Jordan or James? Or somebody else?

By Steve Sell
June 09, 2015

LeBron James’ historic playoff averages against Golden State through two games — 42.5 points, 12.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists — has reignited the debate about who is the best NBA player of all time.

Of course, James is looking eyeball to eyeball with Michael Jordan, who currently is regarded by most fans as the gold standard.

Jordan’s legacy is enhanced by his six championship rings, while LeBron has won only two. Also, Jordan has had a couple of signature moments (who'll ever forget the winning shot against the Utah Jazz when he broke Byron Russell's ankles with his infamous crossover dribble?), while LeBron has been known more for his end-of-the-game failures.

  If championship rings defined the best, though, Bill Russell would be considered as the greatest as he won 11.

You have to remember though, James spent only four years with a quality supporting cast and that was during his time at South Beach when he had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. His Airness always had Scottie Pippen by his side, while Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright and Dennis Rodman did a lot of dirty work, while Ron Harper was a defensive guard ace and John Paxson was a 3-point sniper who took advantage of the constant doubling of Jordan. Toni Kukoc then came along to provide versatility.

James has carried a Cleveland team into the Finals that a year ago was becoming an afterthought. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on board, many thought the Cavaliers would win  65 games. But Irving has had nagging injuries and is now out, while Love never seemed to get his footing before he, too, suffered a season-ending injury. James basically is playing 1-on-5 and somehow has the Cavaliers level at 1-all with the more-rounded Warriors.

Both James and Jordan are and were genetic wonders. James relies on brutish force, yet has amazing finesse for someone 6-8 and 240. Jordan was the more graceful and acrobatic player and a better shooter. 

Truth be told, those of us who have followed the NBA for 40 years will point out that neither player has put up the numbers that Wilt Chamberlain did. Wilt, like the Big Two, was an athletic anomaly. He was 7-1 and 280 pounds, yet at one time he was a 7-foot high jumper. He also averaged a staggering 50 points a game one season and played almost every minute of every game. Sure, the NBA had only the fraction number of teams that it does now and there weren’t as many long road trips, though back in those days there were a lot of train and bus rides and the staying in smallish hotels, unlike today where everything is first class and players stay in rooms fit for kings.

Unless you’re nearly age 60 like me, you didn’t get to see Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and a young Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When Jabbar came into the league, he dominated as much or more than James or Jordan. Robertson AVERAGED a triple-double one season while there’s a reason the NBA logo is a replica of West, who would have won double-digit championships had it not been for Russell’s Boston Celtics, who were a collection of Hall of Famers.

And how many of you were fortunate to watch Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in their prime? Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers were must-see TV as the rivalry dripped with almost nothing but All-Star rosters. The games also were wide-open and entertaining, unlike this year's Finals where it's the entertaining Warriors being grinded to a halt by the halfcourt Cavaliers.

The golden age of the NBA was the 1980s and early 1990s, with Bird and Magic the saviors of the league. Do you know there was a time the NBA Finals were shown via TAPE DELAY? That’s how backward the league was in the 1970s.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that comparing stars from different eras is all subjective. My money is still on Jordan, but I was also a big fan of Bird and Magic. LeBron is in the talk and still has a ways to go in his career. If he can add at least a couple of more championships — and leading Cleveland to a victory over Golden State would score huge points in my book — he'd be in the Top 3 mix.