By Alex Dominguez ’24
With the Los Angeles Lakers blowing out the Miami Heat yet again in Game Two of the 2020 NBA Finals, it seems inevitable that Lebron James and company are going to win this year’s championship. With Lebron just adding to his resume season after season, the debate over who is the greatest, King James or his airness Michael Jordan, only gets more intense year after year. I am here to say it does not matter.
Let me start by saying I love Michael Jordan. My dad was around my age when Jordan won his first of many championships. By then, he, like millions of others, were deeply obsessed with the Chicago Bulls star. My dad passed on this love for Michael Jordan to me. Instead of growing up listening to fairy tales, my dad and I used to watch old Bulls games and I would listen to insane stories from Jordan’s prime. From growing up listening to my dad tell tales of how effortlessly MJ appeared to fly to watching his airness myself in the 2020 documentary series “The Last Dance”, Michael Jordan played a huge role in my early childhood.
During this same time, Lebron James was still trying to claim his spot as a top player in the NBA. Right around the time I started watching sports religiously, Lebron was propelled to superstar status. I was fortunate enough to understand the cult of personality surrounding Michael Jordan, while also witnessing the transition of Lebron from a young and hungry star to one of the greatest to ever dribble a basketball.
Jordan created the greatest NBA resume to date, and Lebron seems to be chipping away at that every single season. This has created an immense amount of debate and discussion on who is truly the greatest player ever, Jordan, or Lebron. From it being a recurring topic in my podcast, “The Talking Ball,” to my uncle asking me every holiday dinner who is the better player, this question has followed me ever since the 2016 NBA championship. However, only mentioning the two in the same sentence to compare them undervalues the respective accomplishments both have achieved and ignores the main reason they are compared: their greatness.
Each generation in pop culture has its own heroes. As time passes, certain styles and sounds grow and lose popularity. The world of sports is no different. As the changing of the guard occurs in basketball, different play styles and strategies change. Due to the competitive nature of sports, nothing is static. Athletes across all sports, but basketball in particular should be compared with respect to the era they played in, not the current era.
By comparing players to the current era, fans misinterpret all that made certain athletes great. It is unfair to compare Jordan’s three-point shot to Stephen Curry’s or Lebron’s shot because that was not an aspect of his game that he was expected to rely heavily on. Furthermore, you cannot argue that Lebron is less than Jordan because he does not get bruised and assaulted every time he tries to score as Jordan did in his early playoff runs. We can only speculate how Lebron would react to Dennis Rodman trying to wrestle mid-game, and whether Jordan would be able to pull up from half-court and sink a shot. However, there is no doubting the heights both were able to reach throughout their respective careers.
This comparison is also not like comparing apples to oranges either. Instead, it is like comparing Ford automobiles with two different goals in mind. A 1966 Ford GT is incomparable to a Ford Focus for several reasons, but most of all because they served vastly different purposes. When engineers designed the GT, their goal was to create the fastest vehicle to ever grace the planet. The Ford Focus on the other hand was designed to focus on vastly different features of an automobile. Milage, safety, speed: these are differentiating factors, but help illustrate the successes behind the cars.
Another reason why this argument is a distraction from enjoying the game of basketball is that it does not offer anything new. During the 1960s and 70s, similar arguments were made between players like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. As time passed, those names became replaced with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs Moses Malone, then Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson to now Michael Jordan and Lebron James. These name changes over time illustrate how nothing in sports is permanent. If the arguments made during the 1960s or 70s amounted to anything NBA fans would be comparing Bob Cousy to the current best point guard in the league, but they do not. This is because the significance and status of a player is fluid. Just like these stars play basketball, our perception of players is sensational. If a shooting guard plans to pass the ball but sees an opening for a clean shot, his plans change, much like how our opinions change when the situation changes. Since each period of basketball focuses on different aspects of the game, the fans of each period admire those skills highlighted in that period. A lot of Jordan’s contemporaries go on ESPN and constantly bash small ball offenses much like current players hate the rugged fouls of the 80s. As times change and practices shift, so do the values we worship. If the arguments of the past have taught us anything, it is that there is no right answer, just what you enjoy more.
This conversation of the highest-ranking basketball player ever tends to get the world’s greatest and best thrown around a lot, but the definition of these words has become looser and looser. Jordan had weak points in his game that are only becoming more prominent as time goes on. While he was widely considered the greatest scorer ever, this title is becoming more contested. The greatest to wear a Bulls jersey relied heavily on mid-range jump shots and driving to the hoop, two weapons that are decreasing in popularity among players in his position. With the dominance and efficiency of the three-point shot and small ball movement, Jordan’s game would be hard to manifest his style of play as successfully. This is not as much as a penalty for Jordan’s play as much as it is as a testament on how much sports change across only a couple of generations. While Jordan’s scoring arsenal is among the best in history and his defensive skills rank among the best, with a faster pace of the game and the rise of more efficient offensive strategies, each new generation’s best proves more and more effective than Jordan.
Regardless of who you think is the better player, there is no definitive way to prove it. Even his airness himself is hesitant to say he is the greatest despite being the competitive freak of nature he is. This polarizing conversation is drawn by generational lines, with “old heads” citing Jordan as basketball’s god and the youth claiming Lebron James as king of basketball history. It is only a matter of time until I watch Bronny win his first MVP as my son tells me Lebron would never be able to dominate in this era. So instead of arguing over 0.6 of a percentage, it is time to put down the pitchforks, pick up the remote, and just witness greatness.
“LeBron James Stats.” Basketball, https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/j/jamesle01.html.
“LeBron James’ Career Timeline.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 2 July 2018, www.latimes.com/sports/nba/la-sp-lakers-lebron-timeline-20180701-story.html. “Michael Jordan Stats.” Basketball, www.basketball-reference.com/players/j/jordami01.html.
“Three-Point Progression.” NBA Math, 6 Aug. 2018, nbamath.com/three-point-progression/.