It’s always very tricky to compare athletes from different eras of sports. Rules, tactics, and styles change over time in ways that make apples to apples comparisons nearly impossible.
In basketball, the consensus seems to have landed on Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the two candidates for greatest player of all time, with the former apparently a firm favorite. But when we apply the simplest, most accurate, and most traditional metric to these two giants of the game, it is James who comes up on top.
That metric, of course, is: If you could choose any player to start an NBA team with today, who would you pick? It’s a method as old as the playground choosing up sides, and if I had first pick, James is the obvious choice. Statistically it’s a bit of a toss up, as Jordan scored slightly more, while Bron has racked up slightly more boards and assists. But they did so playing very different versions of the game of basketball.
Jordan is widely regarded as having the best mid-range jump shot in NBA history. Many of the most iconic images of him, even from college, involve that graceful release of a 15-footer leading to a splash of net. He truly had a profound and deadly accuracy. The only problem is that in today’s NBA, having the best mid-range jumper is kind of like being the best-hitting pitcher in the American League — it’s just not really part of the game.
Jordan played his final, somewhat forgettable season with the Washington Wizards in 2003. At that time the mid-range jumper accounted for more than 35 percent of all shots, with three pointers making up just over 15 percent. Today, those numbers are completely inverted. Points are primarily picked up now in the paint and behind the arc.
So if you sank the free throw in the schoolyard and got first pick, would you choose a master of scoring on the blocks and sinking threes, or the guy who is awesome at a shot nobody takes anymore?
Jordan apologists will often complain that the game was better in the 1990s. Sure, maybe hockey was better when goalies didn’t wear masks and tennis was more entertaining with wooden rackets, but so what? The reason basketball is played the way it is now is because its more effective. counterintuitive analytics have shown us that long-held beliefs like the corner three being a low-percentage shot were just flat out wrong.
Jordan was the perfect two guard for the 1990s and set the example for Kobe Bryant, who would play a similar style but also be the last player in that mold. Today’s superstars like James Hardin, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry are masters of the inside-out game. Could Jordan have developed into this kind of player? Maybe. We’ll never know, but there is no reason to assume he could.
Once it’s clear that James would be the obvious first pick to start a franchise, the argument for Jordan boils down to rings and attitude.
Let’s look at championships first. Jordan went 6 for 6 in the NBA finals. That’s huge; LeBron is a more modest 3 for 6. But Bill Russell has 11 NBA championships. By this standard, isn’t he the greatest player of all time? Just like Jordan, Russell played on the most dominant team of its decade with the most storied coach. So this can’t really just be about trips to the Promised Land.
That leaves us with Jordan’s indomitable will to win. And okay, fine. Was Jordan the fiercest competitor in NBA history? Probably. But fiercest competitor is not the same as greatest player. Jordan’s tenacity, the way he chipped away at other teams and broke their fans’ hearts again and again, is his legacy, and it’s a powerful one. But he just wasn’t built for what we now know to be basketball played at its highest, most effective level.
No, that honor goes to LeBron James, who brought a kind of grace and three-point acumen to the big man role that helped transform the sport. He’s also not done. If NBA basketball is ever played again, his Lakers have a good chance of adding to his championship total. But in the end, like all sports basketball comes down to who is most effective on the court. In today’s NBA, there is no question that person is the king, LeBron James.