One offshoot of the cessation of NBA play because of the coronavirus has been a fallback to greatest-of-all-time debates, fueled by a lack of movement in the league itself and a wave of nostalgia brought on by the ESPN Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance.”
While there are other worthy competitors for the title—Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among them—the debate these days has been all about LeBron James and Jordan. It’s not exactly a fair comparison because they are very different players, but that’s the state of the argument.
We found the thoughts of 11 Hall of Fame players, many who have faced both Jordan and James at some point. Surprisingly (or maybe not, given how many of those asked were victims of Jordan’s greatness), nine of the 11 picked Jordan.
Here’s how they stacked up.
Shaquille O’Neal: Michael Jordan
O’Neal played against Jordan in the 1990s, helping to deliver the KO punch in the 1995 playoffs that ended Jordan’s comeback season in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He also played against—and with, in Cleveland—LeBron James in the 2000s.
I think it just solidifies the argument about who’s the best player ever. I think the fair thing to say is we should probably break it down by eras of who was the best player ever. But Michael Jordan by far, stuff that he’s done, I don’t see anybody being close to that. He’s a 10; there’s a lot of seven or eights out there, but not nines or 10s.
Tracy McGrady: LeBron James
McGrady played against Jordan only eight times, three coming in MJ’s final season with the Bulls and five coming in his comeback with the Wizards. He played 18 times against James at his best. That, perhaps, colors his opinion on the matter. Jordan averaged 20.9 points in the games he played against McGrady, while James averaged 24.3.
I think if you want to start a team, I’m going to go with LeBron because of him being able to take lesser talent and elevate those guys… Because of his pass-first mentality, being able to elevate his team in terms of their style of play. Mike is going out there trying to get 30 and 40 points. He’s not looking to make his team better.
Charles Barkley: Michael Jordan
Barkley has lamented his lost friendship with Jordan but he has never let that downgrade his view of his rival’s talent and mindset.
(Jordan) takes everything personally. It was an honor and a privilege to compete against him. Like I said, no disrespect to Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, the best I’ve ever seen in my life is Michael Jordan, and it was an honor and a privilege to play against him. He was the best I’ve ever seen.
Patrick Ewing: Michael Jordan
Ewing is one of a long line of players whose chances at a championship were choked off throughout the 1990s because of Jordan—five times in that era Ewing’s Knicks were eliminated from the playoffs by Jordan’s Bulls.
LeBron James is a great player. He’s a great player of this era, but he’s not Michael Jordan. It’s two different animals. Michael was a killer, he’s an assassin. LeBron is more of a facilitator, he’s a guy you’re going to give the ball to and he’s thinking shoot first, then pass. Michael is thinking he’s gonna score 50 on you. Then he’s going to pass. Michael Jordan was the best player of my era.
Magic Johnson: LeBron James (Maybe)
Johnson would not definitively say that James is the better player but he held open reachable criteria for James to get there: winning another two championships. Since Johnson was instrumental in getting James to Los Angeles, he has a stake in the matter.
For him to really catch Michael, it’s that next two or three championships. If he could get a couple more championships, then he’ll be probably the greatest that’s ever played. For me on my books right now, I would say Michael [Jordan] was the freakiest player in the game. He was the greatest to play on the floor because I couldn’t jump as high … But Michael going 6-0 in the NBA finals, oh man. That’s awesome.
Paul Pierce: Michael Jordan
Yes, Pierce is not a Hall of Famer—not yet, at least. He will be next year, though, so we’ll let him be heard here.
I give the nod to MJ. At the end of the day, LeBron’s numbers are going to look much better than Jordan’s but I think it is all about the accolades. You look at Jordan: six-time MVP, six-tie champion, never lost, 10-plus (All-NBA) defensive teams, also won the Defensive Player of the Year, which LeBron has never won. … It’s hard, he set the bar. LeBron set the bar for this generation. For the people who didn’t get a chance to watch Michael Jordan and see or play against him. So, a lot of millennials today will be like, ‘He’s the greatest player ever.’ But that’s because they didn’t really watch Michael and understand how he changed the game.
Kevin Garnett: Michael Jordan
Garnett does have some bias here, as a guy who grew up in Chicago and played for the Celtics at the height of Boston’s rivalry with James in Cleveland and Miami.
Michael Jordan was probably the most — out of professional sports — he was here (holds hand up high) while everybody else was here (holds hand way lower). Michael Jordan was revered as a machine.
He was selfish. He didn’t trust anybody else, and he still won. You said he couldn’t do it, and he came out he won. And you was like you know what, I’m rolling with this kid here. You saw how hard he wanted it. You saw how hard he was going. And this was with Magic and Bird still in the league!
Man, come on, man. Nah, man. That man saved basketball when basketball was on the verge of losing it.
Steve Nash: Michael Jordan
Nash played eight games against Jordan and 18 against James, so he saw a fair amount of each guy. He gives James plenty of credit, but …
I think it’s tricky. … I think MJ is my guy, always. You talk about Kobe and LeBron. I totally understand why people put LeBron where he is: either first or second on many people’s eyes. When you look at the whole picture of everything LeBron has done over the course of his career, it’s hard to argue with.
Scottie Pippen: Michael Jordan
Pippen was Jordan’s Hall of Fame teammate. So his lean toward Jordan is understandable. But why’s he got so much disdain for LBJ?
When I look at LeBron, he’s not what Michael (Jordan) was as a player. He’s not even what Kobe Bryant was as a player.
Dennis Rodman: Michael Jordan
Rodman was critical in getting Jordan to the Bulls’ final three championships. Rodman never went against James but said, as have others, that he lacks Jordan’s killer instinct.
LeBron is not a Michael Jordan type. LeBron’s a different type of player. I think LeBron’s between Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen put together, you know? I think LeBron is more like brute strength, stuff like that. And Michael Jordan’s more like a racing car. Dancing with the ball, literally dancing with the ball. So smooth, so at ease.
Ray Allen: Michael Jordan
Allen was a teammate of James in Miami and helped the Heat to an improbable championship with an unforgettable 3-point shot in 2013. But Allen still picked Jordan as his GOAT.
Off the cuff, (James) is Top 5. But, playing against him and MJ, for me it’s MJ all day long, only because how I played against him. MJ just had everything — from midrange to 3-point, post-up game and he could score and dominate in each position. … LeBron is probably one of the best passers the game has seen. MJ, that is probably the weakest part of his game, he didn’t pass a lot. At the same time, MJ didn’t have any other weaknesses in his game.