LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan: Here’s my vote for GOAT

Before we answer the singular sporting argument of our times — Michael Jordan versus LeBron James for basketball’s GOAT — here’s a question for you:

Who was considered the Greatest Of All Time before Michael Jordan?

Logic, if not memory, insists it was probably Wilt Chamberlain, who put up some of the most ridiculous numbers the sport has ever calculated.

Surely, there would have been a few voices lent in support of Bill Russell, who wasn’t the individual talent Wilt the Stilt was but did win 11 titles; or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who matched the Big Dipper’s skills and also won three more championships than he did. Some might have gone with Oscar Robertson over The Big Musty (and yes, among Chamberlain’s unofficial all-time records was one for most nicknames) if they wanted a candidate who wasn’t a center.

But it was probably Chamberlain.

And whenever Jordan wound up usurping him — was it after his first retirement, when he disappeared for a year and a half, clutching three straight O’Brien Trophies and learning to hit the curveball? Was it sometime during his Second Act, when the Bulls took the leap from terrific team to one of the all-time best?

Do you remember an actual passing of the torch? Because I don’t.

One day, without ceremony, Jordan was the GOAT, and there were few, if any, dissenting voices. More than that, though, there was also the instant assumption that it would take an act of God — if not God Himself slipping into shorts and Puma Clydes — to alter that classification. That’s how good he was. That’s how complete his dominance was.

For most, these words from Bob Knight — who, say what you will, probably knew basketball and basketball talent as well as anyone who’s ever lived — served as the perfect valedictory for what they’d experienced watching Jordan play with the North Carolina Tar Heels, with the Chicago Bulls, and on certain stolen nights with the Washington Wizards:

“He is not only the best basketball player I have ever seen, he is the best I ever expect to see.”

There was only one problem with that:

Nobody expected LeBron James to come along only a couple of years after Jordan hung up his Nikes forever and to spoil that simple equation. And no matter how fervently you may believe in Jordan’s eternal credentials, you have to at least admit the question is a fair one, in addition to being a delectable debate.

Who’s the GOAT, Michael or LeBron?

In hockey, it’s easy: Nobody approached Wayne Gretzky. For a time, there were some old-timers who’d scoff at the kid’s smooth but soft excellence and mutter, “Gordie Howe did all of that and he’d plant you in the boards three times a game.” For a time, there were others who would note that Bobby Orr was just as electrifying a playmaker and did all of that as a defenseman.

By the end, though, No. 99 ran unopposed. And in the 20 years since he skated off the ice for the last time, there have been a few superlative talents — the second coming of Mario Lemieux, the bipolar, love-or-loathe brilliance of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — but nobody has mounted a serious challenge to The Great One.

Football? It’s too specialized. Who was better: Lawrence Taylor or Tom Brady? Essentially they play different sports. And even things that seemed Jordanesque in their nature — Jim Brown as the permanent all-time greatest running back — seem built on shifting sand. Have you seen what the defensive players looked like in Brown’s time versus the behemoths who prowl lines and secondaries now?

Even baseball, proud of its saloon- and watercooler-level arguments, presents a problem. The best player by consensus in the game is Mike Trout. According to baseball-reference.com, his closest historical comps are Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Not bad.

But what about Willie Mays, who some swear played at level in the 1950s and ’60s that has never been approached? What about Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, the patron saints of an entire generation of baseball fans? What about Babe Ruth, who was surely like Gretzky and Jordan at one time in history, but who in his career never a) played a night game; b) never played a game west of St. Louis; and c) never played one inning against an African-American opponent?

And where do pitchers fit in that argument?

So, yes, Michael versus LeBron is unique in that it is, in essence, a two-man game. Their eras are close enough where we can reasonably assume that Jordan would have been superb in 2018 and LeBron would have been splendid in 1998. It’s a lot easier than pondering, for instance, if 1958 Bob Cousy could keep up with 2018 Kyrie Irving.

It is irresistible, is what it is.

Who’s the GOAT, Michael or LeBron?

Here’s the thing: There should be no wrong answer to the question. The fact is that you can build a case for both of them, and they are equally strong. The reality is that often, while building a case for one side, the temptation is to tear down the other.

The pro-Michael side tends to do this more gleefully, and they always start the same way: Jordan was 6-for-6 in the Finals in his career. That is a compelling point to make, and it is better than LeBron’s Finals record, that is indisputable. Still, LeBron’s Cavaliers open the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston on Sunday, and if they win that it will mean that James’ teams will have qualified for eight straight NBA Finals, nine overall.

Now, some of those teams were crowded with talent, the way Jordan’s finest Bulls teams were. The Heat had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and, later, Ray Allen. The Cavs team that won in 2016 had Irving and Kevin Love. But most of the Cavs teams have been limited, none more so than the 2007 version, when the Cavs’ second-best player was either Larry Hughes or Zydrunas Ilgauskas. No Pippen or Rodman on that roster.

Another pro-Michael argument: The league was different in that era, stronger, with fewer first-round gimmes than the elite teams face now. Let’s say that’s true. Can you honestly say that any of the teams Jordan’s Bulls beat in the Finals — the ’91 Lakers (terribly hobbled by injuries to Magic Johnson and Byron Scott), ’92 Blazers, ’93 Suns, ’96 Sonics, or ’97-’98 Jazz — were better than the Golden State dynasty that has blocked LeBron’s path lately, or the Spurs teams that victimized him two other times?

(It is absolutely true that Jordan’s Bulls never lost to a team as undermanned as the 2011 Mavericks should have been. Assign as much credit/blame there as you must.)

Here’s something else, though:

We are talking about who the better player was/is. Championships are absolutely part of the equation. But how much should they be counted? Individually, Jordan was the better scorer, the better shooter. It is assumed he was the better clutch player, though James has busily been building that part of his résumé. Fine. Assign all of those things to Jordan’s column.

James is without question the better rebounder, without question the better passer, and though Jordan was an excellent defender (you can’t be considered for the title of GOAT if you don’t play both sides of the ball) who was a nine-time member of the NBA’s All-Defense first team, James is himself a five-time first teamer (with one second-team) who can, and has, guarded all five positions at an elite level, something Jordan was simply incapable of doing physically.

And that leads us to the one place where — at least to these eyes — James winds up with the ultimate nod. Jordan was a remarkable athlete — you don’t hit even as high as .202 in Double-A baseball, a hobby sport Jordan hadn’t played in over a decade, without owning freakish physical skills. But in his prime, he was 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds.

James is 6-8. He has played most of his career in the 260-270 pound range. Even as an 18-year-old high school senior he was built like an NFL tight end, and he’s only gotten stronger. Jordan glided above the game; James overpowers it.

There is recency bias, of course, and so it is easy to forget that as much as James’ running, buzzer-beating bank shot that beat Toronto last weekend inspired a wave of “holy [cow]!!!” reactions, same as some of his step-back 3’s seem to take our breath away, same as any of his absurd collection of playoff triple-doubles can reduce you to a babbling mess …

… all it takes is a few minutes on YouTube to see Michael winning the ’98 title by faking Byron Russell out of his shoes … or Jordan draining that forever 20-footer over Craig Ehlo … or winning the ’82 NCAA title for Dean Smith with a 17-footer as a college freshman … or his pass-offs to John Paxson (which won the ’93 Finals) or Steve Kerr (which won the ’97 Finals) or Bill Wennington (which capped off his epic double-nickel game against the Knicks in ’95, when he’d barely been back in the NBA a week) to remind you: He became the GOAT in the first place for a good reason.

So who’s the GOAT, Michael or LeBron?

I go with LeBron.

But this is one sports argument where I’m perfectly willing — happy, even — to be wrong. Watching the entirety of both careers — from Michael at Chapel Hill to LeBron at the TD Garden on Sunday, and beyond — makes it honestly feel like the real GOAT are those of us who’ve been lucky enough to see it all.

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