As the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance has come to a close, it’s the time for Last Word on Sports to wrap up it’s Michael Jordan or LeBron James greatest of all-time debate, for now. It’s pretty clear that Jordan had better teammates and James played the tougher competition. However, the most important topic, determining which player had a more accomplished career, has yet to be decided.
Michael Jordan or LeBron James: The Finale
Most Valuable Player Awards
The highest individual honor a player can take home in the NBA is the Most Valuable Player award. The problem with how this award is handed out is very subjective, however, and can be given out based on the national media’s narrative as it is voted upon by the media. There can also be voter fatigue, which refers to voters wanting someone else to win because they are tired of voting for the same guy every year. Jordan ended his career with five NBA MVP awards while James is currently sitting at four MVPs.
MVP Voter Fatigue
A few examples of voter fatigue ring true just for these two icons of the NBA. The 1992-93 season is the first instance of voter fatigue. Jordan was coming off of back-to-back MVP awards heading into the 1992-93 season. He finished second in MVP voting in 1993 after averaging 32.6 points per game, 6.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.8 steals. Jordan was also voted to the All-NBA defensive first-team that season.
Charles Barkley was crowned MVP that season, and he had a great case for it as he averaged 25.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.1 assists while helping lead the Phoenix Suns to the best record in the NBA. It’s hard to imagine Jordan doesn’t win the 1992-93 MVP award if it’s not his first time.
James was also a victim of voter fatigue when he finished second in 2010-11 behind Derrick Rose. Rose, like Barkley, had a very strong case for the MVP award that season as he poured in 25 points per night, dished out 7.7 assists, and corralled 4.1 rebounds per game.
James, on the other hand, had slightly better counting stats. He averaged 26.7 points per game, on one less shot attempt per game, 7 assists, and 7.5 rebounds. While these lines are very close, what separates the two is when looking at advanced statistics. James put up 15.6 win shares compared to Rose’s 13.1. James also outpaced Rose in value over replacement player at 7.8 to 6.7.
The difference between five and four MVPs is irrelevant as both is an absurd amount to win and James still has a few years left to get to number five. Let’s remember that the late Kobe Bryant only won one MVP in his illustrious career. This is a push.
The defensive side of the ball is where Jordan really outshines James. Jordan was selected to an NBA all-defensive team nine times, compared to James’ and his current standing of six selections. Jordan, however, also has the 1987-88 defensive player of the year to his name as well.
Although Jordan was clearly the superior defensive player, and excuses shouldn’t be made for James, it’s only fair to point out that today’s NBA play style, especially on the defensive side of the ball, is far different than when Jordan was roaming the hardwood.
James clearly had/has the ability to be an elite defensive player. He has the IQ, the athleticism, the size, and he has shown he can be elite defensively when he wants to.
Jordan clearly gets the nod here as he has more accolades and NBA playstyle shouldn’t be an excuse for taking one end of the floor off for the majority of games. Jordan brought it on the defensive end every night and was truly an elite defensive player throughout his career.
Both players have absolutely absurd career statistics. Starting with Jordan, he finished his career with an incredible 32,292 points, ranking him fifth all-time. Jordan averaged 30.1 points per game over 15 seasons, ranking first all-time, just eeking out Wilt Chamberlain. Jordan also finished his career with 6,672 rebounds, 6.2 per night, and 5,633 assists, 5.3 per night. He is also currently second all-time among guards in blocked shots with 893, trailing only Dwyane Wade.
As incredible as Jordan’s numbers are, James’ eclipse them, and likely will by a country mile once he finally retires. James currently ranks third all-time in points scored with 34,087. He trails Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by exactly 4,300 points and as long as he stays healthy, James will have a great chance at retiring as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
What’s remarkable about James’ scoring prowess is that he is known as a distributor and throughout his career was compared more to Magic Johnson than elite scorers. James is currently sitting at an absurd 9,298 assists, which is good for eighth all-time. He is also closing in on 10,000 rebounds as he currently has corralled 9,353 rebounds for his career.
NBA championships seem to be the de-facto go-to in the greatest of all-time debates. That is a fair point, championships are the ultimate goal for any player. This is where Jordan still has a lead on James by a pretty wide margin and it’s not just because Jordan holds six titles to James’ three. Both of those win totals are impressive.
What separates them is the loss column in the NBA Finals. While James did run into the only other team that can likely make an argument for the greatest dynasty in NBA history outside of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, the Golden State Warriors, he still has six losses in the NBA Finals.
Jordan, on the other hand, is undefeated when fighting for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Michael Jordan or LeBron James: The Last Word
For now, Jordan is still the greatest of all-time. James can catch him, however. His career numbers have a chance to dwarf every other player in the history of the NBA in totality if he stays healthy over the course of his final four to six years in the league.
However, James needs to win a couple more titles and not lose anymore. While his Finals’ competition has been tougher than Jordan’s, Jordan found a way to win, every time.
The Last Dance provided a glimpse into some of what drove Jordan to be so successful and it helped to spark this debate, once again, and it won’t be the last time.
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