To kick this one off, let me restate that my true position is that comparing basketball players across eras is very difficult, as so many things change: the rules, the style of offenses and defenses, the tightness of the officiating, the caliber of competition, the way teams are constructed, to name a few.
Now, I do think that in a way, you cold define each era by the dominate player or players during a time frame:
– The Bill Russell/Oscar Robinson/Wilt Chamberlain era
– The Kareem Abdul Jabbar/Julius Erving era
– The Magic Johnson/Larry Bird Era
– The Jordan Era
– The Shaq/Kobe era
– The LeBron era
– The LeBron/Kevin Durant era (current)
So, if you’re going to come up with a single GOAT, one could say that it would be Jordan vs. LeBron as they were the only guys who truly defined a good chunk of NBA seasons without a true competitor.
From there, the discussion almost seems to be that guys will choose whomever they personally like more and then cherry-pick stats around their case. Older fans and UNC fans especially are going to go with Jordan. Younger fans probably LeBron.
I tend to go with LeBron for three main reasons:
1. History will almost certainly recognize him as better, simply because people who remember Jordan playing will grow old and die off first
2. I believe that today’s players in general are bigger, faster, and more skilled than those of 20 years ago.
3. Observational reasons: having seen plenty of games with each player, James seems to have Jordan-like skills but in a larger, stronger body
When you look at the individual stats, they seem pretty even: Jordan scored more points, James was a better rebounder and dished more assists. Both are top-rate defenders by all accounts. Jordan was a better FT shooter, James better from 3 PT land.
When you take personality traits into account, James seems to be a better teammate with a higher basketball IQ. Jordan is a more fierce competitor whose teams only started to win when he accepted that he didn’t need to score 40 ppg.
I think team accomplishments are fair to be included but should be the least important as they involve factors outside the players’ control. It would be a knock against James if he was never able to lead his team to a title, sure. But he’s lead his team to three titles not to mention a record seven consecutive conference championships. As great as Jordan was, he never won a ring without a top-notch wingman in Pippen and solid role players like Kerr, Grant, Kukoc, and Rodman. Not to mention playing under the NBA’s top coach.
On a strictly personal level, James seems to be a nicer, more socially involved individual than Jordan and is known for being loyal to his longtime partner (now wife) while MJ’s first marriage was a “business relationship”.
So in conclusion I don’t see how, if a GOAT has to be crowned, it is not time for Jordan to pass it on to James. What’s scary is that James is only 32 and has no nagging injury issues nor has he shown any signs of hitting his decline. Barring a major injury, one imagines him putting in five more years of solid play and while he may not ever have six rings he’s going to own an awful lot of major individual records.
Verdict: LeBron, GOAT. For now.