His Airness still rules and it’s not even close
The debate will once again rage on who the GOAT (greatest of all time) of the basketball world is after Lebron James broke the all-time career scoring record on Tuesday, Feb. 7.
Let’s get this out of the way: Lebron James is great. He is one of the all-time greatest to grace a basketball court. His longevity, brilliance and ability to maintain an exceptional level of basketball at 38-years-old is awe inspiring and legendary.
Just for arguments sake, let’s even call James the greatest scorer of all time (based on accumulative points). Although, it’s no question that Larry Bird and Stef Curry are the greatest shooters.
Okay, Lebron-heads, are you happy that we got all the plaudits out of the way. And let’s get away from the recency bias that plagues today’s sports fans.
There is only one who can breathe the rarified air of being the true GOAT.
Michael “Air” Jordan.
People – young, foolish people – often get mad when I explain that Jordan is the greatest in any era due to the combination of shooting, defense, athleticism, and his pure animal desire to win.
And win he did: 6-0 in the finals. No finals losses. When he got there, he won both the title and the finals MVP. EVERY SINGLE TIME.
He still has the highest career scoring average at 30.12 points per game.
Defense Wins Championships
Jordan was not only the NBA’s best offensive force and a 10-time scoring champion, but he was also an animal on the defensive end. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team nine times, as well as winning one Defensive Player of the Year award.
Enroute to those six titles (three-peats from 1991 to 1993 and again from 1996 to 1998) Jordan and the Chicago Bulls overcame several of the Top 25 players of all-time along the way; hall of famers like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and more.
Those superstar players and their best teams from the late 80s and 90s would still be dominant in today’s NBA.
Unfortunately, due to a variety of off-court issues, Jordan “retired” for the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. He played minor league baseball in the Southern League for the Birmingham Barons as well as a short stint in the Arizona Fall League for the Scottsdale Scorpions. In both cases, he had some fun and boosted ticket sales for his teams (and the teams they played on the road).
Many rightfully believe had Jordan stayed, the Bulls would have won both those titles. As it happens, the Houston Rockets led by Hakeem Olajuwon won back-to-back and never again.
Then just ahead of the 1995-96 season, he un-retired to make a triumphant (to put it mildly) return to the hard court to find a somewhat different Bulls team awaiting him. Gone were BJ Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, John Paxon, Will Perdue, and Horace Grant.
Now, he was working with Steve Kerr, Ron Harper, Luc Longley, and the Croatian Sensation Toni Kukoc.
Although, his main running mate Scottie Pippen was still around and the best rebounder in NBA history, Dennis Rodman, had also joined Chicago.
So, he proceeded to teach the new Bulls how Michael Jordan practices, how Michael Jordan wins, and what Michael Jordan expected of his teammates.
Jordan never deferred to Scottie Pippen like Lebron James deferred to Dwayne Wade for many years.
What happened between 1996 and 1998 was a thing of beauty. Not just another three-peat, but utter dominance in the face of adversity on and off the court, teams that were built specifically with beating the Bulls in mind, and a litany of outgoing and in-coming superstars ready to take their place among the greats.
Jordan dominated while the rules still allowed physicality and refused to nitpick hand checks or fall for the obvious dives that are commonplace today.
Jordan dominated despite everyone trying to game plan for him. Because he had no true (on court) weaknesses. He was mentally tough. He could make the big shot from anywhere on the floor. Could defend the other team’s best player and get buckets on their best defender.
That second three-peat Chicago Bulls team would dominate today’s NBA because Jordan and Pippen could outscore and out defend every team around. Through in Rodman and Kukoc (both Hall of Famers) and all the wannabe GOATS of today would be begging (and playing politics) to be on that team.
But those Bulls – specifically Michael Jordan – wouldn’t be having any of that nonsense. They would be laughing and saying, if you can’t beat us, you can’t join us.
Don’t bother pointing out that Rodman was on a Pistons team that the Bulls beat eventually. That Detroit team manhandled Jordan’s pre-title Bulls on more than one occasion and they knew Rodman’s strengths.
Oh, and Michael Jordan also spent four years at North Carolina, winning an NCAA title and being a dominant player in the college ranks back when all the best players still went to college.
10 Finals – Only 4 Wins
Now, let’s get back to Lebron James. Yes, he has spent 19 years in the NBA. He also was drafted straight out of high school. If he didn’t break the all-time scoring record, it would have been shameful.
Shameful is what his finals record is at 4-6. The 2020 win with the LA Lakers should have an asterisk as it occurred in the bubble where the intangibles like home court advantage, hyped-up crowds, travel across the US and Canada, family pressures, and more were nullified.
Yes, he was Finals MVP in all four of the wins. But that doesn’t negate a losing record in the finals. His 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs – SWEPT!
Then in 2011, after making a “super team” with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, the Heat lost 4-2 to a Dallas Mavericks team that relied almost too much on the gentle German giant Dirk Nowitzki.
Two finals. Two losses.
Okay, the Heat won back-to-back right after that and Lebron was named finals MVP in each. But it can be argued that Dwayne Wade, who at the time had three titles to Lebron’s two, was the real team leader who challenged James to be better.
In 2014, James’ fourth straight appearance in the finals with the Heat and fifth overall, the Spurs (who had lost to Miami 4-3 the year before) again drew up a winning game plan and took down Miami 4-1.
Let’s be clear, against the Spurs in the finals, James has lost 2 of 3 series and has a record of 5-11.
Jordan would never let something that egregious happen.
In 2015, having returned to the Cavs, James loses 4-2 in the finals against the Golden State Warriors. He wins the title the next year against those same Warriors 4-3.
Then the Cavs lost 4-1 in the 2017 finals and was swept in the 2018 finals – all against Golden State. Many point to the fact the Warriors added Kevin Durant for those years. I like to point out that in 2016, Draymond Green was playing at an MVP level but was suspended for Game 5, which was a catalyst in the Cavs turning that series around.
The Bulls played the Stockton and Malone Jazz in back-to-back seasons and Utah still couldn’t find a way to get the best of Jordan.
And that’s why he’s the GOAT and Lebron is not. It’s also that finals record that has me keeping Lebron James down in number-7 on my Top 10 All-Time NBA Players list.
This Guy’s Top 10
My Top 10 is based on titles won, record in the finals, opponents fear of a player, individual accomplishments, clutch performances, the respect they have from other great players.
1. Michael Jordan. GOAT. See above.
2. Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba went 5-0 in the NBA Finals. Winning three with Shaquille O’Neal and two more without him. Speaks Italian and English. The player who was most like Jordan in all aspects of his game (mentally and physically). I like to call him the Baby GOAT.
3. Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental is a five-time NBA Champion and beat Lebron twice in the finals. Wasn’t flashy. Did the job and did it well. Can be considered one of the most underrated players since he’s oft forgotten by those who don’t know what they’re talking about.
4. Earvin Magic Johnson. One of the smoothest and most intelligent basketball players to ever live. He could do it all on the court and changed the way the game was played. He made Showtime a thing. Every no look pass thrown is a direct result of Magic. Plus, five titles and three Finals MVPs. And he did it when you needed to be tough to win in the playoffs.
5. Larry Bird. The greatest pure shooter of all time (sorry Stef). The man you want with the ball in his hand for the game winning shot every time (even if Michael is on court). Larry Legend won three NBA titles, two finals MVPs, and is by far the greatest trash talker of all time – and greatest Celtic of all time. Had to take on the Bad Boy Pistons and Showtime Lakers consistently (featuring a slew of Hall of Famers). Also, a nagging back injury slowed him down and cut his career short.
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.) was the ultimate LA Laker. Six-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, six time regular season league MVP (a record that still stands), and a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the floor. He was in the conversation of the greatest of all time until Magic, Bird and then Jordan came around.
7. Lebron James. No, I’m not crazy. Lebron is the beneficiary of recency bias. Less titles than everyone above him except Bird. Playing in a time when you don’t need toughness to succeed, James has managed to mar his legacy with six finals losses and several soft performances on the big stage. Still, we have to give it up and place him among the all-time greats due to his positive accomplishments and four titles. However, if I’m picking a starting roster to win me a Game 7 of the finals, this is the place I would choose Lebron.
8. Bill Russell. It’s too bad he played so long ago or he would get way more respect. Eleven NBA titles (including eight straight), the league MVP five times, a four-time rebounding champion, and long considered the greatest centre to ever play (even by other great centres). His career playoff averages are 16.9 ppg and an astounding 24.9 rebounds per game.
9. Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq couldn’t shoot free throws if his life (or a win) depended on it. But he was inarguably the most dominant physical force ever in the league. Four titles, three-time Finals MVPs, and all sorts of other awards and accolades. But, more than anything, Shaq was someone you didn’t want to play against.
10. Scottie Pippen. Don’t let the fact he was Robin to Jordan’s Batman fool you. Pippen was the real deal and a legit superstar even when his Airness was playing baseball. The Bulls remained a contender thanks to Pippen (and Kukoc) and still had a winning record as well as being a tough out in the playoffs. Eight times he was named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team, twice to the second team, and was no slouch on the offensive end either, averaging over 20 points per game in the playoffs during the first three titles and around 18 ppg during the last three.
Yeah, you’ll disagree with this list (or at least some of it) and that’s your right. But, have a look with an objective eye and you’ll see solid reasoning behind each choice.
In fact, there are at least 5 others that could easily have an argument to be in the Top 10 on anyone’s list. But, this is mine and this is who I choose.
Now onto to some Jordan highlights courtesy of ESPN on YouTube