Fan-made image of Lebron playing against Michael Jordan.
Who is the greatest of all time? This is the question that haunts every sports fan, tears apart friendships, and causes uncles to smash their fists against the table at Thanksgiving dinners. For basketball, this debate usually comes down to two individuals: LeBron James and Michael Jordan. Old heads will die for their stance on MJ being the greatest, whereas new fans will turn into keyboard warriors to defend LeBron. I will try to answer this question here, despite how daunting and impossible this task may be.
The most basic statistic to look at is career averages. Michael Jordan has averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, and 2.7 turnovers. Compared to LeBron’s 27.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.0 blocks, 1.7 steals, and 3.6 turnovers, it really cannot be said who is better overall. Here is where a stat known as box plus-minus comes in. This statistic is based on every single contribution a player has made, whether negative or positive, such as a defensive stop, an assist, or even a screen. The more positive someone is, the better game they have. LeBron James has an absurdly impressive +8.75 score; Michael Jordan has a +9.21 score.
Another statistic that can be used to demonstrate how crucial a player was to a team winning a certain game is win shares per forty-eight minutes. Michael Jordan has a groundbreaking average of 0.2505 win shares per forty-eight minutes, meaning that he contributed to just over a quarter of his team's success throughout his career. Seven spots down, at eighth place, is Lebron James with an average of 0.2259 win shares per forty-eight minutes. Once again, Michael Jordan seems to have put Lebron in his place.
One argument that LeBron fans may use is his ridiculous longevity. Although LeBron may not have been as successful in individual seasons, near the end of his career, he is essentially still in his prime, averaging 28.9 points, 6.8 assists, and 8.3 rebounds just last year. Fortunately for the King James fans, this argument is undeniable. LeBron has the most points in NBA history and has the fourth most assists in NBA history. His long-term dominance in the NBA is utterly undeniable.
Michael Jordan fans, don’t lose hope. Greatness doesn’t equal dominance, longevity, or even how good someone is. Influence has to be taken into account. Before “Black Jesus (Jordan)” joined the Chicago Bulls, they were a franchise ridden with poverty and consumed with drug addiction. Jordan’s lights-out performances inspired others to watch his talent. Not only did this help the Bulls, but it also gave the NBA a more international audience. Parisians and Beijingers began to chant his name throughout the streets; ten years prior, there was no semblance of organized basketball in their minds. Although LeBron James’s name is known throughout the world, he has not been the same ambassador for basketball that MJ was.
The overt influence that Michael had, to me, gives him the edge over LeBron James. He inspired hundreds of millions to pursue the sport of basketball and is arguably the reason that we see such worldwide dominance and passion for the sport today.