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The debate surrounding the best basketball players of all time has never been more heated or more historically important. As NBA legend LeBron James prepares to enter his 21st season, he has closed the gap between himself and Michael Jordan as the top two undisputed GOATs. Just a few years ago there was no debate, but now it’s a coin flip depending on who you ask.
The GOAT debate also has many other questions that need answering. What metrics are the most valuable? Are individual or team achievements more important? Should we account for each player’s era, teammates and other external circumstances? What about their impact on the game of basketball off the court?
Let’s explore all of these questions and reach the most objective answer possible to the age-old debate — who are the best basketball players of all time?
What Determines the Best Basketball Player?
Before we start firing off names, it’s important to establish firm ground rules. The biggest problem with a debate like this is that everyone has a subjective opinion about what “the best” means. For the sake of clarity and objectivity, we’re going to focus on five major parameters:
- Individual Accomplishments: a player’s individual statistics and awards are clearly the most influential factors in determining the best basketball player of all time.
- Team Success: a player’s team success is the second-most important factor, which includes championships, playoff appearances, series wins and regular season winning percentage.
- Skills and Attributes: aside from the raw numbers, a player’s on-court abilities must play a huge role in the debate. Some players have underwhelming statistics but have more well-rounded basketball skill sets. Other players have impressive statistics but also have more weaknesses in their games.
- Competition: some players have more difficult paths to success than others, which must be accounted for when comparing them one on one. Defeating tougher opponents or playing under more restrictive rules deserves additional credit.
- Help: similarly, some players have better teammates than others, which propels them to more success in their careers. Other players have to overcome bad teammates, coaches or front offices in their careers.
With these five parameters in mind, let’s compare Michael Jordan and LeBron
Michael Jordan Career Profile
Career Stat Line: 30.1 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game, 5.3 assists per game, 2.3 steals per game, 50.9% shooting, 27.9 player efficiency rating
Based on the five parameters outlined in the previous section, Michael Jordan still holds the title as the best basketball player of all time. His career profile speaks for itself:
MJ is the most individually decorated player and it’s not very close. Most notably, he won Finals MVP a record six times. He was 14x All-Star in his 15-year career, which included 11 All-NBA and 9 All-Defensive NBA selections. Other notable awards include 5x League MVP, 10x Scoring Champion, 3x Steals Champion, Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He ranks in the Top 5 all-time in points and steals for his entire career.
Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to a 30-7 playoff series record, including a perfect 6-0 record in the NBA Finals. The 1990s Bulls are considered the second-greatest dynasty in basketball history behind the 1960s Boston Celtics. He also has a career 706-366 regular season record, which included a 72-10 record in 1996 and four other 60+ win seasons during their reign atop the NBA.
However, the Bulls struggled to win playoff games during Jordan’s first seven years. The team was an NBA bottomfeeder before Jordan’s arrival and remained mediocre for much of the 1980s. That trend completely turned around in the 90s, as everyone knows.
Skills and Attributes
Air Jordan is arguably the best pure athlete to ever grace a basketball court. At 6’6” and just a shade under 200 pounds, he had the ideal athletic body type for a do-it-all guard. He could shoot, rebound, pass and play defense at an elite level. He still holds the NBA record with a 48-inch vertical jump. His only notable weakness was the three-pointer, but the three wasn’t very important in the NBA during his career.
MJ played some stiff competition during his career. The 1990s is considered the most star-studded decade in NBA history. He defeated the likes of Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, John Stockton and Karl Malone in convincing fashion during his runs to the championship between 1991 and 1998.
Jordan undoubtedly had a lot of help along the way to his all-time success. For most of his career, he played under the guidance of arguably the greatest NBA coach of all time in Phil Jackson. He also had plenty of assistance from Scottie Pippen, who is a legend himself. Other notable role players include Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr and James Paxson. These players took some of the scoring and rebounding load off of Jordan’s shoulders, allowing him to be an effective playmaker for the whole game.
LeBron James Career Profile
Career Statline: 28.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 6.3 apg, 1.5 spg, 54.9 shooting, 23.9 player efficiency rating
Although Lebron James is still playing and has the potential to pass Michael Jordan, he is still firmly the second-best basketball player of all time entering the 2023-24 NBA regular season. Here’s how his career stacks up against Jordan.
King James started out by winning Rookie of the Year in 2004, then he rattled off 19 straight All-Star appearances and All-NBA selections. Nobody can match this level of prolonged success, not even Michael Jordan himself. LeBron has also made the All-NBA defensive team six times. He has scored the most points in NBA history and also ranks in the Top 10 in assists, defensive rebounds and three-pointers.
LeBron and Jordan do have one thing in common — they both won Finals MVP in all of their championships. Both players brought their best stuff to the biggest stage, which is why they’re the only ones in the conversation of the best basketball players of all time.
James has played for three teams — the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavs never got over the hump during his first stint there, so he took his talents to South Beach to play with the Heat. It didn’t start well, as the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals in the worst performance of LeBron’s career.
However, LeBron’s Heat responded by winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. He then returned to the Cavs and won his hometown team its first championship in 2016, knocking off the 73-9 juggernaut Golden State Warriors. LeBron came to Los Angeles in 2019, and his Lakers have consistently been among the best teams in the league. They won the title in the 2020 bubble year in convincing fashion, which brings us to four championships in ten appearances.
Skills and Attributes
LeBron possesses the most well-rounded basketball skills on the planet. He can do everything at a high level — shoot, pass, rebound, dribble, defend, you name it. His skill level is so high that he has experimented with different play styles throughout his career. Sometimes he was a pure scorer, sometimes he was facilitator, and other times he would simply overpower weaker opponents with raw strength like a dominant big man.
Michael Jordan was a better shooter and scorer overall, but LeBron did everything else at a higher level. His superhuman athleticism in that 6’9” 240-pound frame has also allowed him to have the longest career in NBA history, and it’s still going.
Just like MJ, LeBron has faced intense competition throughout his career. Most notably, he lost to the Warriors dynasty three times in the Finals and only beat them once. He also faced the likes of Tim Duncan’s Spurs and the Big 3 Celtics on his way to the top. By the early 2010s, LeBron was so dominant that many of the NBA’s other superstars left the Eastern Conference just to avoid facing him in the playoffs.
LeBron has played with his fair share of superstars, including Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. He has earned a reputation for building “superteams” by attracting other top players like the names above. But on the other hand, he has carried mediocre teammates to deep playoff runs many times. His career is a mixed bag of unprecedented starpower and poor supporting casts, so it’s difficult to gauge how much help he truly had.
The Final Verdict
The two best basketball players of all time are undoubtedly Michael Jordan and LeBron James. However, it’s difficult to compare their careers because there are so many differences. These five parameters give us a more detached and objective view. Although LeBron’s career has been more prosperous in the long run, Michael’s peak from 1991-1998 is unrivaled.
So, the verdict is in. One could argue that LeBron has had a better career overall, but Michael played the game of basketball better than anyone else. Air Jordan is still the best basketball player of all time, but this issue is subject to change in the future.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan