Michael Jordan’s retirement from the Chicago Bulls in 1998 signified the end of an era of dominance, while simultaneously launching an era of uncertainty. There was a certain comfort in knowing each June, Mike had everything under control. Playing on Father’s Day for the first time after his dad was murdered? He good. Playing with a fever? He good. Saving the team while the dynasty was on its last legs? He good. But when Mike brushed Bryon Russell aside and sank that 18-footer in ’98, he opened the door for hoop heads to begin their search for the next emperor of the game.
A half decade passed before LeBron James took the floor in Sacramento on October 29, 2003. The most hyped high school player of all-time delivered a spellbinding performance that would set the stage for the next 14 years to come.
LeBron is the first player since Jordan who is a serious challenger for his throne (don’t @ me, Kobe stans), yet James has been met with more resistance than 10 Monday mornings. No one here is arguing LeBron is definitively better, but his greatness must surely be acknowledged. Nevertheless, the hate for him is at such a fever pitch, those who staunchly defend James with factual information, like FS1’s Colin Cowherd and Nick Wright, are regularly accused of being gay.
Insane Twitter threads that offer no perspective are circulated, which deliberately omit all Bron’s great moments (some of the greatest in NBA history). The trolls attempt to assassinate LeBron’s basketball character, but in reality the missteps are mostly a function of playing in 212 career playoff games. This is not an insignificant sample—are they all supposed to be great games? Roughly two and a half seasons against the greatest of players/coaches/defenses with the most sophisticated schemes for the highest stakes? It’s impossible not to have duds in there somewhere. Jordan’s had them too, but he gets a pass.
What’s the justification?
Either the love for MJ or the hate for Bron is irrational, or both. Jordan proved we love dominance and excellence; James is dominant and excellent. Jordan didn’t need the same amount of jewelry as as Russell or buckets as Kareem to stake his claim to GOAT status and people couldn’t wait to anoint him. This piece will seek to explore the six primary reasons the world leans on as to why LeBron is still on the outside looking in through the eyes of most, and why he’ll never even be in the conversation with Michael in the opinion of many.
Sidebar: When measuring validity versus hypocrisy, we’ll include a 1-10 scale with 10 being the highest for each category.
1) LeBron’s Playoff Failures (Jordan is 6-0!!!)
Validity Level: 9
Hypocrisy Level: 6
LeBron’s performance in the 2011 Finals is arguably the worst by a player of his caliber in NBA history. He may never fully escape it, nor should he. It was a legitimate meltdown under the lights that should never be forgotten…
But it should be forgiven. He’s now entering his eighth Finals appearance — two more than Mike ever had in one less season — without having the benefit of ever playing in college or playing for legendary basketball minds like Dean Smith and Phil Jackson. While his Finals record is “only” 3-4, Finals record is quite possibly the most overrated metric of greatness that we regularly use today. Jordan’s 6-0 mark gives the illusion of perfection, but this wasn’t like baseball in the 1950s where the playoffs didn’t exist and the team with the best record was automatically chauffeured to the World Series. In Jordan’s era, you still had to win three rounds to make the Finals. In 15 seasons, Jordan failed to reach the Finals nine times, meaning his teams either lost in the Eastern Conference playoffs, or failed to qualify at all. MJ also lost in the first round three times (twice swept), but juxtaposed to the context of his entire career, you soon realize how foolish it is to measure great players by the depths of their failures, rather than the heights of their successes.
As bad as that Mavericks series was, LeBron’s three rings since, and coming back from a 3-1 hole to take down the “greatest team ever”, should erase any doubts of his ability to close the deal. We broadcast LeBron’s shortcomings wherever possible on social media. Mike never dealt with this level of scrutiny, in fact the only time he really experienced it was during his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech. James is battling Jordan highlights every day, not his entire body of work, which includes some failures too. This is also how the “Kobe = clutch” myth was built. We only remember the made shots; the numbers tell the real story.
2) LeBron Leaving Cleveland to Form a Super Team in Miami
Validity Level: 9
Hypocrisy Level: 4
“The Decision” was an abomination. The victory celebration was somehow worse (not 2…not 3…). And although he did it with much more class, LeBron basically left Miami to join another super team by returning to Cleveland. It’s not completely apples to apples, but it’s close.
Jordan never left Chicago because he didn’t feel like the organization couldn’t get it done, which is commendable. The concept of of Jordan leaving Chicago and, along with say Dominique Wilkins, joining the “Bad Boy” Pistons as free agents in 1990 is laughable. LeBron will always have to overcome the cloud of abandoning his squad twice in this debate.
Although, Jordan wasn’t opposed to recruiting top talent either. According to Sam Smith, author of The Jordan Rules, Mike asked for help too. When GM Jerry Krause was wooing the “Croatian Sensation” Toni Kukoč, a few years later, Jordan remarked, “I just want him to get as warm a welcome as he can get. And certainly he’s going to have to deal with expectations. I think that’s something we’re going to have to help him with. But I think it will make our team better. We’re banking on him.”
We can acknowledge LeBron has had his fair share of help without losing sight of the fact that Jordan did all of his damage playing with and for Hall of Famers like Pippen, Rodman and Phil Jack. We also shouldn’t pretend the Bulls weren’t still a contender when Jordan left in ’94, a far cry from how any team LeBron departed from has looked.
3) LeBron Faced Weaker Competition
Validity Level: 4
Hypocrisy Level: 6
The Eastern Conference has looked like the minor leagues when compared to the West for many years during LeBron’s reign. He’s also benefited from colossal injuries to players that would’ve posed a threat either directly or down the road (Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Paul George, John Wall etc.). Teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers have taken tanking, or just plain sucking, to indescribable levels.
Much of the lack of success other East teams have experienced though can be traced to LeBron just destroying them. As ESPN’s Brain Windhorst points out, he’s destroyed the Pistons team that went to six straight conference Finals. He destroyed the KG/Pierce/Allen Celtics. He destroyed the Indiana Pacers, who are now on the brink of losing their only star. He destroyed the Rose/Noah/Butler Bulls. He destroyed the Raptors, who may now be in the midst of losing Kyle Lowry. The Hawks have never won a single playoff game against the Cavs. These are all good-to-championship caliber teams Bron faced multiple times in the playoffs, all of whom he ultimately vanquished. In the process, he carried severely undermanned teams to the Finals like the 2007 Cavs and the 2014 Heat.
Sidebar: Think the ’14 Heat were actually good? Look at that roster—we’re just three years removed and the players who ranked fourth though ninth in playoff minutes per game are all out of the league! Sadly, we might be able to add the third player to that list (Chris Bosh).
Jordan wasn’t able to beat the Celtics or Pistons at their apex. By the time those teams aged out of contention and Chicago stepped forward, the league was in the midst of an expansion that saw six new teams (Magic, T-Wolves, Heat, Hornets, Raptors and Grizzlies) enter The Association between 1988 and 1995. This growth subsequently siphoned the depth in talent off of old teams to make way for the new franchises.
Perhaps if the Knicks won the NBA title in 1994 during Jordan’s sabbatical, the idea that Mike faced tougher competition would hold more weight.
4) LeBron is a “Soft Crybaby That Gets Special Treatment from the Refs”
Validity Level: 3
Hypocrisy Level: 8
Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy on the “advice” he received from veteran official Jess Kersey: “Hey, listen. If Michael Jordan misses a shot going to the basket, just blow the whistle, because most likely 99% of the time he got fouled. And you’re going to get a lot of heat if you miss a foul against him.”
Now, Tim Donaghy— take that quote with as much salt as needed. We just need to be real about how much love Michael received from the refs. His career 8.2 free throw attempts per game equals that of James, and opposing players were even hit with techs if they dare question the favoritism.
The things for which people are most critical of James involve constant complaining to the refs (which every superstar does) and flopping (which just about every player does). Being that he’s the only Power Guard in NBA history, LeBron is the most difficult player to officiate since Shaquille O’Neal, but any regular viewer of James’ games can confirm he often doesn’t get the calls everyone assumes he gets. He has to be at least somewhat of a baby though to agree to the new commercial where he’s literally depicted as an infant, right?
Self-deprecation aside, Bronny’s toughness should never be questioned (spare me the cramp game versus San Antonio). Sure, he milks in-game injuries a bit—call it gamesmanship. But never in 14 years has he missed significant time due to injury (while also donning perfect attendance in the playoffs). Jordan has, missing 64 games due to a broken foot in the 1986 season.
5) LeBron is Arrogant
Validity Level: 4
Hypocrisy Level: 10
His comments after Dallas series about fans were insensitive. Making light of Dirk Nowitzki’s illness earlier that series was tacky. Calling Cleveland fans spoiled was ill-advised. The way he’s toyed with Serge Ibaka and Kelly Olynyk this postseason was…well, that was funny. LeBron walks with a certain vanity that comes to be expected from the world’s best player. Detractors need to get over the “Chosen-1” tat on his back and the “King James” nickname (seriously, it’s just a pun), as if “His Airness” doesn’t give off a whiff of sacrilege.
More importantly, Jordan punched teammates, shitted on other teammates to the point they threatened to break his legs, stuck his tongue out at opponents every game and shot free throws with his eyes closed…all the time! He hasn’t had half of the social impact LeBron has had, either.
If you need any insight into how Michael Jordan behaves off the court, ask Chamillionaire. There’s widespread belief that MJ is a flat out jerk. It’s safe to conclude this outweighs LeBron not competing in the dunk contest.
6) Jordan is Clutch, LeBron is Not
Validity Level: 5
Hypocrisy Level: 5
Valid, yes, because Jordan was undeniably clutch. Hypocritical, yes, because LeBron is clutch too, he just never gets the credit for it.
In his playoff career, LeBron has recorded six game-winners:
You won’t find another player in league history with a playoff crunch time résumé like that.
LBJ’s style of play, which prioritizes sharing the ball over “killer instinct“, has made him a bullseye for criticism. Occasionally, it’s fair (see Game 3 vs Boston this year), however it’s usually overstated. LeBron’s preference to pass to an open teammate rather than shoot over a double or triple team isn’t a sign of shying away from the moment. It’s a nod towards the way the game was meant to be played.
Maybe Jordan was just a greater closer…or maybe LeBron is just a good closer, but also a greater passer.
Conclusion: The Most Hardcore Jordan Fans Know LeBron is a Real Threat…
Even if they never admit it.
Regardless of where your opinion lies on this debate, one thing is certain: James will crush Jordan statistically when his career wraps up.
The dominance, coupled with the longevity will put Mike in Bron’s rear view mirror in a slew of categories, something few Jordan fans have the capacity to come to grips with. For many, acceptance of this fact is like a double-barrel shotgun blast to the chest: one barrel for the sunset on their childhood nostalgia, the other at the twisted admittance that they were somehow wrong all these years; that the man whom they all wanted to “Be Like” and had poured their belief into for somewhere between 20 and 30 years was not the man they thought he was.
Why must the romanticization of one come with the accusation of being a prisoner of the moment with the other? Understand that proper recognition of LeBron James’ place in history is in no way an indictment against Michael Jordan.
No player, not even Jordan or James, is perfect. But if there’s one category in which we know the former will never catch the latter, it’s scrutiny. Social media, memes & Skip Bayless sports shock jocks have infiltrated the brains of far too many fans to blind them from what we’re all witnessing.
We love Jordan for his clutchness, his commercials, his sneakers, his scoring (we love points!) and his “perfection”. That same love has obscured us from Jordan being: a poor teammate, swept in the first round twice, one who has missed clutch shots, ripped by Nick Anderson, a guy who never won anything without Pippen/Phil/Worthy/Dean, incapable of winning outside the expansion era, a compulsive gambler, a jerk, an adulterer, a ballhog, afraid to ever take a political stand and the man who left game on the table when he walked away from us. Twice. Alas, Jordan is all of these things.
Conversely, LeBron’s journey isn’t over yet, and his career (while legendary) isn’t impeccable. To put him in a class with Michael Jordan is fair, but to elevate him over Mike at this stage is a tad overzealous. Why not just wait until the King James version is finished being written?