Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James – it’s the biggest debate in modern basketball. Each side has its staunch supporters and its fierce detractors. Ultimately, the question remains so interesting because there’s no clear answer. Comparing eras is a nearly impossible task because of the differences in offensive strategies, playstyles, foul calls, and so many other little things. Still, the debate rages on.
One on one, the two superstars have been compared in every fathomable way – stats, accolades, championships, and yes, the teams they’ve played with. That last piece is the focus today – taking LeBron with the best four teammates he ever had, and pitting them against Jordan’s four best costars from his Bulls career, who wins? Like the debate of player vs. player, the hypothetical showdown between the two’s best teams is impossible to fully quantify objectively. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
It would certainly be a brutally tight match. James has done more traveling during his time in the league, which has racked up the list of All-Stars who’ve shared the court alongside him. Jordan stayed in Chicago for his whole career (well, mostly), but the team around him made some major changes from their first three-peat to their second. It’s tough to pick a definitive starting crew for either side, but that’s exactly what we’re here to do, comparing numbers, matchups and playstyles to imagine how this dream game would actually go down.
Team Jordan: Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant
Team LeBron: Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis
Point Guard: Ron Harper vs. Kyrie Irving
Out of the 10 players featured in this hypothetical showdown, Ron Harper might seem like the odd man out. During his time playing with Jordan, he never broached double-digit point averages. His assists and rebounds hovered around 2 or 3 per game, with an extra steal and a half. But those numbers aren’t nearly a fair picture of what Harper brought to those championship Bulls teams – elite play on both ends of the floor, and a dependable third scoring option who was comfortable playing off-ball.
Harper never made an All-Star team, but his presence allotted much more than his numbers with Jordan suggest. Still, none of that puts him in the same league as Kyrie Irving – an incredible ball-handler and dominant iso-ball scorer. Neither Kyrie nor Harper played a traditional PG role with LeBron and Jordan, and Kyrie’s one-on-one efficiency and three-point marksmanship make him much more of an off-ball threat. Harper’s strength would come in on defense primarily in this matchup, where he’d certainly have the edge on Kyrie.
Shooting Guard: Michael Jordan vs. Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade is one of the greatest shooting guards who’s ever lived. Ask most any hoops fan, and they’ll give you the following ranking: Jordan, Kobe, and then D-Wade. He’s a spectacular offensive finisher and a solid defender. All-in-all, he’s one of the greatest to ever do it. But in this scenario, he’d be facing off against one of the only players in history who can claim superiority.
Obviously, the whole offense of this theoretical squad would run through Jordan. Wade’s three All-Defensive Second Team selections couldn’t stop MJ from going off. And on the other end of the floor, when Wade has the ball in his hands, he’d be facing a former Defensive Player of the Year with nine All-Defensive First Team selections. None of that means Wade couldn’t get buckets – you can’t stop him all the time – but on both ends of the floor, he’d be battling uphill. Even guaranteed Hall-of-Famers can’t quite measure up to Michael Jordan.
Small Forward: Scottie Pippen vs. LeBron James
Like Wade vs. Jordan, this is a tough matchup to break down. Pippen is in the Hall of Fame. He’s one of the greatest players ever, and he was a pioneer of the point forward playstyle that James has become the master of. There’s nothing bad to be said about Scottie Pippen. But does that put him on the level of LeBron James? It might be close, but no. It does not.
LeBron’s own capabilities don’t need much elaboration. Every fan of basketball knows what he’s capable of, as a playmaker, inside scorer, shooter, and five-time All-Defensive First Team member. In reality, it would be Jordan and LeBron going head-to-head, more often than not, and Scottie and Harper doing their share to cover Wade on defense. Still, the two small forwards would inevitably be on each other a good bit, and Scottie could put up as good an effort as anyone trying to slow down LeBron offensively. But just because you can slow the King down, it doesn’t mean you can stop him. This would truly be a clash for the ages.
Power Forward: Dennis Rodman vs. Chris Bosh
Dennis Rodman and Chris Bosh are about as different as two power forwards can be. The Latter is a three-point sniper, offensively-minded, flexible on the wing, and solid if not stellar on defense. The former is a rebounding deity, a true vanguard on the defensive end who’s not afraid to get bruised scrapping for the ball.
Rodman always had offensive potential as well, but it was never the focal point when playing with Michael and Scottie. He has one of the lowest career PPG averages in the entire Hall of Fame, but he made up for it with legendary performances on the other end. Chris Bosh was a solid rebounder throughout his career, but he was never at Rodman’s level. His primary strength to Team LeBron would be the same as it was in Miami – a backup scoring option and floor spreader who demands defensive attention from outside the arch. Could the Worm shut him down? Some of the time to be sure, but Bosh would still be dropping daggers.
Center: Horace Grant vs. Anthony Davis
For a more interesting matchup, our Team Jordan has Horace Grant at the center, rather than Luc Longley or Bill Cartwright. While Grant played at power forward for most of his career, his size, post-up potential, and rim-protecting abilities would make him an easy 5 in today’s game. And given Anthony Davis’s unique style as a 5/4 hybrid, a faceoff with Grant would surely be something to see.
AD’s prowess as one of the modern era’s most versatile scorers should be obvious to all, as should his impressive capabilities on defense. Few true centers can cover the range of options Davis dishes out on-ball, but Grant might be able to hold him down at least some of the time. Between him and Rodman, Team Jordan would have a stellar defensive lockdown in the paint, and even Bosh and AD would have to fight for rebounds. Still, Grant’s scoring output – while good in its own right – can’t compete with what Davis brings to the table.
When the game time hits, the buzz in the stadium is electric. Team LeBron charges out onto the floor with their eyes firmly set on glory. Then, the music hits – “Sirius” by The Alan Parsons Project. One by one, the members of Team Jordan enter the field of battle – last of all, the man himself. Horace Grant and Anthony Davis size each other up and step into the center of the court for the tip-off. The music fades; the game begins.
Davis wins the jump ball and the clock starts. LeBron brings it up for the first possession, facing off against Pippen in the half-court. But a screen from AD gives James the opening he needs to breeze past Grant and finish for the game’s first two points. Jordan answers with a mid-range jumper on the other end, and from there it’s pure fire. The two superstars trade marks through the first quarter, with AD, Wade, and Pippen all chalking up notable numbers as well. By the end of the first, Team Jordan leads 28-23 thanks to some solid interior defense from Rodman. Jordan already has 14 points.
The second quarter starts strong for Team LeBron, as the King adapts to Rodman and Grant’s inside presence and starts kicking the ball out to Bosh on the wing, who knocks down two back-to-back daggers. Jordan isn’t slowing down though, and Grant takes AD in the post a couple of times to put some more points on the board. Davis answers back with some post-ups of his own. At halftime, James’s clutch playmaking and his team’s superior number of offensive options have pushed them to a narrow lead of 55-52.
Coming out to start the third quarter, Team Jordan looks fired up. MJ goes on a tear for the first five minutes of the half, scoring 12 points on six straight possessions. Still, Team LeBron manages to bounce back to a narrow margin through the rest of the quarter thanks to continued marksmanship from Kyrie and Bosh, and LeBron and AD both leveraging their prowess in the post. Team LeBron leads by 6 with just two minutes to go in the third, when Ron Harper breaks out of the lax defensive coverage he’s been handed (doubling Jordan was a necessity to hold him down) and scores 4 quick points inside. A big slam from Scottie right over AD finished the quarter with a tied score of 81-81.
With 12 minutes of regulation left to play, both sides are looking tired. Team Jordan’s defensive mastery has worn their opponents down, and Harper and Pippen are able to turn some big steals into breakaway buckets. Jordan switches onto Kyrie, who’s gotten particularly hot with 22 points already to his name, and shits him down. But that opens Wade up for a few key drives of his own. With 4 minutes to play, Jordan knocks down a far shot to break 50 points.
AD battles Grant and Rodman inside but manages to get a few key shots to put himself at 25 points and tie the game 109-109. Switching onto Jordan, LeBron makes a big defensive effort and nabs the rebound, only to get swiped by Scottie at the other end, who sprints down for another jam, putting him at 32 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists. Team Jordan leads 111-109, and James brings the ball up for the last possession of regulation. Naturally, Jordan picks him up at half-court, but a screen from Bosh opens James up just enough to let fly with a mid-range jumper at the buzzer, tying the game and pushing it to overtime. The King’s clutchness prevails.
Exhausted, both teams trade blows and shots in overtime. Rodman scraps for a few key rebounds and Team Jordan goes up 117-112. Davis pops off in response and broaches 30 points, but Jordan keeps blazing past all defenders, hitting 56 points. With half a minute to go, Wade drives in off a no-look pass from James to tie it up again 123-123. Scottie brings the ball up for Team Jordan, tries to get inside, and pulls the defense. Jordan sprints in from the outside, grabs the ball off a screen from Rodman, and lets fly with an off-balance three. Time slows as the ball flies up, down and... in! Team Jordan celebrates, victorious!
Team Jordan vs. Team LeBron 126-123
MVP: Michael Jordan (59 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists)