fb-pixel Skip to main content
Bob Ryan

Who’s the GOAT, Michael or LeBron?

Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Wire photos/file

It seems to be the raging sports debate of the day, and I find it amusing that it’s taken so many people interested in basketball so long to realize that it really is a viable topic.

I am speaking of Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James as the — I guess it’s now mandatory for me to use the acronym — GOAT, or Greatest Of All Time.

This thought has been in my head for at least four years, or ever since LeBron won his second championship with the Miami Heat in 2013. To me, it was rather obvious that LeBron had entered into the conversation in a serious way. For others, not so much.


A word about sports comparisons: We love them. I’m sure debates exist in the Arts, whether it’s Beethoven vs. Bach, Monet vs. Picasso, Hemingway vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gary Cooper vs. John Wayne, the Beatles vs. the Stones, or Eugene O’Neill vs. Arthur Miller. But I rather doubt that things ever get as heated in these other discussions as they do when people start debating the placement and historical ranking of their favorite athletes.

We are certainly no strangers to these debates. You can start with Ted Williams vs. Joe DiMaggio. Then in chronological order, we had Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain (this may be the granddaddy of them all), Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, and of course Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.

Ah, but those debates were matching contemporaries, which is another matter. The really fun ones are those comparing an athlete from one generation with someone from another, and we’ve got one of those, as well, in this case involving three megastars and not just two.

The sport is hockey. Who is hockey’s GOAT? For impressionable people dazzled by the sheer numbers, there is no debate: The answer is Wayne Gretzky. Who else can claim three consecutive years of 200 points? The answer is nobody. If that is the only yardstick, then the Great One is unquestionably hockey’s GOAT.


But we puck sophisticates in Boston have our hands raised. There was this guy named Bobby Orr, and his overall impact on any given hockey game, and on specific seasons, was every bit as significant as that of Gretzky at his greatest. Yes, Gretzky was an incredible scorer, but there is far more to the game. Orr did a lot of things Gretzky didn’t, such as hit and be hit.

And there is a guy Orr himself nominates as hockey’s GOAT (not that he’s ever slighted Gretzky). Ever hear of the Gordie Howe Hat Trick? That’s a goal, an assist, and a fight. Actually, it should be a Gordie Howe Superfecta, the fourth item being two minutes for butt-ending. Gordie Howe was the consensus GOAT before Orr came along. I’d like to pose this question to true hockey mavens: For your life, would you take the 1953 Howe, the 1970 Orr, or the 1986 Gretzky? I think it’s a fair question.

Michael vs. LeBron Comparing the numbers.
Michael Jordan LeBron James
G-GS 1,072-1,039 1,061-1,060
Min 38.3 38.9
FG% .497 .501
3P% .327 .342
FT% .835 .740
PPG 30.1 27.1
Reb 6.2 7.3
Ast 5.3 7
Win% .658 .670
Playoff record 30-7 31-8
SOURCE: basketball-reference.com

But we digress.

To begin with, this discussion is about non-centers, people who affect the game in every way at both ends. Centers are an entirely different species. This is an artistic argument. Any list of five great NBA all-time players would have to include three centers — Russell, Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We are talking aesthetics as much as anything here.


In the history of basketball, a select few individuals have arrived at the juncture in their careers where it can be said they have mastered the game. Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and John Havlicek got there in the ’60s. Bird and Magic got there in the ’80s. Michael got there in the ’90s. Kobe Bryant got there in the first decade of this century.

And LeBron James is there now. The game is simple, easy and logical to him, and now that he is a major 3-point threat (currently shooting them at a better percentage than Messrs. Curry and Thompson), he can affect the game dramatically at both ends of the floor. He is outrageously unfair to compete against.

The great touché argument for Michael in this discussion is titles. Michael retired with six (and most of us believe that had he not taken that little baseball hiatus he might have grabbed two more). LeBron is working on No. 4. That bit of math will more than likely fail him in this argument. Michael will win.

But that does not mean that the LeBron we are looking at now cannot be thought of as Michael’s equal, and possibly even his superior. Who’s a better passer, and it’s not remotely debatable? LeBron. Who’s clearly a better rebounder? LeBron. Who’s more likely to drop 40 or 50 on you? Michael.

Their paths to the pinnacle of the sport were very different. Michael didn’t win it all until he learned to share. LeBron didn’t win it all until he was willing to accept the responsibility of being the best player on the floor and act accordingly. LeBron was too nice and too deferential to lesser teammates. Michael never had that problem.


It is easy to hold certain things against LeBron. He quit against the Celtics in 2010. He shied away from the ball against Dallas in 2011. He had that foolish “Decision,” and the awful pep rally in Miami. All bad. But he has turned it all around since then with his stellar play.

I realize the reverence that so many people hold for Michael is unshakeable. Six rings and never even needing a single Game 7 en route to those rings is a powerful argument in his favor. All I am saying is that neither Oscar, Jerry, John, Larry, Magic, Kobe, nor Michael has ever played more consistently beautiful, breathtaking, and efficient basketball than LeBron is playing right now.

Too bad we can’t have a Finals with the 1993 Michael vs. the 2017 LeBron. I think I’d pay to see that.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBobRyan.