We are entering the near twilight of LeBron’s career and the comparisons between him and Michael Jordan are going to start becoming more relevant.
There is also a crossroads that has entered the equation for how we view LeBron's legacy though. With other teams clearly ahead of the Lakers in the pursuit of a championship, the clock of father time is in the early stages of ticking on LeBron’s career.
One factor must be considered though when comparing arguably the two greatest players in NBA history:
Who faced better competition?
Yes, Michael Jordan obviously went 6-0 in the Finals and LeBron sits at 3-6. But there are other factors to consider here: if Jordan’s Bulls were in today’s era instead would they even stand a chance against the Warriors? So let’s take a look at the overall picture, and emphasize 6 hurdles each player had to experience on their way to greatness.
Michael Jordan Competition
1. Larry Bird
When Jordan first entered the league in 1984, Larry Bird was smack dab in his prime. MJ was injured for most of his 2nd season in 1985-1986, but when he returned in time for the playoffs he showed his first signs of greatness against one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
Jordan put up an NBA playoff record 63 points in the Boston Garden in an overtime loss to the Celtics in the 1st round of the playoffs. The Bulls were eventually swept in this series, but this game proved to be the beginning of a path towards greatness.
2. Detroit Pistons
The Bad Boys deserve their own category. The Pistons late 80’s success combined with giving Jordan trouble I believe was absolutely crucial in developing Jordan’s killer instinct that would fully blossom in the ’90s.
Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars obviously combined for a hall of fame backcourt, but the other players on this team really pushed Jordan in his early career failures. Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, and future teammate Dennis Rodman helped form a tenacious attitude and identity for this team that became so legendary they even got their own 30 for 30 documentary.
The future path to success was set early for Jordan and this team provided the most difficult obstacle in his basketball career.
3. Magic Johnson
Jordan’s first championship came in 1991, defeating the post showtime Lakers led by Magic Johnson in his last elite season. Johnson won multiple championships in the ’80s, and the 1991 NBA Finals series in retrospect became a somewhat passing of the torch.
MJ’s flair was fully on display for the world to see, including the most iconic layup in history which would be replicated by kids playing in the backyard throughout the decade.
Magic Johnson is a top 10 player of all time and Jordan being able to triumph over him early on his quest to 5 more championships after setting the tone for the ’90s.
4. Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon & Charles Barkley
On his quest for greatness, Michael Jordan won his 2nd championship ring against the Portland Trail Blazers and his 3rd against the Phoenix Suns.
Clyde Drexler if not for Jordan would likely be considered the best SG of the ’80s and early ’90s. If Drexler were not on the Blazers in 1984 there is a very good chance Jordan would have been in Portland. Drexler eventually built his resume when he joined forces with Hakeem in Houston while Jordan was on a baseball hiatus and the Rockets won back to back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.
Charles Barkley remains one of (if not the) greatest players to never win an NBA championship. He came closest in 1992-1993 when he was MVP of the league but he just happened to run into the Jordan train and fell short.
5. Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Gary Payton & Shawn Kemp
Jordan returned to the Bulls in 1995, and what is now somewhat forgotten is the fact that the Shaq/Penny led Orlando Magic upended the Bulls in the 1995 playoffs. This was the only year in the ’90s that Jordan lost in the playoffs, and set an early tone for how the rest of Shaq’s career would play out.
Michael Jordan returned to form the next season, with his team posting a 72-10 regular season record. The Mega Bulls ran into Gary Payton and the Seattle Supersonics in the 1996 NBA Finals. Payton, one of the all-time greatest trash talkers in league history, led the Sonics to put up a respectable fight vs. the Bulls only to lose 4-2 in the series.
6. Karl Malone & John Stockton
Michael Jordan’s final 2 championship triumphs’ came against the Utah Jazz in the 1997/1998 NBA Finals. Utah built up one of the most impressive small market teams in league history and the long term chemistry of Malone/Stockton gave these Bulls teams fits.
The Bulls won a ring in 1997 and ultimately Jordan hit the most iconic shot in league history in game 6 of the 1998 Finals, crossing over Byron Russell and sending the Jazz into defeat as Jordan won his 6th NBA ring of the decade.
LeBron James Competition
1. The Spurs
Like MJ, the first section of LeBron’s argument is a team instead of players. I would argue LeBron leading the 2007 Cavs to the NBA Finals at 22 years old is the most impressive feat in NBA history. With his surrounding cast, that team had zero business sniffing a Finals appearance and did.
Ultimately, Tim Duncan and the Spurs proved too much and swept the Cavs 4-0. This taught LeBron an early NBA lesson in the school of hard knocks.
This team would come back to give LeBron fits the next decade as well. The Miami Heat faced off against the Spurs in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals going 1-1 against this team, and if not for a miracle Ray Allen 3 point shot they very well could have gone 0-2.
Still, the 2013 victory against a Spurs team with ridiculous chemistry is impressive and helped build the King of Akron’s legacy.
2. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen & Dwight Howard
Over the next couple of seasons to end the 2000’s decade LeBron never reached the finals again. Paul Pierce, KG, and Ray Allen joined forces to form a super team and won the 2008 championship. Dwight Howard also was becoming one of the most impressive young centers in NBA history and led the Orlando Magic to the Finals in 2009.
3. Kobe Bryant
One of the biggest what if’s in NBA history is Kobe and LeBron never meeting in the Finals, but Kobe deserves his own category here. The biggest debate of 2008-2011 was Kobe or LeBron. Kobe was solidifying his greatness on the way to 5 championship rings while LeBron was proving himself to possibly be the most impressive young player in league history.
Kobe showed his mamba mentality that LeBron would carry with him once he went to the Heat.
4. Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony & Chris Bosh
The 2003 draft is arguably the greatest in league history. LBJ entered the league at the same time as these 3 other future hall of famers, and he would join forces with 2 of them in South Beach for an early 2010’s dynasty.
Wade won a ring in 2006 as a young player on the Heat, and his championship mentality helped build King James into the player that he is today. Shout out to Chris Bosh as well who is a highly underrated part of that early 2010’s Heat run.
5. The Warriors
LeBron’s competition in his 30’s can be summarized by one team: The Warriors.
This is a team that likely stopped LeBron from easily being considered the greatest player of all time. LeBron and the newly recharged Cavaliers faced Golden State in the Finals 4 straight seasons, finishing 1-3.
That one win in 2016 was impressive though and arguably the most dominant Finals performance in NBA history. In terms of LeBron and MJ facing competition, this team is the hardest competition either of them faced and there is zero doubt about that.
6. The Future
With LeBron’s career still ongoing, there will be future hurdles for him to navigate through and this debate is not finished.
Still 34 years old and playing at an elite level, King James is still in control of his destiny and it remains to be seen whether the Warriors dynasty will last through the remainder of his career.
Will Anthony Davis join forces with LeBron to become instant contenders? Will Kawhi move back to the states and sign with the Lakers in 2019 free agency?
A lot could happen and it’ll be interesting to see what type of competition LeBron will have to face the rest of his career.