By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) I will concede the heresy right away so we can go beneath the skin of this: LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time. Or he will be when his career is done if he isn’t definitely now. Michael Jordan is in the sunset of holding the top spot, if he’s still there at all. Thirty years from now, there’s a good chance they’ll both move down the list.
Someone better comes along. Always.
What will be most impressive is if that next greatest player ever appears in the NBA just as James leaves it. Because he entered immediately after Jordan left, giving us zero years between the two greatest careers in league history and zero overlapping.
It doesn’t feel good to put my childhood idol at No. 2, but youthful loyalties don’t a valid argument make. Jordan has more spectacular singular moments of play in his career, while having a sort of switch he could flip or a cape he could put on to go from man to superman. James has been a virtually unstoppable freak of nature at all times on the court for 15 years. If you aren’t a Bulls or Cavaliers fan (or can divorce your fandom for rationality), whichever you find more entertaining probably pushes you in which player’s direction. Like prizing the explosiveness of Babe Ruth or preferring the machinery that was Ted Williams.
I believe the Jordan-vs.-LeBron argument will become clearer when James retires and definitely after a few years have given to his career’s digestion. That it brings out such passion overwhelmingly from one side — the Jordanites — suggests a repression by them of a fear of the truth.
Regardless of who’s better, the debate kicks from the moving car of thought the blessing we have of having been able to see the two greatest to ever do it in succession. Jordan’s final season was 2002-’03, and James’ rookie season was 2003-’04. It’s a benefit to the debate that the two never faced one another on an NBA court, as a 19-year-old very wet LeBron against a 39-year-old husk of Air Jordan does nobody any favors.
Ultimately, I don’t know that it matters who’s the “better” player. What’s “better” anyway? Sure, there are numbers. Prior to Thursday’s game against the Rockets, James has played the same number of regular season-games as Jordan: 1,072.
Jordan averaged 41.6 points + assists + rebounds per game. LeBron averages a 41.5 clip. Jordan has 20 more career 50-point games than James, 31-11. Jordan has the greatest PER ever at 27.91. LeBron is second all time at 27.65. James will pass Jordan in career win shares later this season, while Jordan will still have the highest win shares per 48 minutes for any career.
James has 56 career triple-doubles to Jordan’s 28. James has averaged more than a full rebound per game and almost two more assists per game than Jordan. For those who use the deeply flawed logic of assessing a player in a team sport based on rings, LeBron smokes MJ in a debate over which player made his teammates better, a trait long attributed to Jordan’s legacy. James has the wins in that 1,072 regular-season span, too.
Yes, James rests — as so many stars do in this era of the NBA as sports continue evolve and prize intelligence over pyrrhic anecdotes. MLB pitchers not throwing 300 innings a year is good. Football players not playing on both sides of the ball is good. Conserving the body and mind for the NBA playoffs is good. James will have a longer career that Jordan because of it.
James has also played more minutes than Jordan despite “wussing out” with periodic games off, which have led to James playing in 38 more postseason games than Jordan, too. There’s value in recognizing one’s potential limitation and hinderances, and using your instrument as it will best benefit the team is more selfless than selfish, no matter how much the cheaper angels of our nature want to whine about being soft and doing a disservice to ticket holders. Maybe Jordan sort of understood that when he stopped leading the league in minutes played after 1989.
For individual accolades in a team sport, James has been named all-NBA 13 times to Jordan’s 11 such honors. Jordan leads in all-defense awards, 9-6. James should go from four league MVPs to tie Jordan at five at some point. Jordan leads with six championship rings, but James has been to eight Finals, winning three, including one against a team that beat Jordan’s Bulls’ 72-win single-season record.
Let us not forget that Crying Jordan has become one man’s cultural identification with a generation. Whereas social media historians generally agree that dogwhistle hockey memes with James’ wincing face didn’t overtake James himself.
Comparing the two is almost like arguing over what’s the definition of an MVP. Is it the best player in one’s league? Or is an MVP someone who’s most valuable to his team? (It’s the latter, by the very semantics of the M and V, but there needs to be a creation of an award for a league’s best player also, and one player might be both in a given year. But that’s a column for another Bears bye period/Bulls rebuild/Blackhawks meh week).
Both are worthy of being dubbed the greatest, but more importantly from the fall of 1984 to today, save for some some time during Jordan’s retirements, we’ve watched the very best to ever do it and in two incarnations.
Whether Jordan’s career then is better than what James’ ends up rounding out is fairly irrelevant, fodder for hot-take segments and barstool banter, neither side budging or getting brighter. What matters more is that one best player finished, and another best player began. It’s like consecutive greatest chapters of the greatest novel ever written.
We’ve had the better part of four decades containing basketball’s greatest player of all time. And he happened to appear in two different forms. The debate over the two is secondary.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.