LeBron James and Michael Jordan, two of the greatest players of all time. Whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit that these two players dominated the NBA during their primes and are the top two players of all time.
Through their dominance, both of these players made a lot of rivals and despite their illustrious careers, both players would have blunders and be knocked down multiple times. There are many arguments to be made about who is the better of the two and many have certain stigmas that pertain to the two.
For Jordan, his biggest “knock”, if you can even call it that, is that his competition was not as high as many think it might be. For LeBron, his would be the fact that he dominated the East which is easily the lesser of the two conferences.
Despite what many believe, both of these “knocks” on their careers are just incorrect and both have had tough tasks and obstacles that they had to overcome. With all of that being said, in this article, I will be looking at the competition that both LeBron James and Michael Jordan faced in the playoffs and will give my opinion on who I believe had the tougher opponents.
Michael Jordan's Competition
1. Larry Bird And The Celtics
This late-80s Celtics team was one of, if not the hardest team that Jordan had to face. Led by the legendary Larry Bird, in the two seasons that Jordan would face this team in the playoffs, the Celtics would end up making the finals and won one championship in 1986.
This Celtics team was very well put together and the supporting cast consisted of five Hall of Famers in Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton, who was nearing the end of his career at the time.
Jordan had some fantastic battles against this Celtics team and in the 1986 playoffs, he would average 43.7 points per game against them and had a 63-point game, the most points scored ever in a playoff game.
2. The “Bad Boy” Pistons
Another team that Jordan just couldn’t get over, the Detroit Pistons had a specific playstyle and found different ways to “neutralize” Jordan. They call it the “Jordan Rules” and this defensive strategy was efficient and helped the Pistons defeat the Bulls on multiple occasions.
Led by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, this team would win multiple championships and defeat Jordan on their way to these championships. The rest of their core consisted of Hall of Famers Dennis Rodman and Adrian Dantley, who would play just a couple of seasons in Detroit. The anchor of this team was Bill Laimbeer and together, they formed a gritty and dangerous team that put fear into many all around the league.
3. Karl Malone And John Stockton
Looking at some teams that Jordan had faced in the Finals, the Utah Jazz looks to be his greatest opponent. Led by the duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone, the team would achieve great and would have won multiple championships if not for Michael Jordan.
The duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone is one of the greatest that we have ever seen and the two are some of the best that we have seen at their respective positions. Looking at the rest of rosters, there weren’t any other hall of fame level players but, they had many players who played their roles well in Jeff Hornacek, Byron Russell, and Adam Keefe, just to name a few.
4. Charles Barkley And The Suns
In the 1993 NBA Finals, MJ and the Bulls went up against the Phoenix Suns. This Suns team was led by Charles Barkley, who was the league MVP of that season and surrounded him with great talent as this team also had Kevin Johnson, All-Star Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers, and Cedric Ceballos as key contributors.
5. Clyde Drexler And The Trail Blazers
During MJ and the Bulls’ 2nd run finals run; they had gone against a very good Trail Blazers team. This team was led by Clyde Drexler who was 2nd in MVP voting during this season behind Michael Jordan.
This Blazers team had been contenders for a good bit of time at this point and looking at the rest of the roster, it included an all-defensive player in Buck Williams along with former All-Stars in Terry Porter and Kevin Duckworth.
6. Patrick Ewing And The Knicks
In the 1996 Playoffs, the Bulls faced a scrappy Knicks team who were just two seasons removed from their finals run. This Knicks team was led by Patrick Ewing, who was an All-Star this season. The supporting cast featured gritty players in John Starks, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason, all of which played their roles greatly and were key components to this team’s success.
7. Reggie Miller And The Pacers
The Reggie Miller-led Pacers were the only team to take the Michael Jordan-led Bulls to a game 7. This team, led by Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, came very close to winning a championship on multiple occasions.
The Pacers’ supporting cast included All-stars in Chris Mullin, Rik Smits and had notable players in Jalen Rose and Mark Jackson who played their roles well.
8. Gary Payton And Shawn Kemp
Looking at another team that the Bulls would face in the Finals, the Sonics, led by the duo of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, this team would go great things in the mid-to-late ’90s and are another team that would have won a championship if it weren’t for Michael Jordan.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp are a pretty underrated duo compared to others in NBA History and the defensive abilities of Gary Payton gave Jordan fits.
The rest of the roster was well-constructed and consisted of players such as Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins, and Hersey Hawkins.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers
The early 90s Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t a team that is talked about much when looking back at the 90s and this is something that should change. Led by Mark Price, this Cavs team had a couple of mid-to-high 50-win seasons and are yet another team that fell victim to Michael Jordan.
The core of these Cavalier Teams consisted of some nice players such as Mark Price, listed above, Larry Nance, Brad Daughterty, Craig Ehlo, Hot Rod Williams, and Terrell Brandon.
LeBron James's Competition
1. Golden State Warriors
These last few seasons, the Golden State Warriors put out a team that many say is the greatest team ever assembled. After losing to LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Warriors, coming off a season where they won the most games in a single season in NBA history backed behind the play of Unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, decided to add even more firepower and signed one of the greatest scorers of all-time in Kevin Durant in his prime. This would turn an insanely great team into an unbeatable one.
In the 2017 season, this team had four All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. They would also go 15-1 in the playoffs that year en route to their 2nd championship in three seasons.
Before adding KD, this Warriors team and LeBron James had many great matches but after, Bron stood no chance against them. Looking at that roster now, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are certain to make the Hall of Fame and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have a good shot to get in as well.
2. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs were an extremely dominant team for nearly two decades and during this span, they would go on to win five championships. Backed by the play of future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, this team played in a fantastic system created by the legendary Gregg Popovich. LeBron faced off against this team in the finals on three separate occasions, defeating them once in 2013.
Looking at their roster in 2013, despite the trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili all entering the twilight of their careers, they still played at a high level and would come back the following season and destroy the Miami Heat in five games, leading to their 5th championship in two decades.
Touching on other players besides that big three, Kawhi Leonard has changed the trajectory of his career and looks to be headed into the Hall of Fame once his career is all said and done.
3. The “Big Four” Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics are a storied franchise and for much of the 21st century, this team has been a staple in the playoffs. This team is looked at by many to be LeBron’s greatest foe as they were, essentially, the reason as to why LeBron decided to bolt to Miami.
This juggernaut one a squad was able to capture one championship and was led by Hall of Famers in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, as well as a great point guard in Rajon Rondo.
4. The Dallas Mavericks
The 2011 Dallas Mavericks had one of the greatest playoffs runs in recent memory and caused LeBron to have one of the biggest choke jobs we have ever seen from a superstar player.
This Mavericks team was a near-perfect fit around Dirk as it included a Hall of Famer in Jason Kidd and very good defensive-minded players in Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler. Also, Jason Terry was a very good scorer for this team and also played a vital part in their success.
5. The Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons of the early 2000s had many similarities to that of the “Bad Boy” Pistons. Led by a big five of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace, they would shock the world as they defeated the juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA finals and would go on to make the Eastern Conference Finals multiple times after that.
LeBron would lose to this team the first time they met but he would dominate in the 2nd meeting and had one game in particular where he scored 48 points in a big Game 5.
Looking at other opponents that LeBron has faced, you had the Paul George-led Indiana Pacers, Dwight Howard Orlando Magic, Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls, The Big Three Oklahoma City Thunder, The late 2010s Atlanta Hawks, the Toronto Raptors, and much more.
All in all, you could make an argument for each player having better competition. For Jordan, though he hadn’t faced as good as wing play as LeBron, the amount of Hall of Famers and well-orchestrated teams he has faced makes up for it.
Looking at LeBron, Jordan has never gone against a team with the firepower that the Warriors had.
In my opinion, Michael Jordan has faced tougher competition than LeBron when you factor in team success and coaching.