Michael Jordan and LeBron James are widely considered the top two players of all-time. Both have developed a cult following among fans, with passionate people on both sides. A one on one between the two GOATs would break viewership records. LeBron James entered the league the season after Jordan retired in the 2002-03 season, but the two never actually faced off in the NBA.
It would have been fun if we could have seen that moment of transition; Kobe Bryant managed to play Jordan before he retired, but LeBron James didn't get the opportunity. This matchup between two GOATs never happened, so we can only speculate and compare the two and how. Perhaps to see how that matchup would have gone, we can compare how Jordan and the Wizards did during the 2002-03 season, to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the 2003-04 season.
Wizards vs. Cavs
The 2002-03 Wizards were a team that was had a lot of young prospects like Kwame Brown and Larry Hughes, but also some veterans like Bryon Russell and Christian Laettner. They were a solid defensive team at the perimeter position, and offensively, they had two stars in Michael Jordan and Jerry Stackhouse. They had a decent team on paper, but ended up with a disappointing 37-45 record in the regular season, and missing the playoffs entirely.
The Wizards had a mix of unproven players and a star like Michael Jordan, who wanted to win in his last years in the league. That is not a combination that necessarily goes well on a team. Michael Jordan has had several known arguments with Kwame Brown, who was only in his second year in the league at the time.
Jordan's co-star, Jerry Stackhouse was known as an elite scorer, averaging 29.8 PPG on the Detroit Pistons in the 2000-01 season. However, Stackhouse was inefficient, taking a lot of shots to up his averages. Aside from their two stars, the roster was fairly thin on talent and could not compete with the new contenders in the East.
The Cavaliers with LeBron James were not a playoff team either. LeBron James's Cavaliers went 35-47 for the 2003-04 season. The Cavaliers didn't have a "star" on their roster, but they had three players who each contributed and averaged 15.0 PPG or more. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was a solid stretch big who could stretch the floor, Carlos Boozer was a solid rebounder and inside player, while Ricky Davis was an okay scorer at the guard position. LeBron James had the more well-rounded team, while Jordan had more star power.
Neither team made the playoffs, so perhaps neither team was that good. While both have had some of the best teammates in the world, that wasn't the case for their rosters here. LeBron was a rookie in the 2003-04 season: he took some time to adjust to the league and hasn't looked back since. Jordan at age 39 was still a capable scorer: but he also failed to take his team to the playoffs. Sometimes, even superstars can't lift a team to the playoffs and both those seasons are examples of that.
39-Year Old Michael Jordan vs. 19-Year Old LeBron James
A 39-year old Michael Jordan wasn't the dominant superstar that he was in his Bulls days. In his Bulls days he would regularly be the top scorer on his team, and even the top scorer in the league, winning 10 scoring titles. Michael Jordan is known as the GOAT for a reason, and people choose to remember his championships with the Bulls rather than his Wizards stint. Despite all the public bad-mouthing of his Wizards' tenure, it isn't like Jordan was a bad player. He just wasn't quite the Jordan everyone knew.
During his last season at 39, Michael Jordan was playing the SF position and averaging numbers some players average during their best seasons. Averaging 20.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, and 3.8 APG is something that some young players average during their All-Star season.
For reference, DeMar DeRozan's 2013-14 season was his first All-Star season, and he was averaging 22.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, and 4.0 APG. They averaged similar stats, except the difference is that DeRozan was 24. Michael Jordan's last season was nearly as good or better as some other players' All-Star seasons stat-wise. That is a testament to his ability and proven history as a winning superstar. Even at 39, he was more than just an elite player.
LeBron James had a stellar rookie season which culminated in winning the 2003-04 Rookie of the Year award. LeBron James averaged a similar amount of scoring and rebounding to Jordan at 20.9 PPG and 5.5 RPG. The difference was that LeBron James's playmaking started showing even early in his career: he was an all-around player during his rookie season and averaged 5.9 APG to Jordan's 4.0 APG. LeBron James's rookie year is his lowest APG average during his NBA career, which shows how good he is. Even early on, James knew how to leverage his basketball IQ to make smart plays on the basketball court. LeBron James was a more natural passer than Jordan, even as a rookie.
While their stats are similar, neither of the players were close to their peak. While Jordan was still a capable scorer who would start on most rosters at the age of 39, he wasn't quite the Bulls' form of himself. He couldn't quite take over the scoring, and it was Jerry Stackhouse who was the leading scorer on the Wizards that season. At the same time, rookie LeBron James led his team in scoring but had more scoring help throughout the roster than Jordan. Their stats are equally impressive though, considering Jordan was ready to retire, while LeBron James was just coming into the league.
Neither of these individual seasons is genuinely reflective of either player's true ability. Both have won accolades during the regular season and playoffs, and those seasons are more widely remembered than those where neither made the postseason. But even in their forgotten seasons, both stars put up great counting stats. The fact that they both had similar stats throughout their respective season, signifies that the matchup between their potential two teams would have been mostly even. Basketball fans never got to see this happen, so all we can do is ruminate and wonder about how a game between the two would have gone.
Credit for the idea: Sports Kingdom