The Art of the GOAT Debate: MJ vs. LeBron Examined

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The confetti was fresh on the floor at Quicken Loans Arena to celebrate the Golden State Warriors’ third championship in four years but Stephen A. Smith quickly sent out a message declaring the Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate is on a hiatus.

“The Cavs quit,” Smith said. “This is disgraceful. Don’t want to hear another damn thing about Jordan comparisons again. This effort would’ve never happened on his watch.”

Yet, he appeared on Monday morning’s episode of First Take discussing what the Finals loss means for James’ legacy and the Michael Jordan comparisons.

Nowadays, this is what sports debates look to many on television. Despite the tagline “Embrace Debate”, these studio shows are not actual debate. It’s entertainment and there’s no clear winner. It is two shouting heads failing to recognize truth on both sides or any mutual agreement and continuing to raise their voices. The question of “Who is the greatest of all-time?” requires an answer for one or the other but true debate aims to progress ideas and not simply rush to the conclusion that one side is right and the other is wrong.

Communications classes for public or persuasive speaking will teach you that there are various categories that debates operate in. Some debates like “Should we change the NFL’s policy on standing or sitting during the national anthem” fall into a proposition of policy since it is a policy that can judge whether something should or should not be done. A question like “Who is the Greatest of All-Time” falls under a proposition of judgement, where there is a point of stasis to decide who wins or loses in a particular argument.

At the University of Kansas, these types of arguments are explored by Dr. Scott Harris, who is the director of debate for the Jayhawks since 1991 and the coach for the 2018 National Debate Tournament champions. Harris and his students follow social media sites and sports blogs to follow how people argue. Some of the time is spent reading sports discussion and message boards, which brings out many similarities to politics—people yelling at one another rather than engaging in intellection recognition of great points and advancing the conversation.

“They always say don’t argue about sports, politics and religion,” Harris says. “People never win arguments in sports because people tend not to recognize when they’re losing as much at it. They just think ‘I’m right and it doesn’t matter what you say.’”

According to Harris, the first step in the “GOAT: MJ or LeBron?” argument is to establish a definition of what constitutes ‘greatest’ and the criteria used to determine greatness. The goal is to create an objective statistical measure to compare two players who have never faced each other head-to-head. Factors such as scoring, true shooting percentage and free throw shooting percentage are examples of analytical metrics that can back an argument. Defensive metrics may not be the easiest to assess because plays like assists, blocked shots and steals can be the product of other variables on the court like man-to-man defense or passing lanes and certain plays don’t show up in box scores.

“I think if you’re making an argument for the greatest player, it has to be one that values both offense and defense because you have to be able to play successfully on both ends of the court and that’s one of the things that makes Jordan and James stand out above any others,” Harris says. “It’s that they’re incredibly superb players on defense as well as on offense. It’s not just a measure of their offensive statistics but also their defensive abilities.”

Because basketball is not a one-on-one game but a team sport, so subjective variables seep their way into the argument, especially when it comes to the discussion of championship titles. Jordan is sometimes deemed more of a “winner” because he made it to the NBA Finals on six occasions and won each time. Whereas, James has reached nine NBA Finals and has three titles to show for it. It took Michael Jordan four years to get past the Detroit Pistons and he left to play baseball from 1993 to 1994. The Bulls only won 55 games during the ‘93-94 season. Similarly, when James left Cleveland and Miami, those teams had losing records afterward.

For argument’s sake, it may be best to shelve the GOAT debate until James’ career is over. Jordan’s career and body of work speaks for itself. Nothing new is being added. However, the case for James can change from year-to-year and this year’s NBA playoffs certainly made a major impact in valuing James higher because the world assesses players based on expectations. James was not expected to make it to this year’s NBA Finals with a supporting cast that relied on Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson. James’ case took a hit when he left for Miami and it could take another hit if he elects to leave during free agency for a place like Houston or Philadelphia—teams that are close to winning and in need of one key piece.

Time has also changed the conversation on Lakers great Kobe Bryant. Eight to ten years ago, the GOAT debate centered on Bryant and Jordan but to many Bryant has moved into that No. 3 all-time spot. Today, it’s LeBron to MJ. In 20 years, who knows?

“It’s one of the unfair things that we do to athletes. We are constantly comparing them to romanticized visions we have for players from the past,” Harris says. “We have the same thing in college debate. Back when giants walked the earth, this current person couldn’t hold a candle to them or we have the reverse thought that people from the old era would never be able to compete today. In each side, the youth tend to demean those who came before them and older people tend to demean the youth.”

The objective facts that are determined the definition of “great” quickly get mixed with subjective assessments such like the quality of competition, quality of teammates, rules that operate in different eras and more.

“There can be instances in which a person advocating for Michael Jordan can make a more compelling case and other instances where the person advocating for LeBron James can make a more compelling case. It’s not an objectively true thing, which makes it fun to argue. If we could just objectively measure who was better, then there wouldn’t be a debate.”

Stephen A. Smith’s schtick wouldn’t exist if we could objectively measure everything. Neither would popular bar debates. I should stop right here before I reason myself out of a job.


Tips on where to start in each argument

Before properly starting this argument, the definition of what constitutes ‘greatest’ must be established so that we can support the case for one or the other.

If you’re arguing in favor of Jordan:

You start with the awards and the all-defensive player of the year awards and all-defensive teams. You note that he’s the all-time leader in scoring per game. Look at and find analytics or statistics like player efficiency rating, where he’s ranked No. 1 and James is No. 2. You find those categories and make a strong pitch for winning. You can also pull the subjective categories of “the will to win” to juxtapose the analytics argument. Here, you can combine PER to make the case that Michael Jordan would do whatever was necessary to win.

If you’re arguing in favor of LeBron:

You can hit on the facts that LeBron has succeeded in the ability to play with and carry teams that have not been as competitive without him to greater levels of success. Talk about the number of times he’s made the Finals—9 of 15 years vs. 6 of 15 years. Find other analytic categories like win shares, which shows Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at No. 1 and Wilt Chamberlain at No. 2 but James is fourth and Jordan is 5th. Jordan supporters could strike back and hit with win shares per 48 minutes, where Jordan comes out higher ranked. The debate that you would try to control is the debate on what constitutes greatness and how do we measure it. Argue for the ability to defend all five positions, which makes him of incredible value and makes him a better defensive player in making that sort of comparison. Argue on the value of assists.

Things to avoid

Do not try to undercut the achievements of the other person. People will try to make arguments like the famous Wilt story where he told Jordan that what you need to remember is that they changed the rules to make it harder for him but easier for Jordan. Did one get favorable treatment from referees? It’s easy to fall into the trap of claiming Jordan would get away with more fouls while LeBron gets pounded and doesn’t get calls.

Dr. Scott Harris’ choice

“If I’m picking an individual for just one game, I’ll buy into the ‘Jordan will to win’ but if they’re playing a game of one-on-one then the physical power of LeBron will be a difficult thing to overcome at the end,” Harris says. “Also one of the things that has some impact on my assessment on thing outside court is the fact that LeBron has done more socially and politically than dribble the ball. If I were wanting to be on one of their teams, I would pick LeBron as a teammate to play with. If I were picking one of them to win a do or die game against alien space invaders for the future of the planet, I’m probably picking Michael Jordan.”

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