LeBron vs. MJ – why does it matter who’s better?

Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz on KSN

Every time LeBron James does something special in an NBA game – and there’s no shortage of those times – the debate is ignited.

Is LeBron greater than Michael?

“Michael,” of course, is Jordan. As in Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in the history of this or any other planet. He held that title pretty much unchallenged until LeBron came along and started taking his teams to the NBA Finals every season.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, James’ current team, will be taking on the Golden State Warriors in the Finals starting Thursday night. It’s the fourth straight Cavs-Warriors Finals and the eighth straight trip to the championship round for James.

The LeBron-Michael debate is natural and nurtures the hunger of every sports fan who loves to argue. And what sports fan doesn’t love to argue?

Most sports debates are futile, but with flames that can never be doused. Arguing about whether James or Jordan is best is like blowing on one of those birthday candles with a flame that immediately reappears.

Fact is, though, that the debate about the greatest basketball player of all time has centered on these two. Before Jordan came along and led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, the “who’s the greatest” argument was fragmented to the point of being exhaustive.

Magic Johnson? Bill Russell? Wilt Chamberlain? Larry Bird? Oscar Robertson? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

Jordan ended the debate. This time, the flame did not return. It was snuffed out forever. Or at least we thought so.

It was unimaginable that anyone could challenge Jordan’s “Greatest Ever” title.

We saw LeBron coming, though, from a million miles away. He was on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” as a high school player in Akron, Ohio. He jumped straight to the NBA and began dominating immediately.

Jordan, whose path to superstardom was less noisy, was suddenly being challenged by one of the most powerful athletes we’ve ever seen.

And here we are now. Jordan’s career is long behind him and James’ career is still going bullishly at the age of 33.

If LeBron is slowing down, he’s not leaving clues. He played in all 82 regular-season games this season for the Cavs and was on the floor for 48 minutes in their Eastern Conference Game 7 championship game against the Boston Celtics.

Jordan, my unscientific and unofficial polling indicates, still has a strong edge over James in the “who’s greater?” debate.

But Jordan also has the advantage of years outside of the mainstream. He’s a figment of the imagination for many of us. Our recollections have gained exclamation over time. Of course, Jordan was a prolific, beyond-belief superstar and any and all praise for him is easily quantifiable.

Is he the best ever? That’s a matter of opinion now, where it was once an accepted fact.

But these “best-ever” debates are always so partisan. That James has won over even a segment of the basketball population to his side of the debate is remarkable. And the percentage of people who would cast their vote for anyone other than Jordan or James, I suspect, has diminished into single digits.

Statistics are affected by eras and even though Jordan’s career ended only 15 years ago, there’s no denying how much the NBA has changed in that time frame.

Jordan, undoubtedly, had better supporting casts with the Bulls than Jordan has had with either the Cavs or Miami Heat.

Jordan, too, played the bulk of his career in Chicago for Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, regarded as one of the best ever.

James played for Mike Brown during his first run in Cleveland, then for Erik Spoelstra in Miami. He returned to the Cavs to play for David Blatt, and now Tyronn Lue.

As for the stats:

Jordan regular season: 30.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.3 apg, .497 FG%, .327 3PT%, .835 FT%.

James regular season: 27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg, .504 FG%, .344 3PT%, .739 FT%.

Jordan playoffs: 179 games, 41.8 minutes per game, 33.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.7 apg, .487 FG%, .332 3PT%; .828 FT%.

James playoffs: 235 games, 42.0 minutes per game, 28.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 7.0 apg, .490 FG%, .332 3PT%; .741 FT%.

To say there’s not a debate about who is greater is to be bad at debating.

However, the debate is probably not going anywhere. And it tends to taint the accomplishments of both players, especially James. Rather than to be appreciated for his incredible feats and accomplishments, he’s constantly compared to Jordan.

The Cavaliers’ starting lineup for Game 7 against Boston included James, George Hill, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Jeff Green. That’s a bare-bones group, yet James was able to lift the Cavs into the NBA Finals.

Again.

With a lackluster supporting cast.

Yet some see James as a whiner. They haven’t forgiven him for his awkward departure from Cleveland years ago to take his talents to South Beach.

Jordan, though, was also rough around the edges. To decide the LeBron vs. Michael debate by using their social skills as a determining factor is shallow.

The essence of the debate is worthwhile. The debate itself is maddening.

Who you got?

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