is that James is not a clutch player. Much like you wouldn’t trust just anyone to give you fast unsecured business loans, you would have second thoughts about James trying to make a game-winning shot.
The Case for Jordan
Michael Jordan was not as physically dominant as LeBron James, standing at 6'6" and weighing 215 pounds. He is, however, a five-time MVP, a 14-time all-star, a six-time finals MVP, and a 10-time first team All-NBA player, which is why he is considered the greatest of all time. He also holds the highest points per game average in league history, at 30.1, and in playoff history, at 33.4. Jordan also averaged 4.7 rebounds per game, 4.2 assists per game and 2.3 steals per game. In 1999, he was named the greatest North American athlete of the century by ESPN and was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 2009.
To nitpick, there are a couple of blemishes on Jordan's historical career. For starters, he left basketball for two seasons to play professional baseball. While he did not make the major leagues, he did play some AA ball in the Chicago White Sox organization. His career numbers would be even more impressive if he did not leave for these seasons. Additionally, Jordan returned to the NBA with the Washington Wizards between 2001 and 2003 after announcing his retirement in 1998. He was a shell of his former self, although this should not tarnish his legacy too greatly.
Since the players are from different generations, all we can look at are career success and the marks that the two players have left on the game. Physically, it is possible to argue that James is the superior athlete. His size and athleticism put him in a league of his own and not even Jordan can match him. As an all-around player, however, Jordan is far ahead of James because of his ability to elevate his game at the right time. Watching Jordan in the playoffs, you knew that he would find a way to win. You cannot say the same about James, despite his recent playoff success. There are still plenty more years for James to prove himself, but right now my vote is for Jordan.