Longtime Syracuse and USA Basketball coach Jim Boeheim decided to pour some gas on the “Is LeBron James better than Michael Jordan” fire by telling ESPN Radio that he isn’t so sure that Jordan was a better player than James. While comparing any player – especially a current one – to Jordan always comes off as sacrilegious and creates an uproar, Boeheim might be on to something here.
What trips most people up in the LeBron-Jordan argument is confusing “better player” with “better career”. There’s is no debate whatsoever that Jordan’s career and resume absolutely crushes LeBron’s. But we aren’t talking “best career” here – we are talking “best player”. We aren’ concerned about the macro, rather we are zeroing in on the micro. Basically, if we took a snapshot of each player at the peak of his powers (which for James could still be in the future), who was the better player. As surprising (or scandalous) it might seem to some, LeBron measures up quite well. Especially in these categories:
Physically, LeBron is the biggest “freak” (meant as a compliment) to play in the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain. He is 6’8″ 250 pounds of rock hard athlete, with a 7-foot wingspan and a 40″ plus vertical. James is the size of an old school NBA center, with skills similar to those of Magic Johnson. While Jordan was an athletic marvel himself, he had nowhere near the package of size, strength, athleticism, speed and quickness that James possesses.
Michael Jordan was one of the game’s all-time great defenders, but it can be argued that LeBron is a more versatile one. His unique size/skill/athleticism combination mentioned above allows James to pretty much guard any position on the floor, while Jordan was basically only a backcourt defender (although an absolute stud of a backcourt defender).
Once again, Jordan was no slouch in this category, either – he was an outstanding rebounder and an extraordinary one for a guard. But James is just a little bit better, owing once again to his crazy physical gifts. His 12.6 Total Rebound % this season (estimated percentage of total rebounds he grabbed while on the court) tops Jordan’s best rate of 11.6 (in 1988/89). No doubt Jordan’s 11.6% is more impressive as a guard than James’s 12.6% as a forward is, but we aren’t comparing the two based on position – we are only concerned with who was a better player, regardless of position on the court.
LeBron James is one of the best passers/playmakers in the game’s history. Not only is he a willing (some would say TOO willing) passer, he also makes unbelievable passes and truly makes his teammates better. Jordan was always (wrongly) considered a gunner, but he was an extraordinary playmaker too, posting 8.0 assists per game in 1988/89. But he was nowhere near LeBron’s level.
Jordan obviously dominates James in a bunch of categories, too – scoring ability, “clutch” shot-making (if such a thing exists), intangibles, intensity, competitiveness, free throw shooting, steals, etc. But really when you compare the two players, it is hard to determine who is the better player, LeBron of Michael. They both have their strengths, they both have their weaknesses (minuscule as they are). So if you could have LeBron or Michael for one season at the top of their powers, who you got?