I started covering the NBA in 1995, the year Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls. Because of this, I had a front-row seat to some of his biggest moments.
I was there in Chicago when he sobbed on the floor of the locker room after beating the SuperSonics in the 1996 Finals. I covered the series against Utah the next year, the one that featured the Flu Game, in which Jordan collapsed in Scottie Pippen’s arms after scoring 38 points. And I was there for most of the title run in 1998, which ended with his famous 20-footer over Utah’s Bryon Russell to clinch the title in six games.
Covering Jordan and the Bulls in the playoffs was chaotic, crazy and fun. Every time you walked into an arena with them, you knew something special could happen. You knew history was being made and you were going to be a witness.
Despite all this, despite the nostalgia I feel after covering Jordan in my formative years as a writer, I just can’t call Jordan the Greatest Of All Time anymore.
Not after watching what LeBron James has done this season, not after watching the way James has dragged this very mediocre Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals. And especially not after watching his performance in Game 1 against Golden State on Thursday, a 51-point masterpiece that was wasted when his teammates went all Keystone Kops at the end of regulation.
I already can see the emails and tweets headed my way. Yes, I know Jordan is 6-0 in the Finals and James is 3-5. I know Jordan averaged more points and had an unparalleled killer instinct. And I agree that he transformed the game as gravity-defying feats combined with marketing genius brought a whole new crowd of fans to the NBA.
All of this is true. But so is that fact that Jordan had a lot of advantages James doesn’t, including superior coaches, superior teammates, a superior team management, weaker competition and an almost complete lack of scrutiny from his fans in the pre-social media era.
Jordan had Hall of Fame coaches Dean Smith at North Carolina and Phil Jackson with the Bulls. What’s more, despite all the public sniping that took place between Jackson and Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, the Bulls were an incredibly stable organization with a keen eye for talent. The Bulls knew how to stock a team with role players and they also knew how to add a second Hall of Famer in Pippen, who played alongside Jordan in all six of his championship seasons.
James has played for six different NBA coaches. Only one of them, Erik Spoelstra, can be considered elite. And while James had talent around him during his four years in Miami, it’s been lacking for most of his career.
Most casual fans would be hard-pressed to name another starter from Cleveland’s 2007 NBA Finals team. As for James’ current supporting cast, I’d like to see Jordan or anyone else find a way to get them to the Finals. James has done it by averaging 34.9 points this postseason, including 35 while playing all 48 minutes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston.
“They have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I’m not sure anybody’s ever seen before,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played alongside Jordan during the second three-peat.
James has done all this against a superior level of competition. Yes, defenses were rougher in Jordan’s era, but offenses were nowhere near this good. Jordan had the luck of being in his prime between the end of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era and the beginning of the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant era. The Warriors are better than any team Jordan faced in the Finals. In fact, each team James has beaten in the Finals — San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Warriors — had a minimum of at least two players who likely are headed to the Hall of Fame.
Finally, when it comes to contributions off the floor, James wins in a blowout. Some fans will never forgive him for the inelegant way he left Cleveland for Miami — “The Decision” — but Jordan strangely has never been disliked for the fact that he left the game altogether at the height of his career to play baseball. Somehow James is held accountable for wanting to play with better teammates, while no one seems to have a problem with Jordan’s decision to dabble in a hobby at the peak of his career.
Jordan had the advantages of playing in the pre-social media era. He didn’t have to run a gantlet of phones every time he stepped outside his house. This allowed him to cultivate a detached, almost legendary status. Let’s just say he didn’t have to spend a lot of his free time worrying about how to be a role model.
James has spent his entire career under the microscope, running a daily gantlet of cellphones. He’s a doting father and has managed to avoid even a whiff of off-the-court controversy. His foundation has pledged $41 million to send more than 1,000 kids to college and, unlike Jordan, he has not shied away from taking public stances on controversial social issues.
It’s likely that James will never match Jordan’s six championships. After watching the way his teammates played on Thursday, it is very likely that he won’t win one this year. Yet each night he takes the floor, it’s hard not to have that feeling that you are watching history in the making.
Even when he loses, he’s the greatest player of all time.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James in the postseason:
Jordan Category James
6 Titles 3
114-55 W/L 156-80
33.4 PPG 28.9
6.4 RPG 8.9
5.7 APG 7.0
6 In Finals 8
0 Finals Game 7s 2 (2-0)
6 Finals MVP 3