Getty Images

In May of 2020, ESPN polled a group of 600 NBA fans on the debate between LeBron James and Michael Jordan for the title of greatest basketball player of all time. The fans picked between the two players in 17 different categories ranging from "better overall player" to "who would you rather have a drink with." Jordan won all 17 categories, some by wide margins. On the "better player" front, Jordan received 65% of the vote.

A lot has changed since then. The poll was released at the height of Jordan-mania as The Last Dance aired on ESPN. Months later, James went on to win his fourth NBA championship. Since then, he's become the NBA's all-time leading scorer, hit the 40,000-point mark and broken several other records. Now 39, James is playing in his 18th NBA postseason as the Los Angeles Lakers battle the Denver Nuggets in the first round. In other words, James has spent the past few years strengthening his case against Jordan.

It seems as though the basketball-viewing public has noticed, and that doesn't just mean fans. The Athletic has conducted an anonymous poll of NBA players on a number of matters in each of the past two seasons. When 103 players were polled in 2023, 58.3% of them named Jordan the greatest player of all time. James finished in second at 33%. Kobe Bryant was a distant No. 3 at 6.8%. What we see here is a pretty similar result to the fan poll, but with Jordan losing a little bit of luster in the years that have passed since.

On Monday, The Athletic released its 2024 poll, and suddenly, the two legends are neck and neck. Jordan finished at No. 1 with 45.9% of the vote. James finished No. 2 at 42.1%. Bryant was again a distant No. 3 at 9.8%. For the first time in a major poll, James is within striking distance of Jordan.

There are a number of possible explanations for this. Obviously, a 133-person poll does not necessarily reflect the views of the wider world. The players polled this time around might simply prefer James, whereas last year's batch preferred Jordan. The NBA's player pool gets younger every year, so in all likelihood, the 2024 batch is more familiar with James as a player than Jordan.

But it's also possible that the gap between the two icons is simply narrowing. James, now 39, is in his 21st NBA season. Jordan played a total of 16. Jordan retired after his age-39 season. James is still an All-Star posting far better numbers than Jordan did as a Washington Wizard. While we do not know how much longer he will play, it seems likely that he continues to set records for the next few years at least.

Where Jordan and James will ultimately fall compared to the other is ultimately subjective. There will never be a true consensus, especially if James continues to improve his case with time. But this polling data suggests that if Jordan once had a significant lead in this race, that lead has now been trimmed. He may still be in front, but at this rate, there's a reasonable chance that one day, James is ultimately viewed by the majority as the greatest player of all time.