The eternal debate of who is the greatest player in the history of basketball rages on. Michael Jordan rules in the hearts of those who watched him play, a transcendent talent who went 6-0 in the NBA Finals. LeBron James has the respect of a younger generation, playing much longer than Jordan and winning his conference nine times to Jordan’s six.
On and on it goes. The conversation between the two is more likely to highlight how you value the criteria than which player is truly better. The debate got a new entry this week, from a source is who certainly a bit biased to speak on the matter.
LeBron vs MJ: Greatest of all Time
While appearing on the Gils Arena Show, NBA super-agent Rich Paul spoke on the GOAT debate. Paul is not only an agent and businessman, he is also one of LeBron James’ closest friends and longtime business partners. He’s not someone to enter the conversation with an impartial perspective.
With that being said, his argument was compelling. He didn’t speak to points scored, titles won, MVP trophies sitting on the mantle. He talked about the path each one had to walk to become and live as the best player in the world, and pointed to multiple reasons why LeBron had the harder path.
When Michael Jordan played, he had only a few sports columnists criticizing him in the newspaper. There wasn’t the 24/7, 365 news coverage of athletes and teams. Paul contrasted that with what LeBron has had to deal with, where people without knowledge or expertise can give their opinions and be heard by millions of people.
Paul also pointed to how LeBron chose to walk his own path. “Mike transcended the game. When Kobe came, Kobe was a silhouette of Mike.” But LeBron? he decided “I’m not really gonna do it how y’all want me to do. I’m probably going to decide how I wanna do it.” And that created an environment, in Paul’s eyes, where not something was created for fans to root against.
Because of this different, Paul thinks that the careers of Jordan and LeBron have to be evaluated differently. His conclusion? “I just think LeBron’s antlers is in platinum and Michael Jordan’s may be in gold. Why? Because he had to be compared to Mike. Who did Mike have to be compared to?”
Paul certainly makes some good points, as the context of Jordan’s stardom was very different than LeBron. Even so, he is vastly overstating the case for Jordan never having critics. Until he broke through and started winning titles there was plenty of national doubt that Jordan could do it all.
The most salient point Paul makes, that many have made before him, is that LeBron has always been compared to Jordan. The question for LeBron has been “has he proven himself better than Jordan?” There was no such player for Jordan to be compared to, at least not in the same way. He was thought of as the GOAT simply because of his greatness.
Gaining that pedestal relatively early on, likely during his first threepeat, made Jordan somewhat unimpeachable. Even his faults slid off the golden facade of his greatness. Without camera phones in every pocket, Jordan could live his personal life however he wanted without fear of tarnishing his legacy.
Not so for LeBron, who has been fighting for his spot on the pedestal for his entire career. He’s been speaking publicly for over two decades and the worst thing he’s ever said was “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” Despite constant coverage, analysis, comparison and critique, James’ personal life has remained spotless and he seems to be a respected and loved part of both society and any community he is a part of.
Would Jordan have held up under the same level of scrutiny? It’s impossible to say, but it’s doubtful. What if their careers were reversed, and LeBron went to nine Finals in the 1990s and Jordan was playing a decade later? Would Michael have ever ascended past LeBron, or would he be forever chasing “The King”?
It’s without question that LeBron James had a harder path, but does that make the GOAT debate a wrap? Probably not; there are a lot more layers to the story. These two all-time greats had very different paths, but both achieved greatness.