LeBron or Jordan: who is the NBA’s G.O.A.T.?

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Who is the greatest NBA player ever? Sports writer Drew Hill discusses his views on the Jordan vs. Lebron debate.

DREW HILL

Sports fans love debating who is the greatest player of all time (GOAT) of their sport. These debates can lead to heated arguments, but perhaps none is as controversial as who the GOAT of NBA basketball is. That debate comes down to Michael Jordan versus Lebron James.

In terms of scoring, Jordan was the better player. James currently has 37,062 career regular season points, which is the second most of all time, to Jordan’s 32,292, good for fifth most all time. However, James has also played 1,366 regular season games in 19 seasons to Jordan’s 1,072 in 15 seasons. While James played at least 80 games in a season only three times, Jordan did it 11 times. In points per game, Jordan averaged 30.1 in regular season games, which is the most all time in the NBA, while James averaged 27.1, which puts him fifth all time. In playoff points, James has a total of 7,631 and an average of 28.7, while Jordan had a total of 5,987 and an average of 33.4. Another telling factor in Jordan’s favor is that he led the NBA in scoring in ten different seasons, while James only did once.

The reason for the disparity in total points and games is because Jordan retired three different times, while James has not retired. Jordan played from 1984 to 1993 for the Chicago Bulls, but after winning three championships in a row, he retired for nearly two full seasons, coming back to the Bulls in March of 1995 for 17 games. After losing in the playoffs that year for the first time since 1990, Jordan went on to win three more championships in a row. Then he retired again after the 1998 playoffs and took over as an executive for the Washington Wizards before unretiring again to play in two seasons with the Wizards from 2001-2003 before retiring for the last time. That means he missed about 4.75 seasons, which skews total numbers in his career.

James is the better passer, leading the NBA in assists in a season once while averaging 7.4 assists per game in his regular season career to Jordan’s 5.3. In rebounding as a bigger player, James also had a higher career per game average, averaging 7.5 to Jordan’s 6.2. Jordan was the better defender. He was named to NBA All-Defensive teams nine times to James’ six while also winning Defensive Player of the Year once. Jordan led the NBA in steals in a season three times and averaged 2.3 steals per game in regular season games to James’ 1.6. Also, despite being shorter, Jordan averaged as many blocks per game as James in regular season games, with both at 0.8 per game.

In terms of awards, both won a lot. Both players only missed one All-Star game in their career. James has been named to 17 All-NBA teams, while Jordan was named to 11. However, Jordan won five MVP awards to James’ four.

While stats are important, what determining the GOAT comes down to is playoff success and championships. In terms of making the playoffs, Jordan made the playoffs with the Bulls in all 13 of his seasons there, but missed the playoffs in his two seasons with the Wizards. James has missed the playoffs four times, including his first two seasons in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers and two with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jordan won six championships with the Bulls in six appearances, while James has won four championships in ten appearances. James won one out of five with the Cavaliers, two out of four with the Miami Heat and his only appearance with the Lakers. Jordan supporters point to the extra two championships, while James supporters point to the extra four appearances.

An important part of the debate centers around how each won their championships. While Jordan was loyal to the Bulls, which mostly built around him through the draft, James left the Cavaliers for the Heat to form a super team with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Then he went back to Cleveland, who traded for Kevin Love and already had Kyrie Irving. Then he went to the Lakers, who traded for Anthony Davis in his second season. So, while James formed super teams through trades and free agency, Chicago built a super team around Jordan through the draft. Some have suggested that it is harder to win with different teams, but others have scoffed at James for building super teams.

      One extremely important factor is Jordan’s two retirements in his prime. Although he came back from the first one and lost in the playoffs, if he had not retired either time, it is conceivable he could have easily won at least two more championships, considering both were between three-peats. That would swing the championship debate in his favor, as well as the career points issue. If he had averaged just 28 points per game and played eighty games in those 4.75 seasons, which is less than where he was in 1998, he would have an extra 10,640 points, putting him ahead of James by far and in first all time in career points.

Even though using “what if” scenarios does not prove anything, I still think the argument goes to Jordan as the GOAT. As the better scorer and defender, as well as a more loyal player, I think he is ahead of James for now. Could James winning another championship change that? Maybe. But in my opinion, the title of NBA GOAT goes to Michael Jordan until someone takes it from him.