Candid Coaches: Who's the real GOAT -- Michael Jordan or LeBron James?

CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed more than 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, the coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics in the sport. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be posting the results on 10 questions we asked them.

It started again during this year's NBA Playoffs just like it starts every year, these days, during the NBA Playoffs. On television and radio, message boards and social media apps, it's the debate that's just as impossible to settle as it is to prevent.

Jordan or LeBron?

Most everybody, by now, is on one side or the other. Folks in the Jordan camp point to his six rings, and perfect 6-0 record in the NBA Finals, and insist LeBron James can't match those accolades. But then the people on LeBron's side counter by highlighting that The King has won eight straight Eastern Conference titles, and a total of nine, which is something Michael Jordan never sniffed. And round and round we go. So we figured a fun way to conclude our annual Candid Coaches series would be to ask more than 100 college coaches the following question:

jordan-lebron.jpg
CBS Sports / Mike Meredith

Jordan or LeBron?

Michael Jordan

82 percent

LeBron James

18 percent

Quotes that stood out

From coaches who picked Michael Jordan ...

  • "Not to take anything away from LeBron, but the game is so different now from when Jordan played. If Mike played in in this day and age, with freedom of movement, he'd average 40 points a game. LeBron's done so many great things on and off the court. But if somebody put a gun to your head, and you had to go win a game, who are you going to go with? Michael Jordan or LeBron James? My money and my life is going to be with Jordan. He played both sides of the ball as good as anybody. He was the best offensive player and defensive player in the league every night."
  • "I grew up in the Jordan era so I am partial to him. All of my players, of course, say LeBron. They only know Jordan as the guy in Space Jam or the guy the shoes are named after."
  • "I grew up in Chicago and played against Jordan. The combination of athleticism, skill, IQ, and competitiveness has been unmatched. He would score 40 a game and average a triple double with the new rules of basketball."
  • "Jordan won scoring titles and Defensive Player of the Year. He had [Scottie] Pippen but never had an amazing supporting cast. LeBron has taken advantage of a weak East. We all knew Jordan was going to win. Never was a doubt. LeBron is a better athlete, but Jordan is a better basketball player. No one has had that level of skill and athleticism with a perfect mindset."
  • "Not even close -- it's Jordan. Because the object of the game is to win. That's why we keep score. I'd rather go to a surgeon whose operated six successful heart surgeries and no one dies as opposed to a guy that's failed six times." 

From coaches who picked LeBron James ...

  • "I can truly say that both those players are game-changing and iconic-type players. I think LeBron is more like Magic Johnson than he has ever been like Jordan. Both have dominated the game in their own ways. But if I had to choose to start a team around one individual, I would choose LeBron."
  • "I'll say LeBron. Just the sustained level of consistency puts him at the top -- not to mention the fact that he really isn't showing any signs right now of slowing down. And I don't think you can knock him for the changing teams, etc. These days that's just a thing that happens. Any team you put him on becomes an instant contender."
  • "LeBron is bigger, stronger, faster and very skilled. He'd be the best player in the world if he were a center, point guard or anywhere in between. Nobody has ever been that versatile."
  • "LeBron's numbers, over time, are too overwhelming. Most significant statistic? How LeBron's teams fared after he left vs. how Jordan's teams fared after he left."
  • "If we are going off the man as a whole, I'm taking LeBron. Basketball-wise he is not far off from Jordan -- and the numbers he has put up year in and year out are absurd. Where I think LeBron has separated himself from Jordan is with his stances on what he believes in. The school he just opened is awesome and will change lives. And what he has stood for, and stood against, throughout his career is what puts him on my Mount Rushmore of Athletes."

The takeaway

I'm not surprised Jordan received more votes than LeBron because, like more than one coach noted, most of the men surveyed grew up with Jordan -- some even played against him -- and will always lean that way. In other words, if we polled more than 100 college players, LeBron would probably win. But Jordan was always going to be most coaches' pick. It's an age thing, more or less.

As for me, I'd vote for LeBron.

But I do acknowledge reasonable minds can disagree in this never-ending GOAT conversation -- which is why there will likely never be a consensus answer. The only thing that bothers me about the whole thing, though, is when people point to Jordan's perfect 6-0 record in the NBA Finals and act like it's the be-all, end-all because what that ignores is how Jordan only made the NBA Finals in six of the 15 seasons he played. LeBron, on the other hand, has made the NBA Finals in nine of the 15 seasons he's played. So why LeBron is knocked by some for advancing further more often has always been confusing. It's like he'd be better off if he made the NBA Finals fewer times, just lost in the Eastern Conference Playoffs more often like Jordan did, because then his record in the NBA Finals would be better. Again, it's nonsensical. And it's also worth noting that though LeBron is just 3-6 in the NBA Finals, his team has only been favored twice on that stage. So he's actually overachieved in the NBA Finals relative to what oddsmakers projected. But that's another thing that's often overlooked.

Here's the truth: Both players are awesome.

Both are icons.

But neither is so awesome that he could win a championship by himself -- no, not even Jordan, who never even won an Eastern Conference title without a fellow Hall of Famer as a teammate. And Jordan actually had two future Hall of Famers (Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman) as teammates when he won his last three rings. Similarly, LeBron has never won a championship without a future Hall of Famer as a teammate. In Miami, he had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. In Cleveland, he had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

My point?

Regardless of whether you call Jordan or LeBron the GOAT, neither should be knocked for not stacking championships when they weren't teamed with at least one other future Hall of Famer. Jordan, obviously, isn't. But LeBron often is, for whatever reason. And it's also fair to point out that Jordan never dealt with anything like these Golden State Warriors. He never played a team in the NBA Finals with more than two All-Stars on it. Last season, the Warriors team that eliminated LeBron had four. And, yes, I realize this has somehow turned into my own little #LeBronIsKing rant. So for that, I apologize. Sometimes I get carried away.

Bottom line, the coaches have spoken.

They love Michael Jordan forever and always.

But I wonder if the answer will be similar in 20 years -- once LeBron's career is over and the generation that grew up with him would largely be the people polled in a survey like this one. My guess is that the gap will be less significant, if not nonexistent, by then. Either way, in the meantime, we'll just spend every May and June of the rest of LeBron's career arguing about it, going back and forth, bullet point for bullet point. Because it makes for fun radio, if nothing else.

CBS Sports' Candid Coaches series for college basketball

CBS Sports' Candid Coaches series for college football

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Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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