Tom Sorensen

Who’s the GOAT, LeBron or Michael? Breaking down the argument, and making a call

The playoff performance of Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James has revived, again, debates about whether he’s the greatest ever.
The playoff performance of Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James has revived, again, debates about whether he’s the greatest ever. AP

This is the time of year when we watch the NBA playoffs and ask, “Has LeBron James finally seized the Greatest player Of All-Time title, or is Michael Jordan still the GOAT?”

They missed sharing the court by only one season. Michael, 55, played his final season in 2002-03. LeBron, 33, played his first season in 2003-04. But by Michael’s final season he no longer was Michael, and in LeBron’s first season he had yet to become LeBron.

Michael is quicker, LeBron bigger and stronger. Michael played better defense. LeBron is by far the better passer. Michael has won six NBA championships. LeBron has won three.

What would you give to watch them go at each other in their primes? Speaking of which, when does LeBron’s prime expire?

LeBron leads all scorers in the 2017-18 playoffs with 34.3 points per game. He also averages 9.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists.

Only two players in these playoffs have more assists than LeBron, and both are point guards – Rajon Rondo of the New Orleans Pelicans averages 12.9, and John Wall of the Washington Wizards averaged 11.5. Going into Game 5 of the Golden State Warriors-New Orleans series, Golden State forward Draymond Green also was averaging 9.0.

LeBron is 11th all-time in assists. The 10 players in front of him are guards, as are the14 players behind him.

There was a time when defenses would step back and invite LeBron to shoot from the outside. (Michael, too, was not an accomplished shooter when he entered the league.) Defenses can’t do that anymore, as LeBron’s 34.3 points attest.

But the beauty of LeBron’s game is his forays to the basket. Speed and strength come together and he’s suddenly the Norfolk Southern. Take a charge against LeBron, if he’s called for one, and you should win a prize.

The older LeBron gets, the more clutch he becomes. Eight seconds remained in Game 3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers-Toronto Raptors series, and Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue pulled a Roy Williams and did not call a timeout, which meant the Cavaliers had to drive the length of the court. It meant LeBron had to drive the length of the court.

So he did. He ignored the double team, splitting it. Toronto calls itself The North. LeBron was The Left. He drove to the left of the basket, which you knew he would, and not far from the Toronto bench put up a soft one-hander off the glass and into the hoop for the winning basket.

I suspect that the older you are, the more likely you are to consider Michael the GOAT. We tend to favor the player that was in his prime when we were. I thought Muhammad Ali was the best heavyweight I had ever seen. My dad said Joe Louis was. My kids said Mike Tyson was. Then we watched Tyson dine on Evander Holyfield’s right ear, and they immediately switched their allegiance to Ali. I like to think that they would have, anyway.

One of the qualities that distinguished Michael is his poise. When the game was being decided, he decided it. The deeper into the playoffs he advanced, the better he became. In the finals, he was stone cold years before wrestler Steve Austin claimed the name.

Michael made six championships and won them all. Not one of went seven games. That’s as stunning a statistic as you’re going to find.

LeBron, too, is clutch. The shot off the glass is his second game-winning basket in the first two rounds of the playoffs. But this number will haunt him: In the finals, he has a record of 3-5.

Michael, 6-6, played at about 195 pounds; LeBron, 6-8, plays at 250 pounds. Jordan played 15 seasons. This season is LeBron’s 15th.

In Michael’s 15th season, his game had worn out. LeBron is as good as he’s ever been. Along with his outside shot, he’s added the fadeaway, and more than at any time in his career he’s willing to take the shot that will win, or fail to win, the game.

For 15 NBA seasons, LeBron has dragged his 250 or so pounds up and down the court, and he’s still the best player in the world.

I was leaning toward LeBron being the best I’ve seen. Then I went back and looked at film of Michael.

Watch him. A player of extraordinary quickness, he played as if he was offended when an opponent dared guard him or try to score against him.

I can’t imagine anybody being better. So I contend that Michael is still the GOAT.

But if you don’t believe the call is close, you haven’t been watching Cleveland.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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