The king v. his airness

Jacob Brown

Imagination of current and past superstars Lebron James and Michael Jordan going at each other one-on-one. (Photo Illustration by Jacob Brown as ClayGFX)

Considering that this is one of – if not the – most controversial arguments in the sports world today, it’s fairly likely that my opinion will not be taken well. Since and even well before his third and final retirement from the National Basketball Association in 2003, Michael Jordan – “His Airness” has far and away been considered the greatest basketball player to ever step on a court, but as time and numbers pile on, the Cleveland Cavaliers’s own LeBron James – easily the most talented player in basketball today – is making quite the case to snatch that crown, and to subsequently forever cement his status as “The King.”

The largest and most prominent argument Lebron’s critics have presented against this assertion is that he simply lacks a “killer instinct” like Jordan – one of his greatest features. Yet this is patently untrue, as this instinct is something that Lebron is not given enough credit for. As of Nov. 2016, in the final five seconds of playoff games, he has shot an extremely efficient 50 percent in game-winning attempts, while Jordan was 45.5 percent. In the 2012-2013 season – at just 29 years old – LeBron was putting together the best season of his career. With his legacy at risk and constant backhanded praise being thrown at him for his 1-2 record in the NBA Finals, there was a mounting pressure on him to win yet another championship – especially now that he was in Miami with the “The Big Three”. He came out in 2012-2013 averaging 26.8 points on 56 percent field goals made and 40 percent on three-pointers made, along with 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. The greatest improvement for him that season was his three-point shot that season – something he had had trouble with for much of his career. That season, LeBron elevated his game to levels he had not reached before, while managing to improve nearly every aspect of his play.

That season, he led the Miami Heat in all of the three major categories: points, rebounds and assists. The Big Three led the Heat to a 66-17 record,  also in this season they had the third longest winning streak in NBA history at 27 wins. With these efforts, James was named to All-NBA first team and All-Defensive first team.

For me, after 2013 – when LeBron had captured his second championship, second Finals MVP and fourth regular season MVP – it was cemented in my mind that he was the greatest player I have and likely will ever see in my lifetime. Accolades alone should not be the most important things in the discussion of the greatest player of all time; generally, accolades are a team effort. Even then, when comparing both players at the age of 32, LeBron already has one more MVP than Jordan, while both have 3 total championships under their belts.

When mentioning their equal amount of wins in the Finals at this point in careers, many of those aforementioned critics point to Lebron’s higher loss total in the championship round than Jordan – whose teams went undefeated. While it is true that LeBron has had four losses in the Finals, it’s quite easily arguable that he’s had more all around playoff success; it could and should be said that more Final appearances are actually more impressive. Jordan took seven losses in non-championship playoff rounds, including three first round exits. On the other hand, LeBron has never lost in the first round. Not once. LeBron’s playoffs record through his first 10 years was 131-68 – or 66 percent – while Jordan’s at that point was a lower 74-47 – winning only 61 percent of those games.

I don’t believe that it’s fair to compare the two stars solely on their regular season performances, because as of late, it is becoming more evident that LeBron has been leaning more and more towards coasting through it to the playoffs. At the age of 32, LeBron James leads the NBA in minutes per game this season, so there is definitely reason to, especially with the number one seed all but guaranteed each year.  Even with the toll of constant play, LeBron currently ranks eighth on the NBA all time scoring list, while also placing 13th in assists and 82nd in rebounds. For comparison, Jordan ranks fourth in scoring, 42nd in all-time assists, and 122nd in rebounds. LeBron already ranks higher in two of these major stat categories, and his career is not even close to over yet.

Under the likely assumption that LeBron finishes his career at 21 seasons, only playing 60 games a season, all of his career statistical rankings would be higher than Jordan’s if he averages 22 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Not only would they be above Jordan’s, but these rankings would reflect the greatest statistical display from any player ever – second all-time in points, eighth in assists, 44th in rebounds and fifth in steals. And while it’s fair to say that it’s somewhat unfair to compare players from two different – yet albeit slightly similar – eras of the game, I believe that the NBA today is better and more challenging due to the growing complexity and diversity of modern styles of play. Although the game is admittedly less physical today, you have to be smart and posses a high basketball “IQ” when playing against today’s intricate offenses and defenses of talented coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, just to name a few.

The final factor in this The King v. His Airness case is LeBron’s incredible social status and image. LeBron has and will likely continue to constantly use his influence to push positive political and social causes and raise awareness in the process. LeBron openly campaigned for Hillary Clinton in this past election, helping to hold and speak at rallies for her in Cleveland. Additionally, years ago when the tragedy of Trayvon Martin sparked outrage across the country, Lebron and his former Miami Heat teammates wore clothing and made statements in support of Martin and his family, and bringing an end to such racial violence. Contrastingly, Jordan was a known and constant gambler, and many reporters have theorized that Jordan’s first “retirement” to live out a brief baseball stint was really then-commissioner David Stern’s punishment in the form of leave-of-absence for Jordan’s gambling – an addiction that grossly violated league rules. LeBron has never even nearly been in a similar situation, and for the past 14 years has been the perfect role model for the NBA and all of sports, with no discernable scandal nor misstep – save for his poorly thought out “The Decision” announcement to leave the Cavaliers to sign with the Heat.

Ever since that dominant 2013 season, my mind has been more than made up that LeBron is and will widely be considered as better than Jordan. LeBron James is the perfect model for any public figure. His God-given physical dominance is unmatched, and has the work ethic that has fuels all legends. He’s played in the most complex, most exciting league to date and has undoubtedly reigned as its king – hence, “King James.” He already has the statistics to rival Jordan’s, and with years left on his career, it seems increasingly likely that he will far surpass Jordan with ease. Accolades for LeBron may not come easy but he could equal or become greater than MJ soon.

Although he currently faces arguably one of the greatest regular season teams of all time in the Golden State Warriors, LeBron is no stranger to beating the odds having already returned his team from a 3-1 deficit against these Warriors in the 2016 Finals – a feat never-before done, unsurprisingly earning him another Finals MVP. With that being said, this argument is not one to be taken lightly, but NBA fans must begin to grasp the likelihood that LeBron – who in my mind is already the greatest to ever play the sport – will pass this legendary “Ghost of Chicago.”