No two players in NBA history have been as involved in the GOAT conversation as Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Jordan's dominance in the '90s may be the greatest stretch by any player in basketball history. That 10-year era brought 6 Championships to Chicago and 4 MVP trophies. By the time of his second retirement in 1998, he was considered among the greatest players ever.
For LeBron, longevity seems to be his strong suit. Despite struggled early to earn his place with the basketball GOATs, he has maintained greatness for an extraordinary amount of time, stretching beyond his 17th season, when he was crowned an NBA Champion for the fourth time in his career.
While the NBA community is unlikely to reach a consensus on the matter, HoopsHype did provide some clarity on the topic in an article in which they asked the only four players who were teammates with both Jordan and James: Scott Williams, Larry Hughes, Jerry Stackhouse and Brendan Haywood.
Brendan Haywood, who played from 2001-2015, told Bryan Kalbrosky of HoopsHype he actually had a conversation with LeBron about the GOAT debate, in which he told him to his face that MJ was better...
"One of the more interesting things is that I had the GOAT conversation with LeBron. We were on the plane and I told him: 'I love you, brother, but I have to go with Mike.” I told him my reasons. I’ve had this conversation with him face-to-face. Six rings. Six MVPs. The guy has had two different three-peats and has never been to a Game 7. He was MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. I played with both of them and what LeBron has slowly but surely turned into from a confidence standpoint, MJ was that the first time he walked in the league.
LeBron has gotten so much better at that. He has grown into a guy that close out games. Michael always had that ability. Michael always competed defensively. Both of those guys are incredible competitors. They do things differently. The biggest difference is that MJ is a cold-blooded killer. He is an assassin. LeBron is more respected and loved. He is loved by his teammates and he is respected by his opponents. So when we had the GOAT debate, LeBron was just kind of nodding his head. He didn’t really say much. Mike Miller and James Jones said some things on his behalf. I don’t think LeBron agreed with me. But at that point, he hadn’t beaten Golden State. He didn’t have the ring he just got with the Lakers.'"
According to Haywood, while MJ is still ahead of James in the GOAT race, the Lakers superstar is closing the gap.
I think LeBron has been closing the gap on MJ slowly but surely every year. Coming back against the Warriors, that was the best regular-season team in NBA history yet LeBron still won. Then winning the title this year in the bubble. I still have Michael at one but now I have LeBron at two. For years, I had Kareem at two. Now after the title he just won, I’ve got LeBron. There’s still work to be done. Can he catch Michael? It’s a possibility, man. Because for some reason, Father Time isn’t knocking on his door as he knocks on everybody else’s.
For Scott Williams, he explained that while believes MJ is better, he doesn't like getting too far into the conversation because (in his view) it can take away from their greatness.
The thing that I hate the most is that comparisons are being drawn and I don’t care which way you stand on it. They are two absolutely phenomenal players and I hate when someone says that one is the GOAT and one isn’t. It’s almost like a knock on the one that you say is not the GOAT. I don’t really like to get into that game. I’ve been forced into that corner where I’ve had to make that choice a few times and I will say Michael is the greatest of all time, in my opinion, from being in the locker room with both of them. But I didn’t get LeBron at the top of his game. I got him when he was still developing. We’re not as close but I still consider LeBron a friend. As a basketball commentator and as a fan, obviously, I have followed LeBron. It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate all that LeBron has done and overcome.
Williams went into further detail about what separated the two players, supporting the idea that MJ was more of a killer than LeBron.
The only thing that I will say that is probably a separation is that Michael has had a nastiness and ferocity to his game that LeBron may not possess. LeBron will try to beat you. He definitely wants to beat you. But MJ wants to beat you in a way where you will be embarrassed to go on a ride home with your spouse after the game. He wants everybody in the stands, your friends and your family and your fans, to know that you can’t come close to ever beating him. He wants you to think, when you go to sleep at night, you won’t even dream about beating him. He wants to tear your heart from your chest and show it to you and to everybody that is in the stands. He wants everyone to know when you walk out of the arena that he was the baddest man in a pair of basketball shoes that night. He did that every night!
That was about the only difference between Michael and LeBron that made me think that his competitiveness and fuel were a little bit more than what LeBron had and that’s why MJ would never lose in the NBA Finals. He just wouldn’t let it happen. I don’t care who was wearing the other jerseys across from him. You knew that he was the ultimate weapon. It’s not a knock on LeBron. That’s just what separated Michael from everybody else including Magic, Bird, the greats of the greats.
Like his peers, NBA veteran Larry Hughes picked Jordan in the end, but made sure to give LeBron his due.
MJ is the greatest basketball player of all-time, in my eyes. If we look at the Jumpman symbol, LeBron is right there on his shoe. That’s really how I look at it. He’s not too far behind. If I had to answer then I’d say MJ. But I’m never going to discredit what LeBron is doing. It’s just a different time. I give credit where it’s due.
As for Jerry Stackhouse, who only played seven games with LeBron, he didn't feel like engaging very much in the conversation, only offering that his former star teammates are among the All-Time greats.
“I don’t think it would be fair to give a comparison on them. I played with LeBron at the prime of his career and I played with Michael in the last year of his career. I just think both are unbelievable players. They’re probably one and two in the history of the game. That’s where I’ll leave it.”
While Jordan technically won this battle, (Haywood, Williams, and Hughes picked him) the common theme between the four players seems to be an emphasis on appreciating the greatness of both players. Both were very different and played in very different eras, and it can be hard to compare when so many different factors were at play.
Needless to say, the GOAT debate isn't something that will be settled any time soon, but perhaps it's not something that needs to be. LeBron and Jordan are special in their own way, and it seems every one of their teammates has recognized it.