As long as there is sports talk radio and avoidable TV programs like “First Take,” there will be a debate on who is the greatest basketball player who ever lived. The following is going to make this writer look like a big, fat hypocrite, since there was a June article on this site, by this very writer, with the headline “Please stop comparing LeBron James to Michael Jordan.”
But we can’t help it, can we?
LeBron James now has two NBA titles over the first 10 years of his career, with four NBA Finals appearances over that span. Jordan won three championships in as many Finals appearances over that same span. A decade is a nice point to look back and compare to give the reader a nice break from the season previews and preseason hype.
Right off the bat, there’s some really bad news for people looking for a definitive answer on which player is better. It’s really, really, really close.
James started his career right out of high school, so there was an inherent learning curve right out of the gate. The Cleveland Cavaliers missed the playoffs in James’ first two pro seasons. He also didn’t have much talent around him at the time. The Cavs went 35-47 in his rookie season with Carlos Boozer and Ricky Davis playing major roles along with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Jeff McInnis. Boozer and Davis left, and the latter three were the only others to average double figures in scoring in James’ 2004-2005 season, when Cleveland managed to go 42-40.
James finally reached the playoffs in his third season after the team added a new coach in Mike Brown and complementary players Larry Hughes, Flip Murray and Donyell Marshall.
Jordan entered the NBA after his junior season at North Carolina. The Bulls made the playoffs in his rookie season at age 21 despite a 38-44 record and Orlando Woolridge and Quintin Dailey being the team’s second and third offensive options.
The next season, the Bulls got a rookie bruiser named Charles Oakley and a breakout season from Sidney Green, but went 30-52 because Jordan played just 18 games due to a broken foot. This was somehow good enough to reach the playoffs anyway, but the team was quickly swept by the Celtics despite Jordan averaging nearly 44 points per game.
A Michael Jordan team did not clear .500 in the regular season until his fourth season in the league, 1987-1988, when Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came aboard and Doug Collins was coach.
So it could be argued that James’ early seasons were more successful right away despite being younger, especially after the Cavs reached the NBA Finals in just his fourth season. James was just 22 at the time. After being ousted from the playoffs by the Detroit Pistons “Bad Boys” in three straight seasons, Chicago finally got over the hump and reached the Finals in 1990-1991, Jordan’s seventh season.
The difference between their first Finals appearances is that Jordan’s Bulls won in five games as he was named MVP, while LeBron’s Cavs were swept by San Antonio.
In his eighth and ninth seasons, Jordan won two more NBA titles and Finals MVPs before announcing his first retirement. His 10th year was the truncated 1994-1995 season, during which he announced a comeback in March.
After his seventh season, James left Cleveland for Miami and has reached the Finals in all three years, winning twice. Through 10 years, Jordan holds a 3-2 edge in championships and Finals MVPs. James has a 4-3 edge in Finals appearances and regular-season MVPs.
The numbers for these two all-time greats are through Jordan’s age-31 year and James’ age-28 year.