On a recent episode of the ESPN+ series "More Than An Athlete," LeBron James said of beating the 2016 Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals: " And just like that, here we go again. The unending, completely unresolvable debate that keeps on giving has been relit. Jordan vs. James. Who you got?
If ever there were a debate on which the most reasonable, informed basketball minds could not only disagree, but strongly disagree, this is it. Anyone who claims they definitively know who is, or was, a better basketball player between LeBron James and Michael Jordan is fooling themselves.
That includes LeBron James.
Having said that, here's where LeBron is right in his thinking: That win over the Warriors in 2016, when the Cavs charged back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat arguably the greatest team of all-time, in Game 7, on the road, is the single greatest legacy-defining achievement in NBA history. Say what you want about who the better player is or who you would want in a Game 7 or who you would want taking the final shot, but Jordan never took down a team like the 73-win Warriors.
"It's tough to do better than beating that Warriors team," one NBA executive told me via text message.
The exec also mentioned the obvious qualifier to that victory: Draymond Green's Game 5 suspension, which clearly swung a series the Warriors were on the brink of winning in pretty easy fashion. I would also throw in the fact that Stephen Curry was nowhere near 100 percent. While it's true that everyone has injuries by the time June rolls around, Curry's particular injury limited him in the exact ways he had spent the previous two years separating himself, literally and figuratively.
That we feel compelled to point out these qualifiers speaks to the impossibly thin, and ever-shifting line we walk in trying to navigate this greatest-ever debate. There is no certainty to be found. Truth is, LeBron is one Ray Allen miracle shot and, in all likelihood, one Draymond suspension from being 1-8 in the Finals. Then we're not comparing him to Jordan. We're comparing him to Jerry West -- still one of the greats, but simply too unsuccessful on the biggest stage to be among the greatest.
In the same breath, some of LeBron's Finals performances in defeat were arguably as impressive as, if not more impressive than, anything he has done in victory. He was jaw-dropping in 2015 when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were both out, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in a six-game defeat. He could have, and perhaps should have been Finals MVP on the losing team. He posted 51 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in a Game 1 defeat in the 2018 Finals.
For that series, LeBron averaged 34 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds. It was the fourth time he had to go up against an all-time great Warriors team, the second time with Kevin Durant on board. And this time he was without Kyrie Irving. Throw in the two series he played against the Spurs in 2013 and 2014, and that's six Finals opponents for LeBron that were all better than any single team Jordan ever faced for a championship. Context matters. So does competition. Drawing a direct line between results and greatness is lazy.
And yet, this one 2016 result undeniably changed everything. LeBron has lost when we expected him to win, but until 2016, he had never won when we expected him to lose. It was magical, complete with the signature moment -- the chase-down block on Andre Iguodala, perhaps the most iconic defensive play in NBA history and, given the stage, circumstances and opponent, a more singularly defining play than even Jordan's gooseneck game-winner in Utah. That came in Game 6 against a team Jordan's Bulls were supposed to beat. LeBron made his flashbulb play in Game 7, against the first unanimous MVP in NBA history and a team seemingly nobody could beat, all with the weight of a 52-year championship drought on his shoulders.
That series, particularly the last three games, and certainly the last few minutes of Game 7, were breathtaking. There will never be another series like it, not with that many all-time great players in their primes and all those circumstances converging into such a perfect basketball storm. To come out of that series a champion was the last frontier for LeBron, who had long since cemented his status as the best actual basketball player ever. Perhaps not the greatest winner. But the greatest basketball player.
Just take it skill by skill: LeBron is a better passer than Jordan. A better rebounder. A better ballhandler. A better playmaker. If not a better one-on-one defender, then certainly a more versatile one, able to guard 1-4 at an elite level and even centers in a pinch. He's bigger, stronger and faster than Jordan. Even the scoring, Jordan's greatest asset, isn't so lopsided once you dig past the traditional numbers.
In the end, LeBron could very well end up the NBA's all-time leading scorer despite operating as a largely pass-first player for the bulk of his career. Had he attacked with the same scoring mindset as Jordan, I don't think there's anyone who would question his ability to score like MJ, if not better. The guy is still the best player in the world in his 16th season. It is very reasonable that LeBron could still be an MVP-caliber player in his 20th season. Jordan was done after 15, and done as a great player after 13.
All of this is to say, virtually every basketball bullet point is on the side of LeBron. Except the winning. And that's no small matter. LeBron will likely never reach Jordan's six championships, and for many, with it being such a close call anyway, that will always break the tie. But for others, that 2016 Finals victory was worth twice its weight in legacy currency.
For what it's worth -- which is, as always in this debate, nothing -- I'm one of those people.
I'll always believe LeBron to be the greatest basketball player ever for his sheer attributes. I decided that long ago. But until 2016, it was like calling Aaron Rodgers better than Tom Brady. Yeah, Rodgers' talent is greater, but not so much that it can close the gap on the 5-1 edge Brady has in championships. LeBron closed that winning gap in a huge way in 2016, and in doing so, he also at least disrupted maybe the greatest dynasty in basketball history.
Without that upset, the Warriors would be gunning for their fifth title in five years, something not even Jordan pulled off. In one swoop, LeBron gave pause to those who would classify the Warriors, and Jordan, as the greatest to ever do it. And in that pause, here we sit. Waiting for more evidence. Deep down, we know we'll never be able to answer the Jordan vs. LeBron debate. What I'm saying is that without 2016, it wouldn't even be a question.