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The Ultimate GOAT Debate: MJ or King James?

Where do current and former All-Stars stand on who is the NBA’s all-time greatest player?

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When pitting all-time legends from any walk of life against one another to determine the GOAT (greatest of all time)—Beatles vs. Stones, Marilyn Monroe vs. Cindy Crawford, Porsche vs. Ferrari—there often isn’t a clear winner.

And, while that also used to be the case when comparing Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James, thanks to the play of King James this season, that’s clearly no longer the situation.

Despite turning 33 in the midst of this season, his 15th in the NBA, James played in every single one of Cleveland’s 82 regular-season games for the first time and averaged a career-best 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds despite playing 36.9 minutes per game, third-lowest in his career.

As impressive as those numbers are, where James has really made his case as the GOAT is in this season’s playoffs, where he has been simultaneously collecting game-winning shots and slaying the narrative that he isn’t as clutch as Jordan was in the postseason.

LeBron James hits the game-winning shot of Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals versus the Toronto Raptors. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Indeed, a comparison of Jordan’s career playoff averages (33.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 steals, .487 FG percentage, .828 FT percentage) vs. James’ (28.6, points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.8 steals, .488 FG percentage, .743 FT percentage) paints a picture of two players who are fairly equal in their dominance and James’ clutch play this year has only further balanced the statistical scale. 

Of course, there is one playoff statistic—the most important—where Jordan still holds a commanding lead: NBA championships.

With six ‘Ships compared to James’ three, Jordan—who is tied with King James in NBA seasons (15), postseason appearances (13) and All-Star Games (14)—is the clear leader in Finals wins, and, considering James has gone 3-5 in the Finals compared to 6-0 for Jordan, the latter likely won’t be caught unless James makes it to the championship round many more times.

Therefore, shouldn’t that shift the balance of power in the GOAT argument back toward Jordan?

Not necessarily.

Chicago Bulls’ forward Michael Jordan jumps and dunks as the crowd takes photos during a game. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

It obviously bears mentioning that basketball is a team sport and therefore the quality of the teammates Jordan and James have had around them has added to, or subtracted from, their championship chances.

James has had at least one potential Hall of Famer (Dwyane Wade) and many other All-Star teammates (Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Shane Battier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas), but Jordan’s supporting cast (Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, B.J. Armstrong, John Paxson, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr) were a cut above the King’s and, while it doesn’t negate the championship differential, that needs to be added to the equation.

Factoring that in, what James has been able to do this in this year’s postseason, no matter if he’s able to drag his team past the Boston Celtics and return to the Finals for a ridiculous eighth straight year, is amazing because, with all due respect to J.R. Smith, Cedi Osman and the ghost of José Calderón, this is one of the worst—if not the worst—supporting casts he’s ever had.

So, where does that leave us in the GOAT discussion? At this point, too close to call.

Jordan has the titles and the higher ceiling, but James has been better for longer and done more with less. That’s why, for the sake of this argument, we’re going with a dark horse candidate, Bill Russell—he of the 11 titles in 13 seasons and playoff averages of 16.2 points, 24.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists—as our GOAT.

For the sake of fairness, we’ve also collected the opinions of 11 former and current NBA players on the great, GOAT debate.

Chauncey Billups: “I don’t think that there is nothing that LeBron can do. Not in my eyes. And I’m a huge LeBron James fan. Huge. But not to pass Jordan, no, there is nothing that he can do.”

J.R. Smith: “MJ was the greatest of all time, in my opinion, up until two years ago. The last couple years, at 33 years old, averaging a triple-double a whole month walking into the playoffs. Just hit 31,000 points the other day. Hit 30,000 points earlier this year … 8,000 rebounds … 8,000 assists …”

Dwayne Wade (on James passing Jordan): “No, it’s not possible. It’s not possible. The only thing you can do is tie it. There’s no 19th hole. I think last year—not only in my eyes, but in a lot of people’s eyes—really put him … he’s on the 15th hole right now. And he’s on his way, for sure. You can’t go past it. How can you? That’s as great as it gets, man. The only thing you can do, like I said, is be A-1, A-B. There’s no way higher.”

Bill Laimbeer: “I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely. He’s 6’8″, 285. Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yea, he was 6’6″, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.”

Kevin Garnett: “Michael Jordan was revered as a machine. He was selfish. He didn’t trust anybody else, and he still won. You said he couldn’t do it, and he came out he won. And you was like you know what, I’m rolling with this kid here. You saw how hard he wanted it. You saw how hard he was going. And this was with Magic and Bird still in the league! Man, come on, man. Nah, man. That man saved basketball when basketball was on the verge of losing it.”

Kendrick Perkins: “The only thing that [James] is missing is a couple more championships and then it’s a wrap. Right now, we have arguably the best player to ever play the game. I’m just saying, man. I’m not taking anything away from Jordan, but all [James] is missing is titles. A couple of more titles and that’s it.”

Charles Barkley (before last year’s NBA Finals): “If LeBron is able to beat the Golden State Warriors, I might move him up to Kobe Bryant’s status. Michael (Jordan)’s got six championships—that’s a whole other planet. LeBron has three championships. He’s one of the 10 greatest players ever. If they’re able to beat the Golden State Warriors, that would be incredible. And I’d put him on the same level as Kobe Bryant at that point…I don’t understand why people just move him right past Kobe Bryant. Bryant won five championships. He’s done some things we’ve never seen before.”

Tracy McGrady: “I think if you want to start a team, I’m going to go with LeBron because of him being able to take lesser talent and elevate those guys…Because of his pass-first mentality, being able to elevate his team in terms of their style of play. Mike is going out there trying to get 30 and 40 points. He’s not looking to make his team better.”

Scottie Pippen: “Michael Jordan is the greatest player to ever put on shoes and play in our game. I’m always asked to compare him to LeBron, and I try to make the best of it. But really, the comparison shouldn’t ever be made. Michael Jordan was never asked to play that way (like LeBron) because I took that away from him. I was the point forward, I was the facilitator. He was asked to score the basketball, and that’s what he was great at.”

Isiah Thomas: “There’s a debate in terms of Jordan and LeBron. And on any given night, who do you like? For me, I look at the total body of work where LeBron James is as a basketball player. If I had to pick one over the other, right now I’m picking LeBron James over Michael Jordan. Because Jordan would beat you at scoring, but this guy beats you at everything. He rebounds, he assists, he gets everybody involved. He’s bigger, he’s faster, he’s stronger and right now he’s doing his thing.”

Hakeem Olajuwon: “When people start comparing him with Jordan then that’s not a fair comparison. Jordan was a far more superior player in a very tough league, he was very creative. That’s not taking away anything from LeBron because he is a great player but it is not a fair comparison because Jordan is a far superior player.”