There's just no getting away from the LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan GOAT debate. It's a question that will never be answered, but in the wake of LeBron's fourth championship, our fascination with this particular comparison is once again front and center.
Who's the greatest to ever do it?
At this point, all other candidates have basically fallen out of the conversation. It's pretty much just Jordan and LeBron, and there aren't that many undecided voters out there. For the most part, people stand where they stand. Magic Johnson, however, remains open to a change of heart. Right now, the Hall of Famer and Lakers legend, who has a GOAT case himself, doesn't believe James has done enough to take Jordan's belt. Yet.
"LeBron James is well on his way. If he wins one more [championship], Michael and him are going to be right there together," Magic said during an appearance on ESPN's First Take. "If he gets that next [championship], it's going to be hard not to say he's right there with MJ. I said the next one, which will be five [for LeBron], because with six [for Jordan] and four [for James], it's hard to say he's overtaken Michael at four championships. I think once he wins [a fifth title] and repeats -- the key word is repeat -- that's a good argument right there."
So basically, Magic thinks LeBron needs five championships before he can have a legitimate claim to Jordan's throne, even though that would still leave him one short of Jordan's six. And that's fine. Magic can have that opinion. I understand titles are an easy way to differentiate between two virtually indistinguishable candidates, like 10 points on an SAT score between two Harvard applicants. I'm often guilty of this line of thinking as well.
But here's my question: If LeBron does win one more championship, or even two or three more championships, what will that reveal about him as a player that we don't already know? By the end of his career, whether he wins another title or not, he is going to lead Jordan in every statistical category. What evidence is lacking in his case as the greatest of all time? If you want to say Jordan was a more lethal scorer in a more physical era, that's an argument. If you want to say LeBron was a more versatile player who faced better competition, that's also an argument.
But if it's just title accumulation we're talking about, that's not really addressing who's the better player. That's addressing who's the more accomplished player. This is a subtle but important distinction, and I think it's where we go wrong in this debate. Ask yourself: Did Anthony Davis, over one postseason run in a bubble, just become a better player than Charles Barkley? No, he didn't.
That's not to say Davis isn't a better player than Barkley. He's bigger, he's a better defender and shooter, and he's far more versatile on both ends of the court. The thing is: that was all true before he won this championship. The truth is his context changed. He went to a better team, and now he's more accomplished than he was previously. But I assure you, Anthony Davis is the same exact player he was a week ago. The championship mark on his resume is not the conversation-shifting indicator you think it is.
The same is true of LeBron. He is the same exact player today with four championships as he was a few days ago when he only had three. Moving forward, one or two more championships aren't going to tell us a thing about him that we don't already know. So let's start looking at it this way: The better player and the more accomplished player are two different things, just the same as Jordan and LeBron are two different players.
With that said, which one is better? I lean LeBron.
Reasonable minds can obviously disagree, but it's the foundation of your argument that matters. Go deeper than the rings, because rings are contextual. For as much as each player can control individually, I think LeBron is better because he played against better competition in a more defensively sophisticated era, the latter of which I weigh heavier than the over-romanticized physicality of the 1990s.
I don't think Jordan ever faced a team as great as the Warriors' dynasty, or even as good as the two Spurs teams LeBron faced while in Miami. LeBron is irrefutably bigger, stronger and faster. LeBron can guard all five positions. I think LeBron is going to end up as the all-time leading scorer despite being a pass-first player. I believe if you put Jordan and LeBron next to each other on a scouting card, LeBron would check more boxes in a landslide.
Except for championships. That's where this gets muddy, and I'm saying it shouldn't. I mean, if championships are the bottom line, then why doesn't Magic put himself currently ahead of LeBron? He has five to LeBron's four, after all. He doesn't do this because he isn't as good as LeBron, and he knows it. No amount of championships will change that, and this is precisely the same logic we should be using when trying to answer this admittedly unanswerable GOAT question. Don't be so quick to label the accomplished player as the better player. Those are two different conversations, even if we continue to try to bleed them into the same one.